By Nikhil Kumar
In a place like India, the government plays a pivotal role and affects nearly every aspect of peoples’ lives. That the government enjoys and exercises considerable influence was evident a few weeks ago when the Prime Minister announced that the old 500 and 1000 rupee notes will no longer be legal tender.
This decision-making should be made a matter of public debate. But, in the world of today, there is little dialogue. Instead, we have polls on government websites to show public support for the issue. PM Modi’s website recently released a statement stating that 93% people support demonetisation which seems quite contrary to reality. Sadly, that is what symbolises public engagement. Does the government take public confidence into account when implementing such policies?
One way transmission
It has been characteristic of successive governments throughout Indian history to not listen to people. They have adopted a paternal know-it-all approach to politics and policies. They listen sporadically, poorly at best, or sometimes, not at all. It is as if the public, who were sensible enough to elect them into office, have suddenly turned into know-nothings.
If listening is done poorly or not at all, by the very organisations meant to serve and represent us, how can we achieve democracy?
Today, and with past Indian governments, communication has always been about transmission, not transaction. This is why the media is left to speculate or build off from ‘unknown sources’ most of the time. This has been shaped by many systemic and institutional factors including culture, policy, technology and indeed, human nature.
Even the public disclosures that should be willingly made under the RTI Act are elusive. Most of the government efforts and budgetary allocations are directed to distributing its messages, a euphemism for one way transmission. This involves advertisements, public relation campaigns, and websites with a brutally labyrinthine architecture. What is left amiss is the long lost art of listening.
The alleged emphasis of governments on two-way communication through electronic means is often represented as a way of conversational, transparent and open public engagement. Nothing could be further from reality. If you contact a government agency, however important, there is a very high probability of no future correspondence.
Whatever little listening happens is plagued with confirmation bias, i.e. surveys and public consultation are mostly intended to indicate a public acceptance of policies by targeting favourable chunks of the population. The public consultations that are held on draft bills are heavily bureaucratised. It mostly attracts the response of civil society organisations, think tanks and elites. That should not be mistaken for a lack of general public interest in the issue.
Most people find these formal submissions futile due to the vast history of never having been heard. Submissions are seldom acknowledged by the government which undermines trust. Reports on the basis of these public submissions are not released in acknowledgement of the process of consultation. We are just expected to blindly believe in the benevolent intentions of the government. Lack of data sharing with the public is another shortcoming.
Furthermore, the disproportionate emphasis on quantitative research like polling as a method to gauge public mood is also a mistake. Qualitative research such as independent public consultations in digital as well offline forums can be a good source of data.
Even social media, which could have been a means of seamless communication, is mainly used to distribute messages to an intended audience. Still, some departments are using this platform.
The relatively high correspondence rate of the official Twitter/Facebook pages of the Indian Railways and the Ministry of External Affairs shows that identifying and responding to public issues can be a very effortless way of creating goodwill among people.
The importance of listening
Listening is essential in a democracy as people have a right to be heard by their representatives. That is what legitimises democracy in the public eye. The functioning of a stable society is impossible without a means of free-flowing two-way communication. However, in today’s political climate, listening is in short supply.
To be sure, listening – pretence and token, listening excluded – is not to be taken as a wishful panacea of all maladies. Instead, it is a means of recognition, acknowledgement and consideration of the opinions of others. To expect a political agreement to result from this would be disingenuous. But governments have to move away from informing, disseminating and distributing to listening, learning and adapting.
The need to restore trust
The most important malady of Indian democracy is the lack of open local communities and governments. We desperately need inclusive spaces in which people can think in mutually beneficial ways. Field visits by government officials to meet people can be a good way to start the process.
Political decisions right from voting to life-changing decisions taken at the helm of democratic institutions have deprived themselves of listening to the grievances of others. It has rendered the public emotion susceptible to radical inclinations.
Declining trust in government institutions and a drop in democratic participation is a wake-up call for all of us. There is a need to resuscitate democracy through the old ways of engagement. This will reduce information asymmetry. The governments need to talk. But they also need to listen before they start talking.
The government has, by its very existence, a purpose in listening to the stakeholders, that is, the people. Until it does so, it will remain a mysterious body, which everyone knows, but, which knows little about its people.
Featured Image Credits: The Huffington Post