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The Indian media: a response to Page and Crawley

Maruf Khwaja
8 August 2001

There are certain ramifications of Indian broadcasting media’s continuing transformation, through “enlightened deregulation”, that David Page and William Crawley – veteran Indophiles – did not cover. Ask India’s neighbours in the sub-continent and some in the wider Gulf region. India is not content with being merely a mover and shaker of regional affairs and supplier of beauty queens to the West’s entertainment industry.

It may be, as Page and Crawley suggest, that the Indian state has at long last been obliged to relinquish its stranglehold on broadcasting media. But the reluctant deferment to the private sector did not take place for altruistic reasons or because external commercial pressures made the change inevitable. There is a view in the neighbourhood that it did so because recent regimes no longer found it feasible to go on carrying India’s ballooning cultural ball into foreign fields where “other players” were also getting aggressive. There was a gradual realisation that this was a task better and more credibly performed by transnational rather than national entities. Moreover Indian culture – whether it is of the Bollywood, Miss Universe or Ravi Shankar genre – is better seen spreading spontaneously than by the hidden hands of scheming ultra-nationalist regimes.

The emerging conglomerates may be transforming the domestic economics of Indian broadcasting – they may even be relieving government media of onerous or unsustainable burdens – but as far as its wary neighbours see it, the goal, no matter who carries the ball, remains essentially the same – India’s cultural hegemony in the region. Traditionally, over 50 years of tenacious central government control, only part of broadcasting’s focus was on the domestic projection and propagation of government policy; the other half, using Bollywood power, has always been to use broadcasting media to project Indian political interests over those of its neighbours.

The ingrained chauvinism of Indian foreign policy has been doubly strengthened by the rise to power of the extreme right. But for all its strident fundamentalism and periodic demands to reassert the goals of “greater India” (which incidentally includes most of Afghanistan, parts of Iran and the whole of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal), the Indian Right has been canny enough not to rock the smooth sailing boat of modern Indian propaganda. Whether soothing repressed neighbouring populations with Bollywood song and dance (that winks along with the Kamasutra), or browbeating weak, autocratic regimes with more engaging diversions, employing far superior creative, technical and organisational resources, India’s broadcasting had become a power to be reckoned with long before conglomerates came into the picture.

It is to the credit of the country’s professional broadcasters that they have got as far as they have with the millstone of Indian bureaucracy hanging round their necks. The same millstones have sunk denationalisation, privatisation and deregulation in scores of other sectors. Given the gains that Indian cultural propaganda has achieved in regions like the Gulf, where Bollywood lifestyle, whether in mass media or the public sphere, is eerily pervasive, one would have expected grateful regimes to offer more substantive gestures than the mere easing of certain regulatory controls.

The surprise is not that the private sector was let in on the game, but that it took so long for it to happen. From an Indophilic viewpoint, the results are more than satisfactory. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as in the upper and lower Gulf countries, audiences tuning into free-to-air or subscription broadcasters of Indian origin far outnumber those viewing non-Indian channels. One suspects the same to be true of emerging Asian audiences in Europe and North America.

There is another dimension of the “future Indian way” that is troubling. I wish Page and Crawley, with all their expertise and resources, had shed some light on the ramifications of the rise of India’s electronic media on its newspaper industry.

Every step forward that broadcasting takes in the Indian milieu, the print media, in strictly economic terms, takes one backward. While it may be true that satellite broadcasting is creating its own markets and commercial space, it is also a fact that basically, both sides drink from the same water hole – and a Third World hole at that, with all its constraints and limitations. Given the instrumental role India’s press has had on increasing literacy, and the lack of access the majority of Indians still suffer as regards these new technologies, what will be the impact of the apparently uncontrolled electronic revolution on the future development of the most vulnerable populations in the sub-continent?

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