The ‘Feelgood’

Lifted by a potent but narrow economic boom, India's elite press is slowly leaving the rest of the nation behind

Delhi is the political center of India, and what fused to be a somewhat dour government city in the northern part of the country has lately taken on the shine of a commercial capital. New four-lane highways snake past high-rise apartment blocks and shopping malls, past the farmhouses and swimming pools of the very rich as the city shades into the suburb of Gurgaon; the roads are full of SUVs, driven with reckless abandon by a new elite that sees itself at the wheel of a country emerging as a global power. Last December, after two months of traveling in India, I found myself at the main market in Green Park, a middle-class South Delhi neighborhood that has kept pace with the citywide transformation. The street leading to the market, once adequate, was choked with cars; shoppers paraded down the sidewalk chattering on their cell phones, their conversations accompanied by the thump of a Bollywood remix from a music store.

I was in the market to meet Umesh Anand. Until April 2003 Anand was resident editor of the Delhi edition of The Times of India, the country’s largest English-language daily, with a nationwide circulation of more than two million. He was late that evening because he was dropping off copies of the magazine he now edits. It’s called Civil Society, a monthly printed on glossy paper, and it has exactly two staff members: Anand and his wife, Rita. They edit the magazine at their house in Gurgaon, pulling together the content from their own reporting and contributions from freelancers. Some 1,400 copies are mailed out and 3,500 or so sent to bookstores and newsstands that responded favorably when Anand got in touch with them.

The issue Anand handed me that evening included a cover story on a software engineer who had set up a children’s library in Bangalore; an interview with an economist working on a government proposal to guarantee universal adult employment; reports on miners and tribal women; culture pages discussing a Bangladeshi film-maker’s works. The social-issues slant of the magazine was unmistakable, but its style was nonconfrontational, with space given to businessmen who agreed that the current economic boom in India had done little for the majority of its citizens.

That, of course, is the most crucial argument taking place in India these days: whether the economic transformation so visible in metropolitan areas like Delhi will ever extend its reach to the rest of India. It is a deeply polarizing debate, pitting cities against villages, rich against poor, Hindus against Muslims, those who believe the country is prospering from the gleaming call centers against those who feel that the unemployed need something other than jobs answering consumer-service questions for impatient Americans. There are few aspects of Indian life that do not have some connection to this nationwide debate, and I wanted to know from Anand how it was playing out in the nation’s urban-based English-language press.

Farmers, village girls, and boatmen rarely appear in the pages of the English-language newspapers.

What made the stories in Civil Society significant was that they covered subjects hardly touched on by Anand’s former newspaper. When The Times of India, under Anand’s editorship, ran a series on the presence of pesticides in bottled water, the business side of the paper was not happy about it. There was no direct pressure — Anand said he always had good relations with the family that owns the paper — but that kind of editorial content was seen to be at odds with the paper’s market-friendly approach. And the market, increasingly, determined the content. “I was sufficiently disgusted,” Anand said, explaining his growing disenchantment with changes in the mainstream media and his decision to start a small, independent magazine. “The management and marketing guys began to dominate the media companies. It’s happened everywhere, but we Indians catch the wave late and repeat the mistakes.” Anand didn’t consider himself biased against market forces, saying that he was all for a free market that allowed him to bring out a magazine like Civil Society. What he objected to was the growing sense of irrelevance about the content of the newspapers: “How many naked women do you need to see in the morning?”

 

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A LOT, IF ONE GOES BY the English-language dailies in Indian cities. Most include a separate city section that seems reserved exclusively for pin-ups. In the December 6 edition of The Times of India, for example, the city section of the paper known as Delhi Times had seven large pictures on the front page alone. The women in these pictures weren’t naked, strictly speaking, but the parade of models and starlets was unending. The Hindustan Times, the other market leader among Delhi’s English-language papers (with a national circulation just over one million), was the same, and it was no different in other cities. I spent the month of October in Bhopal, a provincial state capital in the center of the country where the poor are still suffering from the effects of the industrial disaster that took place twenty years ago, and beauty contests were often front-page items in the papers there. In November, when I went to Calcutta, an eastern city whose reputation for high culture is exemplified by the films of Satyajit Ray, The Telegraph, the leading English-language daily in the city, carried a stream of images of Hollywood stars, Bollywood stars, and local models trying to imitate Bollywood celebrities imitating the Hollywood stars.

