We need a Hindi version of Citizen Kane. The time is right for it. The Indian newspaper industry throbs with the buccaneer capitalism, Himalayan egos and desperate politics of New York in the 1890s. India is transforming itself, and the print revolution — and especially the daily newspaper revolution — of the past twenty years is helping to propel that transformation. ‘A million mutinies now’ was the best thing about V. S. Naipaul’s book of that title. Millions of mutinies are, indeed, going on, and the fact that people now read about them in their newspapers, and read about themselves in their newspapers, helps to explain the mutinous environment.
What is the ‘newspaper revolution’ and what is it doing to India? Imagine the morning scene twenty-seven years ago (1976) at a cosmic, all-India bus stand peopled by characters from an R.K. Laxman cartoon. Around each daily newspaper available from the hawkers, fifty people would be jostling to get a glimpse.
Now, think of the same bus stand in 2001. The population has grown by 400 million. Where there were ten people for every square metre of bus stand in 1976, there are now sixteen. Nevertheless, the crowds around the newspapers have thinned out considerably; there’s now a newspaper for every seventeen people. The Common Man and Common Woman stand a chance at least of reading the headlines. They are also more likely to be able to read — 65 out of every 100 in 2001; only 35 out of 100 in 1976.
If you were an aggressive newspaper proprietor, you would also be proclaiming to anyone who would listen that your paper was known to have six readers for every single copy printed. At that rate, you could argue, India in 2001 had virtual newspaper saturation. (You wouldn’t be right, but you could argue it!)
In the early years of the twenty-first century, daily newspaper circulation in India’s thirteen major languages stood at about 58 million copies a day and had more than doubled in ten years. The transformation — the rapid, new availability of daily print —is stunning. In languages like Hindi, it is reaching a par with New York City in the 1890s when Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst and two dozen dailies fought for the eyes and the pennies of millions of people newly exposed to reading and to print. Since the early 1990s, circulation in Hindi has more than trebled from under eight million copies a day to more than 25 million. And Hindi is not the biggest grower. That distinction belongs to Assamese, where circulation appears to have grown from 45,000 to 320,000 (though the circumstances of the statistics for Assam are special). Telugu, however, where the statistics are less clouded, has gone from 360,000 dailies a day to 1,700,000.
Anyone familiar with the Indian newspaper industry will begin to put faces and personalities to these references to Hindi and Telugu expansion. Mention Telugu newspapers and one thinks of Eenadu and Ramoji Rao. Eenadu is the dominant daily for more than seventy million Telugus (more people than live in France).
Started in 1974 on an ancient flatbed press in Vishakhapatnam (which had a population of about 200,000 then) with a print run of 4,000 copies, Eenadu in 2003 publishes from twenty-three centres and has an audited circulation of more than 900,000 copies a day. As rivals have given up trying to compete commercially, Eenadu controls — temporarily, at least — more than ninety per cent of the daily circulation in Telugu, validated by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). Such validation is important because it brings the mass-market advertising that shapes newspaper industries in expanding capitalist systems.
The Eenadu story has the ingredients for an Orson Welles film, or perhaps, with the legendary pickle factory, an Arundhati Roy novel. Andhrans, after all, like to recount that one of the sources of the wealth that allowed Ramoji Rao to start Eenadu was a pickle factory. But it is the Hindi press that the film needs to be made about, because the battles being fought there are so unpredictable, so intense and so formative of India’s political future that they have a truly epic quality.
Look at the players. There was a time, only fifteen years ago, when if you talked about Hindi newspapers, you were at once referred to Navbharat Times, the poor ‘vernacular’ relation of the Times of India. When Punjab Kesari, a cheeky, down-market paper from provincial Jalandhar (not just provincial, but Punjabi too!), began outselling the NBT in the mid-1980s, the event passed almost unnoticed, such was the lack of interest in the goings-on of the ‘vernacular press’, even among politicians who may sometimes have had better sense.
At that very time, for example, Rajiv Gandhi’s government supported a venture called India Speaks, an attempt to digest and report on Indian-language newspapers around the country. India Speaks had the aroma of a British institution, the Vernacular (or Native) Newspaper Reports, begun in the late 1860s to try to keep tabs on what was going on in the bazaar.
