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Under Western Eyes

In a report in The Guardian on April 16,the day India had its first round of polling,Randeep Ramesh enlightened his reader...

Written by Sudeep Paul |
April 25, 2009 9:56:16 pm

In a report in The Guardian on April 16,the day India had its first round of polling,Randeep Ramesh enlightened his reader thus: “There are three main groupings [my italics: the United Progressive Alliance,dominated by the Congress party; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) [my italics,built around Bharatiya Janata Dal [my italics; and the Third Front,centred on the Communists.” The report was of course amended,with a clarification at the bottom of the original,thanks to the renewal of a story’s life cycle permitted by web editions.

We’ve just had the second phase of our Lok Sabha elections. Needless to say,the world is watching us. Now there’s something about being conscious of being watched that makes us feel vulnerable,almost exposed to the point of nakedness. We’ve had that feeling before,qualitatively less different than in degree,as Mumbai 26/11 unfolded. The question of baring one’s soul is a play of power between object and observer,between exhibit and viewer,between we the text and they the collective reader. It’s the power that the statue has in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”,when it admonishes the admirer: “for here there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life” — a paradox where the exhibit becomes the observer and judge. But that admonition,again,is only in your mind. That’s how we all,at every moment,internalise actual or perceived judgments,whether we believe in them or not.

The world,and the British press in its midst for instance,is taking notes,describing and analysing what it sees. And while with British readers more entertainment is intended than education,for us,there’s advice. We suspect “entertainment” because there’s a central,pervasive image — a circus. They don’t use that image themselves. It’s what the egalitarian march of smaller images,colours and adjectives add up to in our minds. What these images — with periodic embellishments as in the predominance of the elephant this time — build is a veritable riot of exotica. There’s a mini dialectics operating here too. For instance,“bullock cart” juxtaposed against “helicopter”,“elephant” vs “executive jet”,“illiterate rural voter” vs “EVM” all lead to the synthesis “India” or “land of paradoxes”.


The lexical creates the visual. The constant iteration of phrases like “the biggest exercise of democracy”,“the incredible election”,“the unique election”,“the remarkable election”,“the Untouchables”,continuously re-creates India as a feast for the eyes. A pity the phrases don’t have free tickets to the show attached to them. Sometimes the overzealous or exhausted correspondent repeats himself or several correspondents,across media houses,write from their collective unconscious. What else explains the phrases “the ruling Congress party-led coalition will most likely emerge as the group with most seats,seeing off a challenge from an alliance headed by the Hindu-nationalist [BJP…” (April 17),“the Congress… will do enough to see off the challenge…” (April 16),“Congress Party… is battling to fight off a challenge…” (April 12) — all in Andrew Buncombe’s reports in The Independent. Or,consider these: 1. “…some election officials in the most remote areas rode elephants to polling stations near the border with Burma. In the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal,ballots were brought to voters by a two-day sea trip.” [Buncombe,Independent,April 17.

2. “Some election officials rode elephants to remote polling stations near the Myanmar border. Other ballots were brought by two-day sea trips to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.” [Krittivas Mukherjee,Reuters,April 16.

3. “Some election officials had to ride elephants to reach remote polling stations near the northeastern border with Myanmar,while others made two-day sea journeys to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.” [Jeremy Page, The Times,April 16. Good for them they shared notes to be sure of the facts. And underscored the exotic.

What these correspondents create is a vision of an “authentic” 

India for readers back home,much like the Panzini spaghetti ad that Roland Barthes studied,which — lexically and visually — evoked an “authentic” Italy for the French spaghetti aficionado. Here,it’s a de-centring where the carnival eclipses the electoral contest. The problem is not the images or facts but the syntax and diction that string them together and their frequency of repetition. That’s why every utterance is a “political” act,rooted in the speaker/ writer’s “ideology”. Bias is unavoidable.

Incidentally,across the ideological spectrum,the British press has found a cause in the curious Third Front. Not everybody’s forthcoming about their sympathy for our “disenfranchised”. But it’s there. If you’ve lived in a glass house,you must throw stones on others. 

Before Rilke’s statue we stand exposed. We heed it because it embodies a perfection or superiority we cannot match. We may want to change our lives. After all,we’ve filled their pages with Varun Gandhi,and the Maoists dominated Day 1. Yet,Rilke’s statue has its head missing. It’s only a torso.

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