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How the BJP did the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot asana on yoga day

By Ankur Bhardwaj
June 23, 2015 09:54 IST
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The fracas over the vice-president’s absence and alleging Rajya Sabha TV’s blackout of the event took some sheen off the event, says Ankur Bhardwaj  

International Yoga Day was celebrated the world over on Sunday. In Delhi, the prime minister participated along with an estimated 36,000 people at Rajpath. After months of planning and a strong build-up, it became a major success in event management, something the PM can take full credit for. After all, the government of India, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, was attempting to make it a feat worthy enough to be mentioned in the holy book of governance, the Guinness Book of World Records.

Similar events were held across the world, most notably at Times Square in New York, where mass yoga classes with thousands of participants, have been held on this day -- the occasion of summer solstice -- every year for the last 13 years.

The Rajpath event -- and the run-up to it -- enjoyed saturation coverage in India, with every news channel broadcasting images and various government departments vying with each other to highlight their participation in what was clearly an event close to the PM’s heart.

The elation however turned into anger for supporters of the government when some Bharatiya Janata Party supporters alleged that Rajya Sabha TV had failed to telecast event.

This was followed by BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav questioning (and later retracting) whether the event had been blacked out on RSTV and why Vice President Hamid Ansari had skipped the event entirely. It was also suggested that the vice president resign because Rajya Sabha TV, which comes under him, had blacked out the coverage of PM’s pet event.

It did not matter that both the assertions were false. The event was covered by RSTV in its entirety while the Vice President’s office clarified that Ansari did not attend because he had not been invited to the event. The controversy that raged was a result of false assertions by senior journalists and leaders of the BJP.
 
The entire brouhaha revealed two underlying beliefs. One, that the vice president was not allowed to abstain from the event, if he had been invited and that if he did not participate, he had to resign. And two, Rajya Sabha TV had to ensure private news channels-like coverage of the event and that its management had no freedom to decide on programming.

When Madhav questioned the VP’s absence from the event, he was asserting that the VP had no right to choose whether to attend an event or not. What if the vice president had been invited and had chosen to not participate in the event for whatever reason? This interrogation of the VP’s participation had a dangerous subtext. If you are not doing government-mandated yoga, are you loyal enough?

Participation in the yoga day event was insidiously converted into a loyalty test for a person holding a Constitutional office. This was a carefully crafted insinuation by a senior BJP leader and it was done in full awareness of the impact it would have on social media and elsewhere. This was amplified in not-so-careful terms by many others and an attempt to destroy Ansari’s image was nearly successful. We must ask whether the same question was also put to Jayalalithaa or Arun Jaitley who did not participate, either.

The government had spent weeks trying to assure people that this participation was voluntary. But these actions by no less than the BJP general secretary give lie to that assurance. Had the VP not participated in the event owing to his religious beliefs -- which he has every right to do -- it would be no different from Modi’s right to not wear a skullcap when he was the chief minister of Gujarat.
 
RSTV is an autonomous channel owned and operated by the Rajya Sabha. The channel does not report to Prasar Bharati. However, it did cover the Rajpath event, as well as the prime minister’s address. The assumption behind the attack on it was that RSTV has not right to ignore the event. There are two serious concerns with this assumption. One, why is RSTV not expected to assert its autonomy in picking the programming and two, why would supporters of the BJP be concerned about a not-so-popular sarkaari channel not broadcasting an event? With every private news channel covering the event in breathless detail, why would a blackout on RSTV even matter?
 
Is RSTV expected to be a mouthpiece of the government, just the way Doordarshan -- and many private news channels -- are? Many supporters of the government have for long sought privatisation of Doordarshan, too, although it must be said that this was an opinion when BJP was in the Opposition. Madhav and the government can perhaps learn from L K Advani, who as information and broadcasting minister in the Janata Party government, had sought a blueprint for an autonomous broadcaster. We are aware that the autonomy of Prasar Bharati too has been considerably weakened under Modi government.

Ram Madhav and others of his party can decide whether patriotism is so cheap as to be decided on the touchstone of performing yoga in front of cameras, and autonomous television channels will be judged on the basis of their toeing the government line. 
 
In light of the attacks on the vice president of India and the television channel he controls as part of his Constitutional position, it would not be unfair to expect the government and the ruling party to publicly apologise to the vice president. But going by PM’s response to serious allegations of wrongdoing against Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje, we will only get what Modi often mocked Manmohan Singh for: a thundering silence.

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Ankur Bhardwaj
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