Post-election India is a strange place. Things seem to be proceeding as normal on a certain level but the craziness has actually taken on an extra velocity. Take, for instance, the controversy that some wags dubbed “Storm in a C-cup.” It all started when the entertainment website of Times of India (TOI), one of the country’s leading broadsheets, ran a ‘story’ on the cleavage of a Bollywood star, Deepika Padukone, with several shots of Padukone in ‘revealing’ outfits. Padukone reacted with a series of tweets including one that said, “YES! I am a woman. I have breasts AND a cleavage! You got a problem!!??”
The TOI caught flak from other papers and television channels and in social media but made it worse by putting up a defense which felt obliged to state that Padukone started her career as a model for a liquor company, that she had not been shy to show off her body in various films and ads, and that she pretended to be angry only to garner publicity for her newest film. This in turn brought further, well-deserved misery upon TOI who first took down the cleavage story and then the defensive editorial.
This incident is par for the course for Indian media, which has been on a strange, schizoid ride over the last twelve months. On the one hand, especially since the Delhi gang rape of December 2012, they have had to recognize the anger young people have developed over entrenched conservative and hypocritical attitudes toward women, toward the business of love, romance, and sex, toward same-sex love, and toward the social and emotional mobility of young adults in general. On the other hand, every reported instance of rape, sexual harassment, or molestation dangles before the papers and television channels an opportunity for a salaciously profitable series of headlines. Most big media enterprises in India would see themselves as pro ‘free love’ and the right of the young to enjoy themselves, dovetailing neatly with the Bombay and regional commercial film and advertising industries, yet they have to keep in mind that a lot of their readers and viewers, the ones with the deepest consumer pockets, are middle-aged and older adults who have erased the memories of their own raging hormones.
Add another ingredient into this mix: in the lead-up to the last parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi-BJP’s media team made a concerted effort to capture, cajole, and coerce ‘media friendliness’; it was widely rumored that the arm-twisting happened at many levels, not least senior editors and media barons who were made to understand that Modi’s victory was inevitable and that following that victory these people’s ill-gotten monetary and property empires would be under vengeful scrutiny unless they toed the line. Toeing the line included firing editors who were seen to be anti-Modi, sidelining or disabling op-ed writers and journalists who were less than warm to the Modi campaign, the insistence that the respectful suffixes “Mr.” or “ji” be added to Modi’s name whenever it was mentioned, and so on and so forth.
If this election was a watershed for politicians and political parties it was equally one for the higher echelons of Indian media, who saw a mind-boggling game of musical chairs as pro-Modi oligarchs leveraged their ownership of and shareholdings in various TV channels, newspapers, and news magazines to change the crews at the top. Now the ‘free thinking’ media, which loved its cleavage-count, was faced with a quandary: Modi’s government has as its base the RSS, the Hindu fascist organization whose attitude toward women is, to put it mildly, regressively medieval. Before, during, and after the elections, various RSS leaders had thunderously thumped pulpits, variously saying that women belonged at home, that rape happened because of Western values and skimpy, revealing clothes, that society’s loose morals were being exploited by Muslim youth to lure innocent Hindu girls in a ‘love jihad’, etc., etc. How was the media going to pander to its new masters and their morality clauses while managing to keep up the profitable titillation levels? Simultaneously, how were they going to manage the ‘sexy’ pictures and stories while acknowledging that young Indian women of all classes were now pushing back against the exploitative images and subservience script that stemmed from these?
As with so many other things in India, a middle way was seemingly found, or, rather, two or three interwoven middle paths. Right from the start, the new government began keeping its promises to the oligarchs who had funded its campaign. From the first days of the Modi regime ‘obstacles to business’ were being removed: labor laws dismantled; environmental safeguards against industrial projects in ecologically sensitive areas were axed, clearing the way for mining, dams, and ports that had not been granted permission earlier; the judiciary, which would have upheld the laws, or raised objections, had its selection process changed so that the government was once again able to cherry-pick judges for the highest courts. As these things gathered momentum under the news radar the headlines were preoccupied by Modi’s visits to foreign countries: Modi goes to Nepal first! Look at his commitment to the region! Modi goes to Japan! He repays long-term Japanese support for him when he was a beleaguered chief minster! The first major international dignitary to come to India is…the Chinese president! Look, a newscaster has been axed because she called Xi Jinping “Eleven Jinping” by mistake, confusing his name with the Roman numerals XI! As long as the media downplayed the deep structural stuff the new rulers were putting in place, as long as they treated Modi as the leading news protagonist on their front pages, they could continue to cull the cleavage quotient on their entertainment pages without undue criticism from the Hindutva moral majority types. And, in what one could see as a parallel balancing act, as long as they kept criticizing the right wing’s more extreme pronouncements against women, they could keep the overdressed Modi on the front page and skimpily dressed women (and men) in other sections of their papers and websites.
