On December 28, 2013, I made my way to Arvind Kejriwal’s shaptath grahand samaroah (swearing in ceremony), not as a journalist covering it, but as an “Aam Aadmi”. Colleagues at work were quick to barb, “so you have joined the Aam Aadmi party?” Well, journalists are aam aadmis too. It was a big day for many of us who covered the movement, not because Aam Aadmi Party won, but why it did.
Over the last two years, a certain number of journos have fought for Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal as studio guests, spent days and nights at Jantar Mantar [though none without food], and staked out AAP’s Kaushambi office for hours on end. Covering the protests and the birth of a party, the media relationship with AAP has been, to say the least, complicated.
In 2011, the world was in revolution mode. In journalism, nothing can match the glory of covering a revolution. Only few of us could cover the Arab Spring. As we saw the Arabs fight for democracy, we discussed why it would have succeeded in India. (Little did we know, a former revenue services officer was gearing up to start a debate on Indian democracy itself. More on that later.)
On April 5, 2011, Anna Hazare, a Maharashtra-based activist, hardly known in the rest of India, descended upon Delhi. I was enjoying my weekly off. The moment I turned on the television and saw Anna’s announcement to sit on a fast unto death unless the government passes an anti-corruption bill, I knew I would be called in. I covered civil society, voices in the background pushing for change, activists etc. Aware of the media’s attention span for “fight for a cause” and such protests I thought I would be able to wrap up within a few hours.
I was wrong. None of us expected what followed.
Within 36 hours, the entire media battalion landed to cover the protest with satellite vans and star presenters. At one point I counted 12 camera cranes. As a reporter on the field I must admit, I was taken by surprise. After all, this wasn’t the first protest to take place in Delhi. Jantar Mantar is the designated spot for protests – people collect in tens or hundreds here on a range of issues such as better labour laws, right to food, better health care and so on. Their success usually depends on their media strategy. Could they lure the newshounds? Mostly, they couldn’t.
Anna’s protest caught the media’s attention.
Perhaps it was the “revolution mode” – the international press was calling it India’s Tahrir Square. Perhaps it was the timing and the setting. India was reporting scam after scam. Was money siphoned off during the Commonwealth Games? Was money misappropriated in the 2G-spectrum case? In the middle of the many scams being reported, a 74-year-old khadi-clad activist positioned himself in front of Mahatma Gandhi’s backdrop and started speaking of sacrificing his life to rid the nation of corruption.
The image worked.
It was plain genius to play popular über-patriotic songs – “Har karam apna karenge aye watan tere liye, dil diya hain jaan bhi denge, ae watan tere liye”. Attracting the youth with patriotic numbers in the day, towards the evening the rock concert-like atmosphere would metamorphose into a kirtan. Aunties and uncles would mysteriously appear, sit in front of Anna and start keeping the beat with a spoon on the dholak.
It was just too catchy, too colourful, too provocative and too perfectly timed for the press to ignore. So what did the media do? We aired it live, all of it, all the time.
Over the last two years, the media has covered two stories – the battle against corruption and everything else. It covered the planning that went into covering the Anna-Arvind phenomenon, perhaps more than it covers elections. Prand tyaag or giving up your life for a higher cause is a concept Indians revere. Even the government couldn’t afford the death of an innocent old man. Anger against corruption and concern for Anna pulled thousands to the protest ground.
Anna kept fasting, every time unto death. After his second fast, it was clear even to the scribes supportive of the movement, the man had no plans of leaving the living. Don’t get me wrong, we are all happy Anna lives, but it’s impossible to not ask – were we fooled?
Capitalising on the symbolism, were these fasts strategic? As we secretly reveled in being tiny anti-corruption warriors, thoughts of Iron Sharmila and the inability to give her cause as much media space was constantly nagging.
But we kept broadcasting the battle for the Jan Lokpal, we aired it, wrote on it and questioned it.
Wasn’t fasting to get a bill passed, blackmail? We have a Parliament to pass laws. What can bypassing the parliamentary system lead to? How does Team Anna represent all of civil society? Was it a planned move to keep activist Aruna Roy out? It was she who invited Arvind Kejriwal to work on the Jan Lokpal draft.
