A remarkable aspect of the Hathras alleged rape case is that it played out almost entirely as a contest of images. Words didn’t matter. We have surpassed the age of the TV soundbite. Now we are in the visual-only era, the audio often muted.
First visual: protest outside hospital
The story began when the 20-year-old Dalit woman’s family decided to hold a protest outside the Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi, where she had been battling for her life. The Delhi media had got on to the story a day earlier, but it took off in the attention game when the family sat on a dharna. The media finally had a visual it could broadcast non-stop. The Hathras case now had all the elements that TV news needs for a perfect story: a clear victim, a clear perpetrator, an underdog, and a lot of suspense to drag the story — will the victim survive? Will she die? Will the family accept the body? Will it protest with the body in the middle of south Delhi? Right up to the UP Police’s forced ‘cremation’ in the dead of night, there was a lot of potential in the story that could make it gut-wrenching, keep viewers hooked and TRPs rising.
To make it all happen, there was now the first proper visual: the family protesting outside the hospital.
When it fits the TRP formula
This is how all newsrooms look at stories. This is the formula. On the Sushant Singh Rajput story, I had argued that TV news had a bigger god than Modi. It was called TRP. The Hathras story has proved the argument: with the exception of one channel, every channel had to send its cameras towards Hathras, even giving airtime to opposition parties who complain they don’t get any.
This is not to cynically dismiss the family’s trauma. They did the right thing for their daughter. They needed media attention from day one, because that’s perhaps the only thing that could get them justice. Finally they had it.
The girl is dead. Long live the visual
The Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath governments in Delhi and Lucknow could see the political narrative slipping out of their hands for a week. It was “Nirbhaya” deja vu. Their first attempt was to kill the visual. They virtually kidnapped/stole the body from Safdarjung Hospital, driving it straight to Hathras. This killed the potential media spectacle of the family standing with the body outside the hospital. Driving straight to Hathras, the UP administration burnt the body at 2:25 am, ignoring the family members’ cries and pleas to let them take the body to their home and perform the last rites. Again, the idea was to kill the visual of an emotional cremation in the morning light that cameras love the most. No, no, no, someone seems to have panicked. We can’t have the funeral visual.
Alas, some reporters, camerapersons and still photographers on the ground were rather gutsy. And the UP Police was too clumsy in the cover-up. The cremation-by-police visuals went viral by breakfast time.
ABSOLUTELY UNBELIEVABLE – Right behind me is the body of #HathrasCase victim burning. Police barricaded the family inside their home and burnt the body without letting anybody know. When we questioned the police, this is what they did. pic.twitter.com/0VgfQGjjfb
— Tanushree Pandey (@TanushreePande) September 29, 2020
‘A hundred lies to hide one lie,’ goes the Hindi adage. A 2020 improvisation would be, ‘A hundred visuals to hide one visual.’
The BJP propaganda machinery immediately put out a video that had a civilian throwing a log of wood on the pyre. Look, the family participated, they said, pushing the video out faster than flesh can burn. Fact-checkers found the man to be a distant relative while the Hathras victim’s parents were locked in. But that’s an irrelevant detail since it has no visual. The Hindutva machinery got its counter-visual, which at least managed to muddy the waters for the time being, complicate the story, keeping calm the anxieties of Modi supporters who need to be reassured every now and then that the BJP can’t do any wrong.
Visual for visual, the war is won
Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi are detained in Noida, not allowed to proceed to Hathras, where the village is sealed off from the outside world. But the UP Police pushes around Rahul Gandhi as he tries to walk ahead despite being asked to stop. They shove him around, he falls, visual produced. Politics is a contest of who the victim is, and here was visual proof that the BJP government was Goliath and Rahul Gandhi, David. The BJP propaganda machinery spent the day convincing their mammoth subscribers that Rahul Gandhi was pretending to fall. The argument is not about what the police said or what Rahul Gandhi alleged — it is about whether Rahul Gandhi fell deliberately for the cameras, or was he pushed by the police officers.
The search for truth in politics today requires everyone to become experts in reading photographs in a forensic manner.
Next day, Rahul Gandhi sits home. No visual produced. Priyanka Gandhi goes to a Valmiki temple. Poorly organised visuals, little impact.
Meanwhile in Hathras, thirsty cameras are filming cops and fields. No visual, no story.
A flood of khaki
Next morning, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi show a rare instinct for follow-up. The Congress puts out a video of Priyanka driving the car, Rahul by her side. Could have been a powerful image but whoever put it out had the poor judgement to show Priyanka Gandhi laughing while she’s going to condole a death.
The Yogi Adityanath government wasn’t relenting. Still trying to pressure the Valmiki family into giving up their demands, Uttar Pradesh wasn’t going to allow the Gandhis to meet them just yet. A image of hundreds of policemen and women at the Delhi-Noida border went viral.
It looked so excessive, as if Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi were the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Galwan. One policewoman was wearing a cricket helmet. As the image compounded the UP government’s PR disaster, the UP government decided to allow the Gandhis to meet the family.
