Thursday, October 23, 2014

From a Professor to a Showman :: Kishen Pattnayak on Prannoy Roy


(March, 1994)

Kishen Pattnayak (1930-2004) was a socialist thinker and writer. He had been a member of the Indian parliament from Orissa. Pattanayak was the founding editor of a Hindi monthly periodical called 'Samayik Varta'. In this Hindi essay 'Professor Se Tamashgeer' published in March, 1994, he understands Prannoy Roy as representative of a new class of intellectuals which came into being precisely with the changing economic policies of the Indian government in the early '90s.

Tr. from original Hindi by Akhil Katyal

Those who do not know English in this country might not know Prannoy Roy. But knowing him is important because Prannoy Roy represents a new social phenomenon. Prannoy Roy’s fame has been sealed by the program “The World This Week” running every Friday on Doordarshan. Not unlike a magician putting on a show, it has lately become quite an art for Doordarshan to concentrate the attentions of the TV viewers and keep them spellbound with only select news and statements on the channel. Pritish Nandy’s show and Prannoy Roy’s weekly program etc. are prime examples of this art.

Among the country’s intellectuals, such folks must surely be rare, who apart from being immensely intelligent, can also put on a circus-show in the middle of a street. Television professionals are always on a hunt for such gifted intellectuals. Through them, the TV business gets some intellectual prestige, making it reputable to carry on showing several dreadful and obscene things.

When he became popular among TV viewers with his Friday’s “The World This Week”, Prannoy Roy was then given the responsibility of relaying information about the government’s economic policies.  The use of Doordarshan for the new economic policy had started from the last year’s budget, and this year, its duration and money spent has been considerably increased (possibly, a foreign company is giving money for this). On the evening of February 28th of 1994, the budget speech of the Finance minister in the Parliament was directly broadcast. Because of the complexity of the language, very few people understand the details of the budget; most just wait for others to explain it to them.  Those who know English and want to explain the budget to the others after understanding it themselves, such opinion makers – businessmen, professors, writers, journalists, political leaders etc. are all excited to hear the explanation of the budget. These kind must be around 2 lakh who share their say with about fifty lakh to one crore educated people. These folks were all in their homes on the evening of February 28th, glued to their television sets from 7pm to 10pm. This time the budget commentary went on in two installments for one and half hours and for one hour, the Finance minister himself, Manmohan Singh, sat next to Prannoy Roy and kept answering the questions. The animated questions were pouring in – from London, Hong Kong and New York; from Mumbai, Calcutta and Bangalore. It is estimated that Prannoy Roy got around ten lakhs rupees for this ‘show’.

Before his services began at Doordarshan, Prannoy Roy was a professor at a famous study and research centre for Economics in Delhi (the professors in Delhi get paid quite handsomely). From received information, not only was he a good scholar but he was also closely connected to a progressive line of thinking, and you could see this inclination for progressivism clearly reflected in his essays. Leaving the world of study, practice and research, Prannoy Roy became the program producer for Doordarshan.  As a social phenomenon, the significance of this step lies in the fact that a progressive intellectual of an acute mind, despite his middle-class standard of living being fairly exalted, felt no hesitation to leave his activity of study and research, and for earning a lot of fame and money (thus for a prevailing, licit purpose) he, quite happily, became a showman (the Marathi word is ‘tamashgeer’) on Doordarshan.

On 28th February this budget broadcast was shown very skillfully. Sitting next to a famous business-magazine editor, and through a discussion with him on the matter, Prannoy Roy laid down the highlights of the budget. It was evident that the purpose of this initial conversation was to decide on the main points of the budget-related discussion, and each of these points was bookmarked through the criteria of liberalization. Precisely those four to five points which had been underlined by Prannoy Roy, were the ones which were being confirmed for the rest of the budget-program. The excessive deficit in the budget, substantial concession in customs, the before-time repayment of the International Monetary Fund loan, etc. were these main things. All of the discussion was concentrated on these three to four issues. When it was the turn of the metropolitan businessmen, even they politely made these points. News came from the Bombay share bazaar that it is declining. But why? Because the businessmen had expected an “even better” budget. But this was no particular problem. Overall the budget was moving in the ‘right direction’. The share market will resume its speed in a few days. The Finance minister, in an answer to one of the questions, even stated that everything would not happen ‘overnight’.

When almost all the time of the budget-program had gone in a discussion with the international and metropolitan businessmen, then Prannoy Roy (or Doordarshan) remembered that conversations with some common folks, like farmers, women, youth and consumer citizens, should also be shown, or the budget-program might seem incomplete.