The pin-up phenomenon is only one aspect of the makeover of India’s English-language press. None of the publications mentioned above are tabloids; most of them have long histories as serious newspapers, conservative in political sensibility and taste, while the language they work in restricts their audience to the upper and middle classes living in urban centers. The number of English-speakers in India is probably no more than 4 percent or 5 percent of the billion-plus population, but they are at the top of the heap, an affluent enclave of largely upper-caste Hindus. English comes second only to Hindi in the number of Indian publications; according to the Registrar of Newspapers for India, Delhi alone churns out more than 800 English-language publications. Trends in the English-language press tend to be closely reflected in other media as well. Newspapers in Indian languages show a somewhat greater variety, but many of them assume that their most important readers have similar tastes to readers of the English-language press. The assumption may not be wrong; in a culture of material aspiration, English is the language of that aspiration. The continuity between the English-speaking classes and other elite groups becomes most visible on national television, where news is often delivered in a strange hybrid of Hindi and English, and in advertisements for consumer products that often use a mix of English and Indian languages.

But the interests of this elite seem narrower than ever, even if one ignores the pin-up supplements and looks at the main sections of the paper. The daily diet consists of business, cricket, celebrities, and politicians — more or less in that order of importance and it comes at the expense of other issues that a democratic India should be debating. For instance, the December 6 Delhi editions of The Times of India and the Hindustan Times failed to note that the day marked a significant political event in India, a key event noted in past years in the press because its repercussions are still felt twelve years later. On that day in 1992 a group of right-wing Hindu organizations demolished a mosque more than 400 years old in the northern town of Ayodhya, claiming that it had been built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, until the late eighties a marginal political force with two members in a parliament of more than 500 seats, began its rise to power on the issue of the mosque. The BJP went on to form a series of coalition governments, each more stable than the last. It lost its grip on the government only last May when it was defeated in the national elections.

During this time, the BJP was credited with economic reforms that led to an annual growth rate of 8 percent and created a $100 billion reserve in foreign currency. But it was also accused of ignoring the poor and unleashing waves of violence against religious minorities. It is widely considered responsible for one of the worst such incidents against Muslims in the past fifty years, when more than 2,000 Muslims were killed and more than 150,000 displaced in the western state of Gujarat in March 2002. The trouble began when fifty-eight Hindu passengers were killed in February of that year in a fire on a train. The passengers were Hindu activists on their way back from the mosque in Ayodhya, and it was suspected that the fire had been started by Muslims. (A recent judicial commission has disputed that, saying the fire was started inside the coaches.) A retaliatory bout of violence followed, and human rights organizations as well as some media concluded that elements of the BJP had facilitated and encouraged the violence.

Yet such violence against minorities seems increasingly distant from the world depicted by the media. An innovation in the newspapers in the last couple of years is “page three,” meaning the city supplements and their daily coverage of the parties of the rich and famous. Page three has become a social category as much as a media slot. In Delhi and Bombay, celebrities are known as “page-three people,” and a new Bollywood film devoting itself to the phenomenon is called Page Three.

That closed circle — the media reporting on Bollywood celebrities, Bollywood making a film about the media reporting on Bollywood — is an accurate reflection of the changing face of India. Since the opening-up of India’s partially protected economy in the early nineties, the country’s middle class has grown more confident and is no longer serf-conscious about consumerism. The pin-ups and the page-three phenomenon are expressions of that lack of serf-consciousness and of the sense of well-being the Indian middle class has taken to calling “feelgood.”

 

“FEELGOOD” WAS THE WORD Sankarshan Thakur used to describe his realization of changing priorities at The Telegraph, the 369,000-circulation daily he had worked at for more than fifteen years. We were meeting for dinner in another South Delhi neighborhood, this one originally built for army officers. Set in a little rectangle around a park, the Defence Colony market was as full of white expatriates as rich Indians that evening.

Thakur, who is now executive editor of a weekly called Tehelka, was until a few years ago Delhi bureau chief of The Telegraph. One of the best-known reporters on the paper, he was particularly familiar with the state of Bihar. It is his home state, an area some 900 kilometers east of Delhi that is by most measures Delhi’s antithesis: the poorest region in India, with a high level of illiteracy, and prone to frequent outbursts of violence between upper-caste gangs and low-caste Maoist groups. In 1998, Laloo Prasad Yadav, then chief minister of the state (and currently railway minister in the central government) was indicted on charges of diverting money meant to help poor farmers buy fodder. Thakur remembered the day Yadav had been temporarily let out of jail to take part in a major religious festival. “We had a great picture of Yadav at the banks of the Ganges,” he said.