By the time the Narasimha Rao government came to power in 1991, there was a growing awareness, even in Delhi, of a fact that state politicians, especially in the south, had known for a long time: the Indian-language press had readers and influence. With his remarkable command over languages, Narasimha Rao seems to have been among the first to pay serious, regular attention to Hindi owners and editors. In 1993, the Delhi editor of Punjab Kesari expressed delight that the Prime Minister had begun to consult him. "He [the PM] was trying to convince me!" the editor said. "The politicians never used to do this sort of thing with Hindi editors."
Today, it would be a foolish politician who did not keep the owners and editors of Hindi newspapers flattered and informed. Consider the state of Rajasthan in the past 10 years, and the saga of Dainik Bhaskar. In 2002, Bhaskar (founded in 1958 and based in Bhopal) was the highest circulated Hindi daily in India. It sold 1.4 million copies a day and was published from more than a dozen centres. At the census of 2001, Rajasthan boasted the greatest increase in literates of all the Indian states. In 1991, there had been 13.6 million literates or about 39 per cent of Rajasthanis over the age of seven. In 2001, there were 28.1 million, a doubling of the number of literates in ten years. If you were a newspaper proprietor, this meant an addition of 14 million potential customers. In what other business did the market grow so fast? The proportion of literate Rajasthanis rose from 39 per cent in 1991 to 61 per cent in 2001.
We can, of course, always dispute the figures. Critics regularly contend that much of the census data is unreliable. It is collected, they say, by lazy, harried officials who fill out forms to keep their superiors happy but without troubling to interview the intended respondents. The Dainik Bhaskar story, however, lends credence to the census results for Rajasthan. Unlike census officials, newspaper proprietors have a keen interest in counting the newspapers and the takings.
In 1996, Bhaskar announced it was starting a Jaipur edition. It was intending, said one of the owners, not so much to capture readers from other papers but to sell to new readers. This sounded like a big gamble. By most measures, Rajasthan was ‘backward’ and spread out. "Who will read it?" said one wit, reflecting the stereotypes about Rajasthan. "The camels in Jodhpur?"
Jaipur already had a well-run local Hindi daily in Rajasthan Patrika of the Kothari family, which had its own rags-to-riches story and felt confident enough to have a dispute, and a break, with the Audit Bureau in 1995. When Rajasthan Patrika left the ABC, it was selling 365,000 copies from its single centre in Jaipur. When Bhaskar brought its five editions into the ABC system in 1997, they altogether sold only 350,000 copies a day.
The change was remarkable. By 2002, Bhaskar was the leading Hindi daily, not just in Rajasthan but in India. Its 1.4 million copies a day were published in six states from 20 centres. Rajasthan Patrika rejoined the ABC in 1999 and was selling 605,000 copies from 10 centres.
Bhaskar’s Jaipur experience was written up as a case study for business and marketing courses as an example of what thorough market research and sustained implementation could achieve. But if the example was important for its commercial lessons, its social implications were even greater. As Patrika and Bhaskar confronted each other around the state, daily newspaper penetration in Rajasthan trebled. Between 1991 and 2000, the crowd around each daily newspaper at the imaginary Rajasthan bus stand dropped, as did India’s, from fifty people to about seventeen.
Did the competition between the two newspapers — and other Hindi dailies are also in the race — make people literate? I don’t think so. More likely, newspapers began to discern that literacy was growing as a result of greater prosperity, educational programmes and the spread of television.
Television? Yes. There’s a persuasive argument that television exposure encourages people to learn to read and write. With its tantalising, six-second grabs, television introduces people to topics and stories they’ve never encountered before. But television rarely provides background or puts things into context. People look for newspapers to do that the next day. At one stage in the early 1990s, some Indian-language newspapers added readers by publishing local-language summaries of Hindi epics on Doordarshan, the State-run television network.
Television also spreads the snob value of literacy. In villages, to see people reading was once unusual. On TV, on the other hand, the rich and powerful are always picking up and putting down pieces of paper of one kind or another. "The newspaper is seen as a status symbol," wrote the American scholar, Kirk Johnson, of a village in Maharashtra in the 1990s. It is "reserved for those with a greater education; people who receive the newspaper are thought of as intelligent and are sought for advice in important matters."
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Robin jeffrey is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and President, Asian Studies Association of Australia. His book 'India's Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian-Language Press' (2000) will be republished by OUP later this year