Roving thoughts and provocations

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India After English?

Piyal Adhikary/epa/Corbis
A man reading a Bengali newspaper with a story about Narendra Modi, Calcutta, India, May 17, 2014

In the days since the decisive victory of Narendra Modi and his conservative Bharatiya Janata Party in India’s national election, many Indian commentators have perceived a turning point in Indian politics. Modi’s critics sense, in his sweeping mandate, an ominous revival of Hindu nationalism; his supporters maintain that he won because of his robust economic record in Gujarat, where he was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014. Few on either side, though, dispute that Modi’s political rise signals, in part, a rejection by voters of India’s traditional political elite.

Modi is the consummate self-made man; behind him lie a childhood spent helping his father sell tea at a railway station, university degrees earned through part-time courses, and a career spent climbing laboriously up the ladder of state politics in Gujarat. In speech, he rarely departs from Hindi and Gujarati; his English is serviceable but never elegant. During the campaign, a swaggering rival, Mani Shankar Aiyar—an entrenched member of the Congress Party who speaks a plummy, refined English—dismissed Modi as a chaiwallah. But it was Aiyar who lost his parliamentary seat, while Modi went on to become Prime Minister.

Aiyar’s disdain for Modi was part of an attitude that India’s privileged could once comfortably hold: that only the poorly educated, or the provincial-minded, or those from the lower classes preferred to speak an Indian language instead of English. But Modi’s victory has coincided with a surge of confidence in India’s regional languages—one that has played out not only in politics but also in the dramatic shift occurring in India’s newspaper business.

For a couple of decades now, the rise of English-language journalism was assumed to be a natural consequence of India’s steady gains in literacy and rapidly growing middle class, which now includes more than 200 million people. In 1990, India had 209 English dailies; two decades later, the number had increased nearly seven-fold, to 1,406. “If I were young,” The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown told students of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2009, “I would go to India.”

Most recently, though, India’s major newspapers have been expanding in a different direction. In 2012, Bennett Coleman, the publisher of The Times of India, the world’s largest English daily, started a Bengali newspaper and poured fresh resources into its older Hindi and Marathi papers. Last October, the publisher of The Hindu, a 135-year-old English paper, launched a Tamil edition. Another leading English daily, The Hindustan Times, has enlarged the staff and budgets of its Hindi sibling Hindustan. And this past winter, a few months before the election, The Times of India launched NavGujarat Samay, a Gujarati paper for Modi’s home turf.

In nearly every case, the publishers of these new papers aim to be more sophisticated than the existing vernacular press. Editors are asked to court the young and the middle class by covering technology, world news, and business, so that the Ukrainian revolution or the launch of a new iPhone, for example, gets as much serious play as in an English daily. The tone is less partisan, the style less tabloid. These papers are finding exceptionally diverse audiences: youngsters buying their first paper, older adults to whom a paper has never been marketed before, people who are the first readers in their families, and urban subscribers who purchase The Hindu in Tamil or Bennett Coleman’s Bengali paper alongside their regular English daily.

A decade or more ago, the publishers of English newspapers scorned Indian language readers, assuming that, as hundreds of millions more Indians became literate, they would turn automatically into consumers of English papers. But the steady rise in literacy rates—from 64.8 percent of the population in 2001 to 73 percent in 2011—has had unexpected consequences. The new middle class is increasingly found in smaller towns, and prefers to read in its own regional language, rather than English. Meanwhile, major media houses have discovered that English readership is declining or stagnant, and that advertising rates in English papers cannot be pushed much higher. Along with an influx of politicians from non-elite backgrounds and the growing importance of regional and state-level politics, these developments have begun to challenge the assumption that English is the default medium of Indian public life. By putting more energy into regional languages, said Ravi Dhariwal, the chief executive of Bennett Coleman, “We’re just adapting to the way our country is changing.”

English was brought to India by the British—the invisible cargo of their ships—and in hindsight, its durability seems obvious. At the time of India’s creation in 1947, it was home to more than 1,500 languages, and a shared official language was urgently needed. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, had initially wanted this link to be Hindustani, a blend of Hindi and Urdu. But the south Indian states, where people speak a different family of languages, resisted, and in the end, the country turned to English. Nehru, who had studied at Harrow and Cambridge, didn’t object: English was the language of science and progress; without it, he thought, there was the risk of “becoming complacent in our own little world of India.”