Thakur was on the phone with his editors in Calcutta that day, asking them to use the Yadav picture on page one. He considered the picture important: Yadav was one of the most powerful leaders in the eastern region, a controversial figure because of his low-caste background, anti-elite postures, and alleged corruption. “But they said there was a feelgood ad on page one, a soap ad showing a woman, and they thought a bare-torsoed man would spoil the reader’s feelgood.” That episode, Thakur said, was his first clue to the changes taking place. Soon, a position called manager, editorial services was created at The Telegraph, filled by someone with a business degree, and “any editorial decision ceased to be a newsroom decision.” Thakur found that the head office began turning down assignments he had given to reporters in his bureau, either because of costs or because the stories were “troublesome.” He said, “Their attitude was, the circulation is increasing anyway. We don’t need stories.”

When newspapers decide that they don’t need stories, especially the ones that diverge from a broad narrative such as “feelgood,” they are in danger of losing touch with reality. It is difficult to cover a country like India even with the best of intentions: the landscape, climate, and culture vary widely; there are eighteen official languages, with many more actually in use; traveling to places outside the network of cities and towns can be difficult. But it’s impossible to know what is going on when the intention to do so doesn’t exist.

That was nicely illustrated last year in the months before the national elections in May. The BJP government had hired a multinational p.r. agency to unleash a $20 million media campaign that was indistinguishable from “feelgood.” The BJP campaign used the slogan “India Shining,” claiming credit for the transformation of India into a confident, upwardly mobile country. There was nothing controversial about such a claim if one measured it against the booming middle-class neighborhoods in cities like Delhi; these are areas that have benefited hugely from the BJP’s economic and political maneuvers and have reciprocated with vociferous support for the party. But the images displayed in the advertisements, on television and in full-page color, showed a broader cross-section of the Indian population: farmers, village girls on bicycles, a Kashmiri Muslim boatman.

Much of the Indian media seemed to take this assessment at face value, predicting a comfortable electoral victory for the BJP, although the predicted margin of victory kept shrinking. As it happened, the ruling coalition lost badly, with the majority of the electorate voting overwhelmingly in favor of the centrist Congress party and its allies on the left.

 

OPINION POLLS AND ELECTION PREDICTIONS aren’t foolproof, of course, but most of the newspapers appeared to be in no position to assess the BJP’s campaign. Farmers, village girls, and boatmen — people who represent the two-thirds of the population living in rural areas, and the one-third surviving below the poverty line — rarely appear in the pages of the English-language newspapers. In the words of Raj Kamal Jha, executive editor of The Indian Express, where I worked from 1997 to 1998, “Why do a story on Dalit deaths in Bhagalpur when they don’t read the paper?” (Bhagalpur is in Bihar, and Dalits form the low-caste segment of society there.)

Jha was being ironic, as well as scathing. We were sitting in his office, and the edition of The Indian Express lying on his desk, in contrast to most other English-language dailies, had such a Dalit deaths story on the front page: IN BHAGALPUR, DESTITUTE ARE ON DEATH ROW WHILE RANVIR SENA WALKS FREE. The article, the fourth in a six-part series, gave an account of thirty-eight Dalits awaiting execution for allegedly killing upper-caste landlords — “the largest death row contingent in any Indian state.” It explained, in meticulous detail, that while upper-caste men (the Ranvir Sena is an upper-caste gang) accused of killing Dalits were booked under the criminal code, the thirty-eight Dalits were charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act — a law so notorious it was allowed to lapse by the government in 1995, although not retroactively.

The story about the Dalits on death row helps explain why The Indian Express has a reputation as one of Delhi’s better newspapers, influential in government and political circles despite its tiny circulation (it claims 78,000 readers in Delhi). Jha knows that to be a “newspaper with a conscience,” as he puts it, means reporting and writing about people who don’t read his paper. “You know there are countless stories that need to be done that fall in a domain where you have no readers,” Jha explained.

Like many Delhi journalists who sense a decline in the standards of the media, Jha points to The Times of India as the leader of a trend to “depoliticize” the news and eliminate most stories that don’t reflect the lives of the readers. Its innovations had been followed by the English-language Hindustan Times and then rippled out to smaller papers and more provincial cities. “They no longer need quality journalists and this gives them the advantages of a lower wage bill,” Jha said. “Their readers aren’t complaining.” On the other hand, he said, The Indian Express received a significant amount of hate mail after it ran critical stories on the BJP government and the Hindu right after the riots in Gujarat in 2002. And the BJP government in Gujarat pulled its advertisements.

While Jha remains convinced that the bulk of his readers are discerning people and that their number will continue to grow, the hate mail sent to The Indian Express about its reporting in Gujarat supports the possibility that much of the Indian elite has little interest in complexities that might disturb its “feelgood.” This is a dangerous trend, and if encouraged by the press, it is likely to make the Indian elite more intolerant, raising the threshold of its knowledge about an incredibly complex country. As for the press, the shift could mean a redefinition of its role, as it moves from being a reasonably independent observer toward becoming a partisan voice for the powerful and affluent. That may already be happening.

