Amidst the largest population lockdown in history, and a pandemic that will likely affect millions, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan serial has begun a re-run on Doordarshan, the national television channel that has for many years been slighted by advertisers, because higher ratings and premium audiences go to the private channels.

Ramayan was first televised in January 1987, when secularism was the official policy of the Indian government in broadcasting, and when there was just one television channel in the country. The idea of serialising a Hindu epic came from SS Gill, the Secretary of Information and Broadcasting at the time, who recalled that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had hesitated at accepting his proposal, fearing that the show was meant for a mainly Hindu audience.

Gill, “a strong leftist” as he described himself, told me that he reassured Gandhi that the Ramayan was a national epic, and part of the majority culture; there was nothing partisan about it, he insisted. The intention was not to change the political balance between majority and minority, but to increase the audience for the new medium of communication, and in the process, strengthen the power of the government itself: although television broadcasting was many years old in some parts of the country, there were only 14 million television households nationwide in 1987. (There are 200 million now, and, at least 800 million smart phone users.)

Congress rule had existed for all but two-and-a-half years of independent India’s four decade-long history. It was a rule that was seldom without crisis, but the notion that power could slip out of its hands did not seem serious. The idea that a series of virtual images on screen – of Ram Rajya –
could supplant the lived reality of a Congress-led polity, was laughable And yet this is precisely what happened. In 1998, power would shift to a recent aspirant, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had won all of two seats in the Lok Sabha in the 1984 national elections. After a Congress-led interregnum (2004-’14), the BJP is back, for the foreseeable future.

Impact on the Ram temple movement

The success of the Ramayan serial in 1987-’88 led the way to establishing electronic communication where it had previously had relatively slight importance. It was the magic of television that allowed the diverse and at times antagonistic castes and sects of Indian society to be counted together as one audience. BJP leaders, in fact, appear to have decided to back the Ram Mandir agitation, which was started by a Congressman from Agra, Daudayal Khanna, after witnessing the extraordinary appeal of the show.

In early 1987, at a BJP conclave scheduled to meet on a Sunday morning in Ahmedabad, party leaders were surprised to find their chosen venue empty. They discovered that the scheduled time conflicted with the Ramayan broadcast. It was then, the late BJP leader Jay Dubashi told me, that party leaders realised there was an opportunity here that they could pursue.

Arun Govil in Ramayan. Courtesy Sagar Arts.

At every major step in this fateful marriage of Hindu politics and new technology, the Congress took the initiative, the BJP reaped the maximum benefit, and the Congress was then tarred as a public enemy. What else does a “Congress-mukt Bharat” mean, after all?

We might say the rest is history. The lesson is that new technology helped project mass consent even with partial and intermittent political affiliation. No doubt this was a shift away from the Sangh Parivar’s earlier model of recruitment, which demanded full commitment, amounting to conversion. LK Advani implied as much in a 1993 interview when he spoke about a new category of political participant his party was focused on, the “non-committed voter”. As the party’s strength has grown, its public stance is, however, increasingly strident, and its message is, you are either with us or against us. Any opposition to the party’s stance, however slight, is perceived to be “political.”

The BJP itself is assumed to be above politics. This suggests not only its sense of power, but also its command over the media.

In discussions with Ramayan viewers back in 1987-’88, I found that they rarely read the show in political terms, except to idealise the distant past and mourn the corruption of the present. To this diffuse sentiment, the BJP added aggressive anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu themes, pitched differently in rural and urban areas, with different appeals for Hindi and English audiences.

Indian society was not as Hindu as the party wanted it to be, an RSS man once remarked to me in the mid-’90s. The deficit was bridged by agitations and campaigns, events and speeches, by claims about what reality ought to be, and a profusion of media artifacts that envisioned the Ram temple and Lord Ram leading the faithful into battle.

All of this was lifted to greater prominence by the Ramayan serial’s visibility. Many of the party’s sites of activity were fairly saturated by posters, flyers, and flags, buttons, wall hangings, scarves and other knick-knacks and gewgaws, while the blaring of chants, songs and perorations filled the air continuously.

Arun Govil and Deepika Chikhalia in Ramayan. Courtesy Sagar Arts.

