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on March 22, 2001
Extremely well written book on how television has played a key role in redefining politics and culture in India.
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on September 12, 2003
When on December 6, 1992 the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth century disused mosque built on the site of a razed Hindu temple by a minion of the Mughal king Babar was destroyed by a mob of Hindu activists led by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it led to Hindu-Muslim clashes across India, leaving more than 1,100 people dead. Much more cataclysmic was the wave of opprobrium generated by the English language media and academics in Left-Marxist bastions that tried to sweep the BJP and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) into the dustbin of history. Ten years later, and despite hundreds of scholarly treatises berating the "fascist" and "communal" "Hindu nationalists", and warning of doom if the BJP came to power, the BJP is heading a 25-party coalition government in India, and the RSS is playing an important role in shaping social, religious, and political debate in that billion-strong nation that is still a vibrant democracy.
Among the many scholarly tomes on the nature of the communal (religious) conflicts in India, mostly between the 800 million majority Hindus and the sizeable minority of a 150 million Muslims, and the threat posed by Hindu nationalists to a secular, multicultural India it is difficult to find much more than the predictable and the often trite analyses blaming Hindu nationalists for spoiling the game of the multicultural, internationalist, secular-humanists who made and kept India a beacon of democracy and secularism since India gained independence from the British in 1947.
Rajagopal's book too, despite its theoretical sophistication, indulges in the now de rigueur criticism of the BJP and its parent organization, the RSS. His book has elicited a lot of praise for its "brilliant theoretical acuity and empirical richness," and for helping readers "understand how globalism and localism intersect," but none of those who shower praise on Rajagopal note the predictability of the trajectories of such theses.
In brief, the thesis Rajagopal presents is that between January 1987 and September 1990, during the rule of the "secular" Congress Party, the Indian state-run television, Doordarshan, began broadcasting the Hindu epic Ramayana, in serial form on Sundays. This supposedly violated a taboo on religious partisanship, and it influenced the BJP in its mobilization of disgruntled and frustrated Hindus, culminating in the destruction of the Babri mosque. The author argues that the media, especially television, reshapes the "context in which politics is conceived, enacted, and understood", and cautions that he is not proposing a simple cause-effect relationship between the broadcast of the epic on television and the destruction of the disused mosque.
A big part of the mobilization of Hindus, Rajagopal claims was through the BJP leader Advani's rathyatra (campaign through the country in a Toyota land-cruiser decked up as a chariot of the Hindu God Rama) in 1990 to reclaim the land for Hindus on which the Babri mosque was built. Advani's 4000-mile campaign across the country was one of the largest political campaigns in post-independent India, built around the symbol of Lord Rama. Rajagopal claims that Advani's campaign changed the complexion of Indian politics. This ignores the fact that religion and politics has always been a potent mix in India, including the fact that Gandhi himself used Rama as a symbol of righteousness and goodness, that distribution of "tickets" to run for political office has often been made on religion and caste-based identities, and that huge cardboard figures of politicians during election time hark back to God-like figures from the Hindu past.
Rajagopal, analyzing the series of events, from the broadcast of the epic serial to the rise of the BJP as a national party, claims that while television audiences may have thought they were harking back to an epic golden age, Hindu nationalist leaders like Advani were embracing the prospects of neo-liberalism and globalization. Television was the device that hinged these movements together, "appealing to authoritarian rather than democratic values". He says that there was no causal relation between economic reforms and Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), nor did the two share any inherent logic. But politics, anywhere in the world, is the art of the possible, and that the BJP used certain circumstances to its advantage is neither strange nor quixotic.
For Rajagopal, the economic liberalization that the Congress government had begun to undertake, and which the BJP was supporting, demanded more authoritarian control than needed for state-controlled economic enterprise. We now know that under the Nehruvian, mostly Soviet inspired socialist dispensation, Indian state-controlled enterprises devoured enormous wealth while producing not much more than the sloth of government employees and the corruption of politicians under what was known as the licence-raj. We have seen in the past year the BJP-led government has been able to sell huge, loss-incurring public enterprises to private entrepreneurs who have within a year turned around those industries into profit-generating ones, with the workers themselves enjoying more salaries and benefits. Of course, privatization, liberalization and free market capitalism are not painless or infallible cures for sick economies, and the BJP has never presented them as such. And it seems the irony is lost on those praising Rajagopal's thesis about the appropriateness of Nehru's socialism for India is written sitting at the bastion of free market capitalism - the United States of America!
Rajagopal also ignores or minimizes the nature of the 1100-year old Hindu-Muslim divide, about India's two Muslim neighbors -- Pakistan and Bangladesh -- from where the Hindu minority has been systematically driven out, and the problem of Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley from where 400,000 Hindus have escaped to tent cities outside Delhi because of the threat to their lives and property from Muslim terrorists. Instead, he pins the blame solely on the BJP and the RSS for instigating "communal riots to polarize society and to define the Hindu-Muslim axis as a life or death question". This is unfortunate because there are a number of writers like Shourie, Elst, Goel, and Ram Swarup who have carefully studied Hindu-Muslim conflict and challenged the Marxist analyses of India's past and present. It is no surprise that Rajagopal does not refer to their works as India's Marxist-dominated academe and its supporters in the West do not countenance contrarian analyses of India's religious conflict, history, and society.
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