There is something about news in India that reminds one of cuisine, the variety, the smells, the taste of anticipation. News per se is dull. It is official, comes in two-line capsules, is read as habit, and consumed and forgotten. I realise that political correctness demands that news be treated as sacrosanct, bankable like good currency, and like good currency it should circulate and establish the solidity of governance. But news in India, or many parts of India, is hardly like that.
People generally attack newspapers, and self-critical journalists, worried about the integrity of news, carry out a series of self-reprimands. Magazines like Frontline, concerned with professionalism, are in the forefront of such exercises. While correct and welcome, such efforts understand the nature of news but not of power.
News is monolithic and monochromatic. It is often like a party diktat. It is dull in the very moment of consumption. News, official news has the garb of governance but people in India know the official is not always true. News, they feel, should be like an areca nut, chewable, durable, transformable. News should be full of herbs, spices, full of gossip, rumour, suspicion and anticipation. We are still an oral society suspicious of the power of print. We feel power is secret and only opens to gossip.
There is a deeper reason for this. It is in the nature of power and politics. Our leaders – such as the late MG Ramachandran, NT Rama Rao, and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa – are larger than life. They are soaked in myth and folklore. A citizen voter is first spectator, then fan, then believer, then fanatic. He needs to be obsessive. He wants governance to be transparent but knows wisely that power cannot be obvious. Power has to have mystique, distance, the promise of contiguity, the many layers of secrecy that demagogues more than democrats understand.
Not just a politician
Jayalalithaa is not a politician. She is a demagogue, a demigod, a leader, a charismatic figure; she is subject to scrutiny but surrounded by secrecy. She does not make news, she is news. When she falls ill, it is not doctors and her deputies who count. It is as if an ant hill rustles with the anticipation of things that are going to happen. In such a situation every man/woman becomes a consumer of information, a creator of one and even an interpreter.
In fact, I was recollecting a childhood game we were asked to play when things got too boisterous at home. It was called passing the message. All of us sat diligently in a circle and one of us whispered a message. By the time the message reached the last player, it would be distorted beyond recognition to the sheer delight of everyone. Childish wisdom made us realise that information grows with distortion.
Jayalalithaa’s power politics is that childish information game played out in a large society. In a society where everyone feels close to power, without being contiguous, having a piece of information, a delectable piece of rumour makes one feel close to power. If prayer makes one feel close to god, rumour or gossip makes one feel close to power.
A Jayalalithaa without rumour and secrecy is powerless. A baroquised power system needs byzantine whorls of secrecy. Everyone wants to know someone close to power or a few removes from power. In fact, the phrases “contact hai?” and “inside information” are local currency. Everyone, from the flower-seller to the clerk, has his/her own personal line to Amma. Her power lies in that. Votes are only a secular, positivist index of her broader inroads into a whole world.
Rumours and prayers
As a wag and an expert on Jayalalithaa’s politics put it, her health is also her wealth. It was a cynical but realistic understanding of the hyperbolic world of Jayalalithaa. Reports of ill-health will lead to an increase in crowds waiting for her, of prayers and rituals conducted in her honour. Party voices will articulate a deep concern for Amma while Opposition politicians will be wondering what new game she is playing. Concerns about her health become literally an informal referendum in support of her. She will rise recharged again. Jayalalithaa and her constant returns to power must be making the phoenix a tired bird.
Rumour, panic, gossip, fear surround the logic of Jayalalithaa’s power. A populous leader does not operate on a linear, sanitised idea of power. Logic does not work for her. A politician like Jayalalithaa thrives on oxymorons. She embodies the impossible, the ridiculous, the byzantine.
A report on her ill-health will create a tsunamic drama ranging from epic to limerick. To reduce it to the antiseptic civics of professionalism and bureaucracy is futile. One needs a language beyond arid codes of modernity and rationality to understand it. Jayalalithaa’s politics creates a commons of concern, an alliance of affections. To capture that in news is futile and impossible. The more secretive her doctors are, the greater the efflorescence of information about her. A political Jayalalithaa is only possible when rumour, gossip and secrecy are a way of life.