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Sunday, Sept. 30, 2001

A pervasive power that goes largely unnoticed

POLITICS AFTER TELEVISION: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public and India, by Arvind Rajagopal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 15.95 British pounds, pp. 393 (paper)

In "Politics after Television," Arvind Rajagopal presents a theoretically and empirically rich account of the role of television in consolidating Hindu nationalist sentiment in India and in reshaping the very basis upon which political parties garner and mobilize popular support.

The title of the book reflects its two dimensions. At one level, it explores the influence of media on politics in general and, at a second level, it provides an analysis of the influence of television on Indian politics in particular. Media, Rajagopal argues, reshape the context in which politics is conceived, enacted and understood. Hindu nationalism's recent salience, he suggests, depended and worked its way out through media.

The idea that television might have an influence on the mobilization of a political movement is certainly not an unfamiliar one. Political parties, in the Western world at least, rely quite heavily on the power of the "box" to communicate images and words that might generate support for particular policies. Indeed, televisual images, insofar as they advertise or reflect a desired state of being, lifestyle or set of beliefs, wield considerable power. The important point to note about the power of television in particular, as opposed to other forms of media (newspapers, for example), is that the images it generates generally reach a broader selection of the population and are therefore able to affect or influence a greater number of people.

The power of television to influence people is further fueled by the actual way in which people encounter the images it generates. People generally view television in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. They choose to view a set of images from an apparently independent standpoint, and they also get to "judge" those images in an apparently independent way. There appears to be very little connection between the source of the images on television (a particular broadcasting station) and the viewer.

Rajagopal argues that this sense of autonomy one experiences when viewing television is key to its power. Television evokes a sense of intimacy -- an apparently "free" communication of images. "The perception of autonomy and of social affirmation," he argues, "is made available in the private space of media reception, and allows viewers to craft a distinct sense of personal sovereignty."

Viewers feel as though they themselves have power over the images they see, and do not draw an immediate connection to a source. For political parties, it is an effective means of garnering support precisely because it can be used in such a way that viewers do not perceive themselves to be under pressure to vote in a particular way, or indeed even to be political subjects -- it can simply lead people to identify a way of life or a set of beliefs with a particular political party, which may be enough to stimulate support.

Rajagopal suggests that this general theory about the power of television to influence people holds a particular kind of force in a country like India. There, the way in which television has been able to generate this influence has changed considerably in the recent past, particularly over the period of the late 1980s through early 1990s.

Previously, institutional constraints as well as political restrictions had enforced a gap between the cultural "literate" elite and the mass media, making it difficult to engage in any sort of popular education or participation through media. However, satellite television and the dismantling of state controls led to a loosening up of broadcasting. By the late 1980s, Rajagopal argues, political opportunism had brought religious programming onto state-controlled television and created what ultimately emerged as a distinctive Indian programming genre; namely, mythological soap operas.

From January 1987 to September 1990, a Hindu epic, the Ramayan, was broadcast on the state-run television system. It drew on myth and devotionalism to portray a "golden age" of tradition. It appealed to diverse social groups and, according to Rajagopal, operated under a symbolic rubric that could be tied to the banner of Hindu assertion.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party) saw an opportunity in the success of the Ramayan. In presenting an image of a golden Hindu past week after week, the serial tapped into the hearts and minds of its viewers, sparking a wave of religious nationalist sentiment. Rajagopal argues that insofar as the serial gave rise to a retailing of Hindutva, or "Hinduness," it negotiated with a split public, "offering discrete forms of Hindu affiliation via multiple modes of participation consumption, and so cutting across divides of class and caste."

Previously weak, the BJP emerged from the late 1980s onward to express a national vision, providing a strong alternative to the Congress Party. It seized on the concept of Hindutva (meant to exemplify the singular truth of the nation) and so consolidated the relationship between politics and Hindu identity. Hindu nationalism gained momentum, exploiting the symbol of Lord Ram. Ram was claimed to be a national symbol, and the Hindus an oppressed community. Ultimately, the mobilization of nationalist sentiment, which gained intensity during the serialization of the Hindu epic, led to the destruction of a mosque in the name of Lord Ram. The broadcast suggested the inseparability of Hindu religion from the Indian nation.

Although Rajagopal is quick to point out that the Hindu epic was not the sole source of India's rising Hindu nationalist sentiment, it did appear to add fuel to its fire and played a critical role in sparking popular support across a previously divided community. Through television, Hindu nationalist leaders were able to bypass more traditional means of garnering support and declare themselves open to all.

"Hindu nationalism," Rajagopal argues, "participated in a new currency of images, building on possibilities that arose in the wake of economic liberalization and national television. If the Congress Party used television to consolidate its Hindu vote and to profit from a growing consumer market, Hindu nationalist leaders deftly joined both efforts, and in the process strengthened the relationship between politics and Hindu identity."

In an important sense, therefore, Indian politics can be seen to have changed in the wake of television -- the broadcasting of the Hindu epic stimulated a surge of nationalist sentiment, and the BJP cleverly positioned itself (and what it stood for) in its path.

Rajagopal's treatment of his subject is by no means intended for the theoretically faint-hearted and will appeal primarily to an academic audience. Likewise, he provides a sophisticated contribution to the field of cultural sociology in relation to the political climate of contemporary India. However, even to those unfamiliar with the subject matter, the high quality of his research is obvious. Furthermore, his analysis of the impact of his theoretical arguments on practical political concerns clearly provides a new and interesting perspective on the issue of how political movements can establish popular support. There are enough familiar concepts and arguments to make parts of this book a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the impact of media on politics in general or on the current shape of Indian politics in particular.

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