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It's Rush Limbaugh's India

A liberal guru can't compete with India's new televangelists.

Swami Agnivesh
Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu human rights activist from India, speaks at a news conference in Stockholm, Dec. 8, 2004. Hard-pressed to make it among India's right-wing televangelists, Agnivesh's liberal television show was just canceled. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — Dressed in a long, orange kurta, orange pajamas and a bright orange turban, Swami Agnivesh looks every bit the haranguing fanatic.

But India's latest televangelist is cut from a different cloth. In a forest of Rush Limbaugh-style conservatives, Agnivesh is the sole voice of India's fast-fading social liberalism on TV. Or was. The crusader has just been canceled.

"From March 1968 till today I've been deeply involved with the struggle of the people, with the main focus on issues of social justice," Agnivesh said. "I felt that in order to consolidate an ideological perspective around these movements, struggles, agitations, which are all directed towards social change, I need a platform by which I can reach millions of viewers and engage them in discussion, debate and dialogue."

At 74 years old, Agnivesh speaks with a quiet, measured voice. As the president of the World Council of Arya Samaj — an affiliate of the Hindu reform movement that was founded in the 19th century to eradicate the caste system — his "sermons" are as much about politics as they are about religion.

Frustrated with religious leaders' opaque platitudes and increasingly commercial bent, not to mention the news channels' preference for shouting matches featuring the same old rogue gallery of party hacks, he set out to open substantive debates about the causes underlying caste discrimination, illiteracy, poverty, corruption and more. And he did it by passing the microphone to people whose voices had never been heard on Indian TV: including the Dalits who scrape human excrement from primitive toilets for a living, AIDS patients and lepers.

"We got an extensive response, not only through letters and emails," said Agnivesh. "But in my travels throughout the length and breadth of the country, people would walk up to me, shake hands and talk about the latest episode. I could see from their faces that it was impacting the minds of the people."

An ascetic who took monastic orders in 1970, Agnivesh is most famous for his decades-long fight against bonded labor. But he has also crusaded against female feticide, the liquor mafia and sati — a practice in which widows are encouraged, or forced, to immolate themselves on their deceased husbands' funeral pyres. On TV, he adopted the talk show format to send out his message for 52 episodes, playing devil's advocate instead of preaching.

"The strength of this program was that we took up issues that were not being taken up by the mainstream media and demonstrated through this talk show that there is more than one side to the truth," Agnivesh said.

There were some of the usual hijinks, too, of course. He theatrically touched the feet of a Dalit woman on one episode. But what was striking about the show was that he encouraged his underprivileged guests to talk for themselves, rather than banging on for them.

The fact that the government and the Maoists agreed to make him the go-between for peace negotiations in May — until his Maoist interlocutor was killed in controversial circumstances in June — is testament that he came off as fair, reasonable and honest. But fair, reasonable and honest doesn't sell.

Agnivesh's message of social reform cuts against the grain in modernizing India, where the upwardly mobile masses are increasingly looking to conservative leaders to explain their new world. That's why his show first migrated from the state-owned general interest channel, Doordarshan, to Lok Sabha TV — a channel primarily dedicated to the live broadcast of parliament — and was eventually canceled, while his most prominent competitors continue to amass million-dollar television empires.

"[The new conservative evangelism] marries the notion of what the audience feels to be traditional with consumption and individualism," said Santosh Desai, a prominent media analyst and CEO of Future Brands. "It sits really well with the Indian middle class, which is trying to make sense of the world around them. It assuages a lot of anxiety about change, by giving it a sort of spiritual sanctity."