Male-dominated state assaults female Congress leader
It didn’t happen without some more scuffling pictures. One picture showed a male policeman holding Priyanka Gandhi by her kurta. Priyanka Gandhi’s eyes stare at him, stunned yet cold. Captured by a Press Trust of India photographer, the image spoke a million words about an authoritarian BJP regime and the Gandhis as the good underdogs fighting for the people. These two images of the UP police roughing up Rahul and Priyanka are enough to change the perception of Gandhis as decadent elites (until their next Europe trip, at least).
The denouement came when Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi finally got to meet the family members of the Hathras victim.
It was late in the evening: someone wanted to prevent visuals in good light from coming out. They only ended up dragging the story further. As Rahul Gandhi bowed his head before the victim’s father, his hand on his knees, he had won the day. ‘Not a fan of Rahul Gandhi,’ said many on social media, ‘but this is very moving’.
Meanwhile, the UP government argued the Hathras victim had not been raped. This, too, has been argued visual for visual. Videos of the dying woman, face blurred or not, have been put out by both sides to argue whether or not she was raped. There was an audio, too, leaked phone call of a reporter discussing the creation of visuals.
We are all body language experts
Rahul Gandhi had managed to look sincere and genuine in sharing someone’s grief, as did Priyanka in the photograph where she is hugging the victim’s mother. Not even the Covid masks were able to take away the sobriety and the poignancy from the moment. Authenticity is worth a million dollars in politics. We don’t expect politicians to say anything they actually mean. Priyanka Gandhi’s faux shuddh Hindi tweets are laughable. But these photographs will be hard to forget for a long, long time.
Some Congress supporters soon looked up photos of Modi meeting the parents of the Delhi gangrape victim in 2014. In an incredibility insensitive moment, Modi stands stone cold as Jyoti Singh’s father kisses his hand.
One Photograph is of Narendra Modi meeting the Parents of Nirbhaya while the other is of Rahul Gandhi meeting family of Hathras Victim. The photographs speak for themselves pic.twitter.com/AR9epKOa41
— Joy (@Joydas) October 3, 2020
The photo, juxtaposed with those of Rahul and Priyanka meeting the Hathras woman’s parents, is now viral material to make a powerful point. The strongman prime minister is shown by powerful contrast to be insensitive. His strength looks like his weakness, perhaps for the first time since he became prime minister, just by digging out a six-year-old photo. We are all body language experts now, reading emotions, commitment, ideas, and ideals through body postures in photographs.
Lonely in the tunnel
That day, Modi was inaugurating the Atal Tunnel. Dressed in ethnic Himachali dress, his words, even some lip service to Dalit empowerment, grabbed nobody’s attention. Someone took out a video grab showing him waving at an empty tunnel, the leader looking so lonely at the top even as the much-maligned Gandhi siblings became the leaders who belonged to the people. If only for a day.
The political conversation with images hasn’t stopped. The powerful image of Amit Shah’s Y+ security to Kangana Ranaut was juxtaposed with the image of a policeman assaulting Priyanka Gandhi. The image was so powerful that even the high-handed UP Police had to issue a half-hearted regret about the ‘incident’.
@noidapolice profoundly regrets the incident @priyankagandhi while handling an unruly crowd at the DND. The DCP HQ has taken suomotto cognizance of it & ordered an inquiry to be conducted by a senior Lady officer. We @noidapolice are committed to ensure safety & dignity of women.
— POLICE COMMISSIONERATE NOIDA (@noidapolice) October 4, 2020
Pic or it didn’t happen
Images also come out showing the UP Police brutally lathi-charging politicians and political workers of various parties, including the Samajwadi Party. But only one such, of Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Jayant Chaudhry, goes viral and makes impact.
— Anuja Jaiswal (@Anuja_Jaiswal11) October 4, 2020
Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav, who was away in London and returned home Saturday, has been tweeting furiously. His party has been agitating across the state. But without that image of Akhilesh with the Hathras family, it is as good as being absent from the issue.
Mayawati, the very own leader of Dalits, almost never visits Dalit families who are victims of atrocities. She is not a street politician. As a rising Dalit politician, Chandrashekhar Azad steals the attention with the right visuals, Mayawati feels the heat. Her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was the first to reach out to the family, she claims belatedly. As urban millennials say, “Pic or it didn’t happen”.
A seat too comfortable
After visiting the family in Hathras, Rahul Gandhi goes to Punjab the next day. He sits on a makeshift seat on a tractor. Captain Amarinder Singh sits on the other end. The seats look rather comfortable for a tractor. A farm activist complains on Twitter: would have looked better without the comfy seats. Didn’t look authentic.
ट्रेक्टर पर कुर्सी वाली सीट ना लगवाते, तो मामला ज्यादा जमता 🤫
— Ramandeep Singh Mann (@ramanmann1974) October 4, 2020
That’s how we judge politicians these days. Words are inconsequential. A politician’s image is made and unmade through, literally, images.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.