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Dissent and democracy

Within a government, ministers are expected to convey opinions on policy proposals. A second channel is through public representatives (the members of Parliament).

Written by Rahul Khullar | Updated: November 23, 2015 12:00:46 am
 Sadly, it seems that both these channels are choked today. Illustrations: C R Sasikumar Sadly, it seems that both these channels are choked today. Illustrations: C R Sasikumar

Open channels of communication are vital for democracy and governance. Clogged channels and garbled information flows cause incalculable harm both to the governed and those who govern. This is even more true when political and executive powers are centralised. The natural question is: How are these channels working in India?

Within a government, ministers are expected to convey opinions on policy proposals. A second channel is through public representatives (the members of Parliament). These are the two pipelines through which feedback is relayed to the top.

For ministers, there are institutional forums like cabinet meetings to express their views, while political parties devise ways for their MPs to share opinions and on-the-ground assessments. Sadly, it seems that both these channels are choked today.

A combination of post-election euphoria, adulation and sheer dread seem to have blocked these channels. The sense that big brother is watching has not helped. With a few notable exceptions, ministers are hesitant to express their views, and with good reason. They look to the prime minister or the prime minister’s office for guidance on how to run their ministries.

The situation is no better at the level of the MPs. Anecdotes abound that many MPs speak in hushed tones about how even their own government does not appear to have the time, patience or inclination to hear them. Some are reluctant to talk to others about this. As political animals, craven submission is a survival strategy that dominates candour. Silence and acquiescence are rational responses. The upshot: Executive complacency.

The PM’s visceral dislike of the media (both print and electronic) resulted in a deliberate move to shut it out. The underlying presumption: We can get on fine without them. Effective gag orders were put in place for ministers, MPs and senior civil servants. This strategy proved problematic. Blocking the flow of information led to speculation, inaccurate scoops and, at times, uninformed criticism. The customary news routine — coverage of the government’s activities, ministerial statements followed by some antics — contracted. This led to a space and time vacuum. Into that entered so-called negative news and, on occasions, overblown accounts of the government’s not-so-noble intentions and indiscretions of the ruling party’s MPs.

The government found itself in the news for all the wrong reasons. For example, statements by motormouth ministers and the ruling party’s loony fringe. This was essentially the fallout of the government’s inability to communicate its own achievements, efforts and points of view. The strategy unravelled.

The appointment of a new information and broadcasting minister and other ministers as public spokespersons signalled a much-needed course correction. There was a realisation that engagement with the media was unavoidable (read desirable) to improve public awareness, counter negative news and buff up the government’s image. As such, there has been a slight improvement in government-media relations. Yet, mutual suspicion still abounds. Even now, only a select few ministers interact with the press and, according to several journalists, when faced with uncomfortable questions, the spokespersons resort to denial or deception, or arrogant and summary dismissals of the problem.

A third channel of communication is the interaction with constituents. The vast rural population, for instance, has a limited voice. There are no institutional forums for raising their concerns. As such, they depend on MPs to carry the message. But even this channel is constricted. Moreover, the rural voice is not necessarily united. Hence, for these groups, it is the media, academics and other advocacy groups that must point to problems, convey perspectives and suggest solutions. But most such assessments are simply disregarded, especially when they are critical of the government.

One group that does have an institutional forum for representation is industry. And supposedly, it is the favoured child. However, here too, the voice is deeply suppressed. Consider the recent meeting of the prime minister with industry leaders. What actually transpires during the meeting, what the industry leaders say to the press, and what they really believe are three entirely different things. And this is true of many such meetings over the past five years. Captains of industry rarely speak their minds. Perhaps silence is the perfectly rational response. Why? Because those brave enough to comment on merely the pace of reform are excluded from the charmed circle.

What message does that send to others? People still vividly recall the experience of 2009-12, when even the mildest criticism of North Block invited visitations from either the police or the taxmen — a dark throwback to George Orwell’s Ministry of Love and Room 101. Moreover, they face the Prisoner’s Dilemma: If they do not speak in unison, the dissenter would be singled out.

The government’s use of social media is laudable. However, relying on social media as the primary mode of communication is fraught with risk because online views are emotional, terse, and often intemperate. There is another communication pipeline within the executive, that is, through the civil service. The initial optimism that top-level civil servants would be given greater authority and freer rein has waned. There have been several setbacks that have resulted in the collapse of morale. There have been peremptory transfers; some of the senior-most secretaries have been given marching orders in all of one day; and there are widespread rumours that they are all under surveillance. Consequently, civil servants have retreated into a shell. When there is no premium on decision-making (except for a favoured few), why bother?

This collective sound of silence does not augur well for the government and, more importantly, for India. If public representatives are unwilling to convey the views of the public, what is the recourse? If ministers and civil servants cease to function effectively, what are they there for? And if the media is restricted from accessing information, how will it advance the public interest? Where dissent is construed as disaffection, where honest disagreement is met with patent disfavour, where discontent is disregarded, and where differences are summarily dismissed, let not that be my country.

The writer is former chairman of Trai

The writer is former chairman of Trai

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