There was a tacit media theory at work here. Television coexists with other media-related forms, but viewing alters the space-time of perception, as if a skin were stretched across society, connecting its different parts and bringing them under a single logic. Reality might diverge from what was being proposed. But with enough effort, a virtual assemblage could be produced to signal a different reality, one that could eventually, be taken for reality.

The effort in question involved years of preparation, including seeding the bureaucracy with Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh workers during the period of the Janata government from 1977-’80. (Again, it was LK Advani who acknowledged this in a Rajya Sabha debate during this time.)

Secularism to saffronisation

The use of a Hindu epic tradition to divide the electorate rather than transcend its internal divisions was tragic. Perceiving the fact of division was made possible due to an institutional transformation long in the making, with escalated investment in media technologies, notably satellite television, during the Emergency, and a determination to define politics through the spectacle rather than through the economy as such.

This inaugurated a new phase of the mediatic state, that until this time had relied more on oral and print communication. After the Congress returned to power in 1980, the relationship between the seen and the unseen took on a wholly different character; secularism was quietly shelved in favor of gradual saffronisation, and questions of cultural identity began to loom ever larger.

And now history repeats itself as farce.

The tweet that Javadekar deleted

On the morning of March 28, Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Information and Broadcasting, tweeted an image of himself relaxing on his sofa, saying “I am watching Ramayana, are you?” He deleted it amidst a wave of popular indignation at his insensitivity. Javadekar, who is also the Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, perhaps realised that the climate had indeed changed. The irony of the Union minister turning a gospel of sacrifice and service into a demonstration of privilege was lost on no one. It was reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s incomprehension about public hunger in eighteenth-century France.

The gulf between haves and have-nots in India has never been more explosive. Millions have lost their jobs, and many more are facing hunger and ruin, to say nothing of the contagion stalking the land. Nearly 40% of India’s population, about 480 million people, are migrants who labour in the informal economy. Many are obeying the government’s orders to go home from the cities where infection has been concentrated, into rural areas where containment will be difficult. For many, there is no food, transport, or medical help. Social distancing is a joke as crowds jostle for space on the roads or fight for a few scraps of food.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems hazy about the distinction between quarantine, which is what is being imposed, and curfew, the term he used, and which the police enforce by beating people. Modi has apologised for his mistakes, and he is confident that the people will indeed forgive him. Here we have the supreme leader conducting a dialogue with himself. Even at this moment, the first time he has acknowledged any error, only he knows what the public wants. No dialogue with actual people is needed.

Reality is thus enfolded into the spectacle; disobedient events are kept at bay. Press conferences are unthinkable, and the media has learned not to ask for them. Modi’s images, broadcasts and tweets are invariably viral, but how he arrives at what he says and does is completely opaque, adding to the mystery and appeal of the leader.

Bureaucracy as a circuit-breaker

Media and bureaucracy constitute two different kinds of knowledge; if the former tries to incubate viral information, political leaders as diverse as Modi and Javadekar have tried to harness that capacity, with different results in this case. Typically however, the bureaucracy functions as circuit-breaker, denouncing inconvenient information and asserting the primacy of its own knowledge. To an amazing extent, the current government has succeeded in aligning these systems of knowledge, riding out the challenges of demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax and economic slowdown, gaining strength from every crisis that initially looked like a disaster in the making. It might ride out this crisis too. But that signals the increasing gap between the actual condition of society and the fortunes of its ruling party, much like the stock market has ceased to reflect the real economy, and is now an artifact reflecting its own reality

An entity like the coronavirus, mindlessly replicating itself and paying no attention to existing social order, demands to be understood on its own terms. It obeys no mantra, and respects no time-line. It shows that the entire machinery of society can become a weapon against itself and require to be shut down. The pandemic – the mahamari, as it is known in Hindi – is not only a crisis in itself. It is also a crisis for the state that has to coordinate between media systems of knowing, not entirely in its control, and a bureaucratic system with its own forms of knowledge.

Simply put, contemporary politics, due to its tendency to become introverted and self-referential, has put the world at risk. This tendency is greatly heightened by new technologies of communication, which arrive in the guise of science and can end up reinforcing prejudice and superstition. Instead of bringing new knowledge, in many contexts modern media have become a hall of mirrors, magnifying the importance of select fragments of reality.

