The images told the story better than words.
There was Prime Minister Narendra Modi sailing serenely down the Ganges in a hovercraft, waving imperiously to those along the ghats, during the light-and sound Dev Deepavali show in Varanasi.
There was the Union Home Minister Amit Shah driving slowly through the streets in his SUV during his roadshow in Hyderabad, waving and greeting the crowds who lined the roads with folded hands.
And then, there were the farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh who rumbled towards Delhi in their tractors, trolleys and buses, punching the air with their fists before they came to a standstill at Delhi’s barricaded borders, where they said in one voice — we will not budge.
The two most powerful men in India were up against ‘Farmers on the warpath’ (India Today) and in the first week of the farmers’ protests, the kisan won the sympathy vote.
Again, it was all about the imagery: a naked man seated against a truck — “The government has stripped us of our clothes” said his colleague (ABP); ‘Dadis’ over 80-years old, rolling out the rotis, insisting they will not retreat until the recent farm laws are revoked (Aaj Tak); men stirring food in enormous cauldrons, vowing that they were here for the long haul (ABP); groups of scruffy men seated calmly on the ground, listening to their leaders over steaming cups of tea (NDTV India); farmers climbing onto the barricades held in place by the police, only to be pushed back by volleys of water (CNN News18); young boys readying water balloons to strike back (Zee News); an elderly farmer, looking around in wonder before shooting a video of Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan where he had gone for talks with the Centre along with other kisan union leaders (Republic TV); and finally, a yagya at the Delhi border held to purify the air so that there was good atmosphere for successful talks, Wednesday, between the two sides (India Today). Why, there was even a brown cow, staring at the proceedings with a calm eye… (India TV).
Ah, the romance of it all as seen through the rose-tinted camera lens of television news reporters who seemed awestruck by the sight of rural India rolling up to their very door.
So while the PM’s Dev Deepavali, Monday, may have been an unmatched spectacle that lifted the spirits of viewers yearning for light at the end of the long Covid-19 tunnel, the TV images beamed back into our homes from the borders at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur were far more moving.
Reporters impressed by farmers
Reporters across news channels seemed unusually impressed by what one anchor called the farmers’ “true grit…’’ (India Today), although they did question their cause. A Mirror Now reporter asked a farmer why they were not satisfied with the PM’s assurances that the new farm laws would benefit them. He replied that although it was difficult to live out there in the open on the road with “no cleanliness, no latrines, no place to rest, we are determined to stay here, nevertheless”.
Perhaps, it is this tenacity of purpose that appealed to the reporters. The farmers who spoke to TV journalists were articulate and clear-eyed about their objective. When a Zee News reporter tried to explain to a gathering how the new laws helped farmers, one of them interrupted him: we are educated, we understand, don’t tell me what to say…
Again and again, over the last seven days and across all channels, we heard the same refrain: ‘We will not move from here until our demands are met’. “They are asking for a new bill… they’re not in the mood to listen…,” said a Republic TV reporter. “They have brought enough rations with them to last a few months,’’ said a reporter on Times Now, examining the farmers’ trolleys. “We will be here for 26 January,” proclaimed Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Rakesh Tikait (Zee News).
Even as talks between the farmers and the government proceeded at Vigyan Bhavan, those at the borders were not in a conciliatory mood: “The (farm) laws are useless,” said one farmer, “the government is at fault” (News18 India). “The PM is wrong (in what he says)…. He should have better knowledge’’ said another from Patiala (NDTV India).
When Zee News asked farmers who had joined the protests from Uttar Pradesh at Hapur if they didn’t understand the inconvenience they were causing commuters, one of them replied reasonably but philosophically, “Yes, the public will be troubled but they will have to put up with it… we will not yield.’’
This obstinacy clearly won the hearts of reporters who did their best to convey the farmers’ feelings.
But Arnab had a different take
In the studios, however, it was a somewhat different story. Anchors questioned the farmers’ agitation. #ShaheenBaghConspiracy on Times Now, saw the long hand of the “Dadis, JNU, Ravan, Congress, AAP…” steering the till after leaders like Bhim Army’s Chandrashekhar Azad, Swaraj India’s Yogendra Yadav, AAP MLAs and Congress workers visited the farmers along with activists like Medha Patkar and Shaheen Bagh’s Bilkis Bano who tried to join the protesters.
“Who is pushing the farmers?’’ asked a CNN News18’s anchor Tuesday evening as photographs of Rahul Gandhi and Aam Aadmi Party’s Sanjay Singh flashed across the screen.
Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami accused the “Vadra Congress” of interference and called for a boycott of the party for “pretending” to care about the farmers’ movement — the channel said politicians were trying to “hijack” the farmers’ protests.
On Aaj Tak, Rohit Sardana accused the opposition of “doing politics” over the issue — er, isn’t that what politicians are supposed to do?
As these questions increased with each passing day of the protests, the farmers told TV reporters that no political party was behind them, and they would not allow politicians to speak from their platform. One farmer angrily told off a Zee News reporter: “You are trying to divide us… water cannons (are thrown at us), we are called terrorists, you say we have been led astray, is that the right atmosphere for talks?”
Yes, there was anger seething but by and large, it’s been goodwill hunting on TV with reporters displaying considerable sympathy for the farmers’ protests. Will this continue if the protests stretch into December?
Views are personal.