My report on the Arvind-Aruna tiff was followed by the Anna-Arvind break up.
From Anna Hazare, who became the face of the movement, all attention diverted to Arvind Kejriwal, the brain behind the movement. Main Hoon Anna caps were quickly replaced with Main Hoon Aam Aadmi caps. The man behind building Anna’s image was now leading from the front.
The Anna-Arvind split made headlines. The guru-shishya duo was broken, giving the media what it was desperately waiting for, some way to be able to dismiss them. Journalists long suspected politics to be Kejriwal’s end goal.
Soon enough, Arvind was ruled out by the media as any serious threat to the ruling government, much to the pleasure of the Congress.
As the media seemed to be losing interest in regular hunger strikes, from pacifist fast-keepers Arvind and his men turned into aggressive exposé conductors. They came up with a rather innovative plan to keep the social media buzzing and the mainstream media following: Going live with corruption charges against many of the most powerful people in the country. It was the holy cows versus Aam Aadmi number 1. His new strategy worked more than the old one. The media remained Arvind’s foremost ally. His press conferences saw unprecedented coverage.
The press was restless to question the Aam Aadmi Party. They were in dirty politics after all. Print and broadcast media, the same guys who made them heroes, were now labelling them as “wella protestors” without a future. One fine day, the exposés were abandoned. With psephologist Yogendra Yadav on their side, the Aam Aadmi Party started focusing on elections, on door-to-door campaigning. Journalists began inspecting Kejriwal’s every move, some called him an anarchist, others an ambitious politician. Income Tax cases slapped on Kejriwal were covered with as much enthusiasm as we had covered multi-crore scams.
While many senior journalists played an instrumental role in the formation of AAP and continue to advise the party on its policies, the journalist fraternity was divided.
These are the comments you would hear:
“Rajneeti main unka swagat hain” – it was with a huge dismissive grin that Digvijay Singh, Congress party’s general secretary had welcomed Aam Aadmi Party into the political arena.(I wonder what he thinks of AAP’s political future now.)
Cut to the oath-taking ceremony at Ram Lila Maidan. The driver of the auto I hired was going there too. As far as I know, it isn’t often that auto rickshaw drivers have been aware or even attended the swearing-in of a new government. “I voted for Jhadoo. You go to any government office, if I need to get my license renewed, there is no way I can get it done without bribing, the middlemen don;t let it happen. I want that to change”.
The auto driver’s sentiment was echoed by several at Ram Lila Maidan. As we drove to the venue, we saw street after street lined up with people wearing Aam Aadmi caps. Not all of them young or members of the middle class.
Over the last two years, many journalists and political experts had labeled the movement as a middle class agitation. The supporters had multiplied. They voted for AAP and came from all strata society.
Kejriwal’s team arrived without grim looking, gun-toting security guards. The scene reminded me of a film I saw years ago, the Ajay Devgan starrer Yuva. In the film, a group of youngsters fight elections and win. They enter Parliament not in the white neta attire, but in what they wore every day. Perhaps the freshers of politics took inspiration from Yuva?
I’ll share a track with you from the film, which played in my head as they made their way to the stage,
Talking the common man’s language, wearing what he wears, travelling how he does. Unlike any other party, AAP understood that being perceived as an Aam Aadmi was as crucial as promising him what he wants. That was their ticket to power. Secretly there are many journalists who admire AAP, wanting it to succeed. AAP could scoot and shoot, raise questions even the media could not. An equal number resents them for the raw manner AAP conducts itself in, for daring the status quo.
At Ram Lila, the media corner was buzzing.
“BJP ke vote kat rahe hain yeh, not the Congress but the BJP has lost”.
“Maheeno main ghamandi ho jayegee, they have stopped accepting our calls.”
Whatever AAP does it should remember not to alienate the press. The party has announced its plans to go national. Since journalists ended up playing such a huge role in making AAP, they feel a certain entitlement over the party. As I heard fellow reporters analyse and crib, I saw one of us prancing around in the exclusive zone for MLAs.
The “relationship” with the media comes at a price. Kejriwal and his party are being watched, more than any party, any government, and any politician.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @anchalvohra.