When I got back to New York, I called Rahul Kansal, a senior executive at The Times of India. He talked about how the younger generation of Indians wasn’t reading newspapers because of the influence of television and the Internet, and he said his paper had to appeal to them. “The newspaper industry was stuck in a time warp, focusing on weighty matters of state rather than what affects the lives of ordinary people,” he said.

Kansal objected when I asked him if The Times of India would simply accept the sentiments of its largely Hindu readers when covering an event like the massacres in Gujarat. “Even as a market-driven paper, you do not pander to the most popular existing sentiment,” he replied. But his elaboration of the position seemed a little tenuous: “What The Times of India would try to do — if there is such a large Hindu wave on, let’s at least take an objective, sympathetic look at the wave.” He emphasized that a newspaper’s role was not to preach, that instead it had the relationship of a “mentor” with the reader.

It is possible to buy coverage for a party or fashion show or product launch from The Times of India.

Yet “mentor” is not always the right word. Kansal confirmed that it is possible to buy coverage for a party or fashion show or product launch in city supplements in The Times of India. “Paid content, if you will,” he said, adding that in India there had already been a close nexus between certain brands and certain journalists and that his paper had simply decided to make the process transparent. Except it is not so transparent. He said an editor had the right to reject any such story, but once it had been accepted, the article and photographs on the event would appear as editorial content. There is an M with a circle around it in such features, Kansal points out, but he stressed that this signal was “very discreet” and meant largely for marketing and media people. “The readers don’t know,” he said.

 

TARUN TEJPAL, THE PUBLISHER AND EDITOR IN CHIEF of Tehelka, is a man who has faith “in the social contract and the responsibility of the English-language elite.” Before it became a weekly tabloid a year ago, Tehelka (which means “sensation” in Hindi) was a Web site. Its most famous story was a sting in early 2001 that involved video footage of senior army officers, bureaucrats in the defense ministry, and the political head of the BJP accepting bribes from Tehelka reporters posing as arms dealers.

The story sits firmly within a longstanding tradition of Indian journalism. A scandal involving a defense contract for Swedish howitzers was the most significant story, in the late eighties, and people close to Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress party prime minister at the time, were alleged to have been involved in the deal; it was the biggest issue in the national elections in 1989, which Gandhi and his Congress party lost.

But the difference between the two stories is in the reaction of the audience. The Congress government had pressured the paper that broke the defense story, The Hindu, into stopping its investigation, but the story was picked up by other papers and the issue remained alive in the streets and the bazaars. Tehelka‘s tapes produced some outrage and amusement, but when the BJP government reacted by turning the screws on the Web site (raiding and arresting financial backers and reporters, instituting a judicial commission that had a mandate to investigate Tehelka as well as the officials), interest faded. By January 2003 Tehelka was defunct, and George Fernandes, the defense minister who had resigned in the wake of the sting, was back in office.

Still, Tehelka reemerged in 2004, and in December, I met Tejpal at his new office. These days Tehelka is a weekly paper first and a Web site second, its transformation into a brick-and-mortar business illustrated by the workers installing the newsroom around journalists as they planned the next issue.

The paper still emphasizes stings — fifty such stories in the last forty-five issues, Tejpal claims. Indeed, the issues of Tehelka I saw during my two-month stay looked promising, for the most part avoiding the pinups and exploring the country in some depth. Shortly after I left the country, it carried out another sting, this one involving a controversial witness in one of the most gruesome incidents of violence in the Gujarat massacres. Tehelka‘s video showed BJP leaders talking, with some world-weariness, of the money they had paid the witness to keep quiet.

On the other hand, Tehelka has introduced “page-three people” to its readers, in a bid to combine entertainment with its crusading dispatches on the state of the nation. That may be a viable mix, but some of Tehelka‘s journalists worry that it could be the first step toward total submission to the “feelgood.” For many of them, the small weekly has become one of the few remaining places where they can pursue serious journalism.

Tejpal, though, thinks he can negotiate the balancing act that may be necessary for his paper to survive. “The social contract, the responsibility of the elite, it is something you can reconnect people to,” he says. “A good publication should be interesting and entertaining. It’s a question of doing the right thing sexy.”

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Siddhartha Deb is a novelist, journalist, and essayist. He received the PEN Open Book Award for his 2012 book The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, which was published in India without its first chapter because of a lawsuit.