Narendra Modi’s first round of interactions with the world reached a climax when he travelled to the US at the end of September. For Modi the fact that the visit happened at all was a major triumph and a marker of a great political comeback: after the Gujarat killings of 2002, different American administrations and committees of Congress had made it clear that he would not be granted a visa were he to apply; his accession meant that this ban could and would need to be circumvented for the democratically elected leader of India. Modi duly arrived in New York to attend functions at the UN and at Madison Square Garden and then proceeded to Washington to meet Barack Obama and various government officials (the DC trip included a state dinner for the new prime minister who was fasting throughout the trip, for the Hindu festival of Navratri). While the Western press did not make too much of this, the Indian media could virtually talk of nothing else for the duration of the visit.
At Madison Square Garden, Modi held a celebratory rally for the non-resident Indian faithfuls who had worshipped him and funded his party for over a decade (a right-wing American Hindu demographic who many would say did this for precisely the same reason that the US establishment had wanted to keep Modi out—that Muslims were killed, raped, made homeless, and then denied justice in Gujarat under his watch). As the Bollywood dancers gyrated on stage before the big man spoke, the crowds gathered around Madison Square. Among the media party covering this was Rajdeep Sardesai, one of India’s best-known television journalists and anchors. Sardesai had also covered the Gujarat killings in 2002 and been a staunch critic of Modi since that moment. Sardesai had recently been forced out of the major English-language television channel he had helped found when it was taken over by a business family known to be strongly pro-Modi, but he was now back at the helm of another leading channel and broadcasting the events back to India.
Moving through the thronging (mostly male) crowds, Sardesai was asking questions and engaging with the Modi supporters when a group of them began a chant of “Rajdeep Murdabad!,” which roughly translates as: “death to/down with Rajdeep.” Trying to speak above this heckling, Sardesai got into a verbal spat with two or three Modi fans, which rapidly descended into a scuffle. There were various clips and bits of phone footage of the incident but the longest and clearest of these shows how volatile the situation had become. People critical of Sardesai (disclosure: he and his wife have been friends of mine for many years) could say he provoked the crowd with his questions, especially when he implied that the men pushing, shoving, and shouting around the camera had more money than class, but the crude aggression of a certain type of South Asian expat male is also very much in evidence when you hear the chants escalate into serious abuse in Hindi/Gujarati and English. It is unclear from the camera angle whether the scuffle was initiated by someone in the crowd or whether Sardesai was goaded into losing his cool, but as he points out repeatedly after the escalation, the picture the incident paints of the right-wing Hindu-American non-resident Indian is not pretty.
If you look back at this peculiar period of recent Indian history, two or three contradictory things become apparent. On the one hand, there is a strange conformism that seems to pervade many areas of society, and the list of unquestioned notions includes the idea of a ‘strong leader’, a ‘strong nation’ (i.e., one that can bully those around it as China and the US do), ‘freedom to do business’ (even if it directly impinges on many people’s right to happiness and peace in their lives), and a neo-faux-Hindu morality that dovetails into the worst regressions of the ayatollahs and the Taliban. On the other hand, there is a young nation, a massive demographic of people below thirty cutting across class, caste, and region, who will not be put back in any pen. A mass of people who will demand their right to enjoy life with all the frills of consumerism, yes, but also with the basic romantic and sexual freedoms that people in the West have taken for granted for so long.
What kind of serious art will emerge from this clash of tectonic plates remains to be seen, but what is appearing now is some extremely good satire. The spoofs coming out of the Padukone affair may not match the direct challenge of the Cameron mash-up. Narendra Modi is still too new and too scary perhaps to take on directly, but the press and other politicians are already a fairly acknowledged target. In the meantime, while people may not yet be very brave with video spoofs of Modi, one of the best comic strips (witty but also nicely drawn, not always a strong feature of Indian cartoonery) to emerge from India in recent times pulls no punches about the BJP government.
Whatever the government and the BJP may be trying to impose, and however much the mainstream media might be trying to mimic a cat on a hot tin roof, people and events have their own way of subverting institutional agendas. Even as Modi continues to travel across the globe introducing his idea of India to the world, even as the media chases after him, trying to create news from non-events, campus and street protests have been sparking off in different parts of urban India, protests that have simultaneously surprised and discomfited both government and press. More about these later.