In the beginning they reported the responses of some business-organizations from the Indian metropolitan cities. But then when the Finance minister came in, then for talking with him, for asking him questions, Doordarshan’s door was opened to the world and the budget was effectively globalized. Even before a summary of the budget could be presented to the people of the country (as in, through the medium of different Indian languages to Indian cities and towns), the businessmen in the capitals of the rich nations were shown discussing it, to see how much they like it, to see what faults they find with it, and all this was being done in front of our own Finance minister. The foreign businessmen sitting in London, Washington and Hong Kong thanked Manmohan Singh for fulfilling his promise of reducing customs, going on to ask then and there as to why such a large deficit has been kept. Why weren’t the continuing state subsidies put to an end? Won’t the enthusiasm of the foreign businesses take a hit because of the instability of value as a consequence of the deficit? What else does it mean for the Finance minister of our country to sit answering such questions of the foreign businessmen in front of the whole world except that our budget has to somehow be fully answerable to the businessmen of the rich nations? This was the review of the budget through the definite criterion of liberalization. One farmer was shown who was old and was wearing a suit in the foreign style. There was no grammatical mistake in his spoken English and his pronunciation too was brilliant. This was the Doordarshan image of the farmer of the new economic policy. He just asked one question and fell silent after Manmohan Singh’s answer. When there were barely a couple of minutes left for the program to end, then some folks were quickly shown sitting in an office in Bangalore (after all some common men and consumers had to be shown). One unemployed youth, who was to ask about unemployment as someone having known it, had barely taken the name of unemployment when he went onto ask about whether the investors would lose their enthusiasm seeing the deficit of this budget and what this would mean about increasing employment in the country. This made it clear that the questioner was no unemployed youth, instead he was a young businessman (as was also indicated by his clothes and face). In the last one or two seconds, one woman asked a question related to the consumers and was satisfied after hearing the answer of the Finance minister. By showing her both as a woman and a consumer, Prannoy Roy would have thought that he has connected the whole society to the budget and that the response of every class has been taken.

Just like the editor of the ‘India Today’ cites conversations with a few metropolitan students and on this basis makes special conclusions about the whole youth of the country and tries to popularize a special image of this youth, Doordarshan’s Prannoy Roy makes a similar effort. Conversations are shown with businessmen from London, New York, Hong Kong and Mumbai to speak of the merits and demerits of the budget. The budget, which carries all the money of the Indian government (including its debt), does it have meaning only for these kind of people? First, the businessmen from America and Hong Kong, and then, secondarily, from business organizations and share bazaar from Mumbai and Calcutta, on the third level, some suited-booted landlords and on the fourth level, to some extent the well-to-do middle classes of the metropolitan cities. All other people and communities are absolutely irrelevant to the budget. This is the message of Prannoy Roy.

Why have the country’s poor and masses become irrelevant for Prannoy Roy? We can get to the answer of this question if we consider Prannoy Roy to be representative of a rise of a new class of intellectuals, whose affinity to the public has ended. Here we should try to see Prannoy Roy not as a person but as a social phenomenon, because Prannoy Roy’s role is no individual accident. It has permeated around us a lot. One middle-class, gifted intellectual, whose inclination was towards progressivism in his youth, was a Professor at a reputed educational institute in Delhi. He got a good amount as his salary and was financially secure. Because of his progressive leaning, he felt a connection with the common masses. Around four to five years back, an advertisement-driven culture makes its entry through the medium of television. The economic policies of the country start changing so fast that one middle-class, highly educated, intelligent, progressively inclined young intellectual now sees the possibility of not being middle-class anymore and earn up to twenty-five to thirty lakhs a year. This combination of the television media and the new economic policies presents before him an attraction of promoting himself and earning plenty of wealth. He is taken in by this, and both money’s charm and the spectacle of the modern media dominate him. His social affinities are left by the wayside. Crores of common men in India become irrelevant for him. Multinational companies make a beeline for paying him a lot and making use of his brilliance. They are cautious to not let him know that he is saleable goods for them, which is why he is put to such jobs where he is under the impression that he is miraculously engaged in intellectual work. So that he happily sells himself, it is important that his work has an intellectual image and that he can develop a self-image whereby he thinks he is galvanizing the nation’s progress. For Prannoy Roy to bring progress to the nation in this way, it is imperative that crores of common people in India should be considered irrelevant while thinking about the nation.

Tikait is not very far from Delhi. Two hours after the budget-speech when Manmohan Singh came on TV, then the farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait could have been called. Prannoy Roy is Bengali. Maybe a middle-class housewife from Calcutta or Jalpaygudi, who has the facility of a telephone, could have been spoken to directly by Doordarshan, she could have been told how much deficit there is in the budget, and that this much deficit can only mean a mark-up in terms of value. But Prannoy Roy did not have the freedom to speak of the budget within the terms of a rise in value. The deficit was talked of a lot; all the businessmen from London, New York and Hong Kong had raised the issue of the deficit. From the perspective of the common man, this large deficit can only mean an increase in prices, but this solid aspect never came up in the discussion. Economic uncertainties that will be caused by the deficit, and the fear that this will create among foreign investors, only these worries were expressed in relation to the deficit. Using the word ‘uncertainty’ for describing the consequence of the deficit effectively hid the problem of the increase in prices for the common man because for Prannoy Roy, the centre of his commentary on the budget was occupied by the interests of the foreign investors, which was the guiding criterion.

The combination of the new economic policy and the modern communication media has led to the rise of a new class of intellectuals. In the first leg of this rise, are the metropolitan intellectuals who in a bid to make themselves a part of the advertisement have become ready to make crores of common men irrelevant.

Kishen Pattnayak (1930-2004)