We already have a Hindu Rashtra, Subramaniam Swamy has stated. Never was the gulf between the vast power claimed for the Indian state, and its modest strength in reality, more glaring. If state capacity is limited, the will to aid people is even less. What, then, does it mean to watch the Ramayan on television now?

In 1987, a Hindu serial on television was a novelty, a lure for new viewers, and a political gamble that backfired for the ruling party at the time even as it became the fortuitous vehicle for an ascendant Hindu nationalism. In 2020, screening the Ramayan is a way for the moribund public service channel, Doordarshan, to win back viewers. It can amuse or uplift those fortunate enough to stay indoors, and who have nothing else to do. It is also a mise en scene, a backdrop, to a larger drama playing out now, where tens of millions are on a death march to homes they may not reach, while the economy is in free fall. The Minister for Climate Change inadvertently signalled his political calculation by abruptly replacing a tweet of his dharmic viewing with one about the coronavirus, after the response he provoked.

The Ramayan imagines a world unified by moral law. The appeal of Ram Rajya is that of a ruler who cared nothing for power and privilege, and was ready to sacrifice for others. To fulfill a mistaken promise made by his father, Ram gave up his throne, for example. One can object that casteist, patriarchal values were at stake, but whether it was myth or history, the faithful see the Ramayan as a model of how they think society ought to be.

As depicted in Ramanand Sagar’s serial, this is also a world that boasts of the scientific achievements of its rishis and sages. Repeatedly, we are told that the rituals the holy men perform constitute scientific experiments that help to defend society from hostile forces. The claim is in keeping with an intellectual tendency that has been around from the period of anticolonialism, where the achievements of modern science are attributed to ancient India, and where Indian knowledge was in every respect the equal of its western counterparts.

Today, this maybe called Hindu science, but, setting aside the implausible aspects of such claims, it is the orientation to discovery and to new knowledge that is crucial. This quest for science is visible today, and should be built on, even in tweets and Facebook posts, amidst the magic charms and potions uselessly wielded against the virus all around us.

This is one more crisis that has caught the government unprepared, after demonetisation and GST. Wide and deep though the discontent was with those measures, Modi was able to control the narrative as the reactions unfolded. India’s aspiring middle classes are now large enough that the prime minister’s claim that he was struggling against the rich and powerful, and needed their cooperation, was persuasive. Enough voters (and more) chose to bring the party back to power. This time it is different.

A virus that resists spin

The virus cannot be spun in any media narrative. That is its most important characteristic, from the perspective of popular politics. Every country is affected, and the whole world is watching. For the entire world to see, Prime Minister Modi once more plunged the country into chaos without any warning or preparation. Javadekar’s decision to re-run the Ramayan underlined the solution most familiar to the population – pray! But Modi also imposed a three-week lockdown, as if to assure the country that at the end of this time, the virus would be controlled. Otherwise, the mahamari was unfolding in a state-free space. No political leader wanted to own it, especially the prime minister, although this is the most dangerous emergency in the nation’s history.

Through the ages, pandemics have been seen as divine wrath, as God punishing humans for their misdeeds. The coronavirus, however, was declared secular, not only in other countries, but by Modi himself. That is the assumption behind the lockdown. But this is not a stable category. When the opportunity to blame the Tablighi Jamaat appeared, the government’s supporters pounced on it. We should note that when the Muslims’ three-day show of faith concluded on March 13 in Delhi, lakhs of Hindus were planning to congregate in Ayodhya. The health ministry stated that very day that coronavirus did not pose a health emergency.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time. When all of the people are exposed and vulnerable, and there is little or no help from the state, except to blame one or other section that are themselves victims, this too is a temporary measure, and destined to fail.

This is still a moment of political danger, therefore, not only for the public at large, but for Modi himself, who for the first time, cannot blame what follows on the Congress, or on black money hoarders, or on Pakistan, or any other convenient enemies. Even the troll armies of the BJP might begin to desert the party amidst this debacle.

Arvind Rajagopal is Professor of media studies at New York University. Among his publications is Politics After Television (Cambridge, 2001), which examined the Ramayan serial and the transformations of Hindu nationalism inaugurated in its wake.

Also read:

Excerpt: How (and why) the ‘Ramayana’ TV serial brought much of India to a standstill in the 1980s

How a cafe owner and Rajiv Gandhi contributed to Ramanand Sagar’s blockbuster TV show ‘Ramayan’