Once English was tied to the apparatus of power, the side effects were predictable. An English education became essential for anyone aspiring to advance in society, and the “English-knowing caste” (as Nehru called it) soon dominated the consumer economy. Advertisers showed little interest in Indians who read in other languages, reckoning that they had little money to spend, and media houses, sensing slim potential for profit, neglected their Indian-language dailies. The Hindi paper Hindustan came to be known as lottery-walon ka newspaper, because only lottery firms advertised in its pages. For a while, Bennett Coleman took to replacing the back page of its Hindi daily, the Navbharat Times, with the English front page of the Times of India. It was as if Hindi readers were being told to read an English paper instead.

Of course, there were always readers who preferred the Indian languages—millions and millions of them. How could there not be? Nearly every government-run school still used one of these languages as a medium of instruction, and only a scattering of private schools were teaching in English. Close to 300 million Indians, out of a population of 683 million, were literate in 1981, and most of them were reading in local languages. Yet few of these people were deemed sufficiently affluent to constitute a major newspaper market of their own.

In the early 1990s, however, India began to liberalize its statist economy, and over the course of the following decade, vast numbers of Indians were lifted out of poverty. The divide between India’s rural and urban populations does not precisely match the divide between English- and Indian-language readers, since the cities are filled with people who cannot read English. But it is revelatory that by 2009, rural Indians were spending money faster than urban Indians—and spending money not on food but on TVs, motorcycles, and mobile phones. The best way to reach these new consumers was through Indian language newspapers. “Earlier, 75 or 80 percent of the advertising money was devoted to English newspapers,” Dhariwal told me. “Now it’s reduced to maybe fifty-fifty, and it’s swinging further in the direction of regional languages.” (In fact, by 2012, according to a KPMG India analysis, the split was already closer to 40-60, in favor of the language press.)

Even the recent spike in India’s literacy rate owes largely to gains made outside the cities. Over the decade from 2001 to 2011, the urban literacy rate rose by 4.2 percent, less than half of the 9.1 percent improvement in rural areas. (Those numbers are even more striking when one considers that 833 million people, out of a population of 1.2 billion, live in rural India.) Moreover, contrary to the expectations of the 1980s and 1990s, the rise in literacy was not matched by a rise in English language use. A 2005 survey found that only 3.8 percent of Indians between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five can converse in English with some fluency; another 16.2 percent speak it in a fractured, uncertain manner.

This doesn’t yet mean that the status of English as the national elite language is under threat. “The aspirational aspect of English is still there in India, in that people still think that if you know English, your life is set,” said P.N. Vasanti, the director of the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi. “But I think the myth has been broken that only English, and English alone, can earn you an assured future.” As Modi’s rise makes clear, this shift has left a deep imprint upon India’s political class. Beginning in the 1990s, prime ministers from outside the Congress briefly came to power, and they spoke better Hindi or Kannada than English. “There were local leaders, state chief ministers like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav, who won elections by speaking the only language they knew: Hindi,” said Mrinal Pande, once the editor of the Hindi daily Hindustan. She was surprised that others were surprised by this turn of events. “Anybody could see that these guys—Mulayam, Laloo—were the leaders of the future. It showed how we had gotten our own democracy so twisted around.”

It was the same with newspapers, she said. Pande would travel through the state of Bihar and discover people with a voracious appetite for news, but few decent newspapers were reaching them; in 2010, rural Bihar had a literacy rate of almost 60 percent, yet only 4 percent of households were spending any money on newspapers. “There’d be some local rag of a paper, maybe, and among the bigger Hindi titles, there would be one copy being shared between a dozen people.” Now every household can afford, and wants, a newspaper for itself. “So every paper that wants to make it big now has to be in these areas—just as every politician has to be.”

Modi, it is true, dominated the country’s newspapers like no other leader during the recent election; his party was also able to secure an outright majority in parliament by itself, the first time this has happened since 1984. But this may be an exceptional moment in Indian politics. We can read into these various phenomena—India’s new middle class, the rise of state-level parties and their burgeoning influence in federal coalition governments, and the rapid growth of Indian language newspapers—a continued strengthening of regional identities. Future prime ministers may struggle to replicate the sort of muscular countrywide support that Modi was able to earn. But Modi will not be the last prime minister to be more at ease with an Indian language than with English.

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