B S Raghavan

Public opinion as a factor of governance

B. S. Raghavan | Updated on January 13, 2013


No opportunity is lost by public figures about India being the largest democracy in the world, but it does not pass the one litmus test of a true, genuine democracy: Respect for public opinion. Indeed, to the contrary, the attitude and conduct of the Central and State Governments in India, over the years, particularly in regard to issues over which people feel strongly, have been suggestive of a contempt for it.

Throughout the spontaneous mass upsurge in 2011 following Anna Hazare’s call for action against the scourge of corruption by legislating for a strong Lokpal, as also during the nation-wide emotional upheaval caused by the gang rape of a defenceless girl in a bus, the many instances of insensitivity to the sentiments of the people held up the UPA Government to universal criticism for being impervious to decencies expected of a civilised dispensation, leaving aside the canons of the larger issue of accountability. Even the imperial British rulers would have flinched at the spine chilling manner in which hordes of police persons descended at midnight on the peacefully sleeping disciples of Baba Ramdev and began wielding their lathis right, left and centre, killing one innocent woman in the process.

The reasons adduced by the Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, and others in authority for not meeting the young protesters in the gang rape case were symptomatic of the arrogance that has become the trade mark of governments.

Unmindful of the widespread indignation and shock, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and the UPA Chairperson and the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, reportedly, became party to the secret arrangements for flying the body of the victim of the gang rape from Singapore to Delhi at dead of night, and rushing it at breakneck speed for a surreptitiously organised cremation over the legitimate protests of the members of the girl’s family. It is hard to believe that a government, with all its might, and ostensibly democratic, should be so afraid of facing the people.

STONEWALLING OF REFORMS

At the slightest pretext, the Government increasingly takes resort to crushing, with all the armoury at its disposal, the legitimate movements of the people resisting its arbitrary ways, instead of reaching out to them.

There is, in general, not only indifference, but intolerance, of all expressions of public anger and resentment against the misdeeds of the Government.

In the larger context, the Government’s stonewalling of reforms in the electoral system repeatedly urged upon it by successive Chief Election Commissioners is yet another indication of the same malignant virus that has affected governance.

It has been turning a deaf ear to the insistent demand from all sections of opinion in the country for banning the nomination as candidates for election, and continuance as elected members, of persons accused of heinous crimes, against whom Courts have framed charges after application of their minds.

All this makes one wonder whether those, who would not be in positions of power but for the sufferance of the people at large, keep themselves abreast, or are made aware, of public opinion on issues that are an integral part of governance.

NO PUBLIC OPINION SURVEYS

Is there any systematic effort made by the media advisors of the various ministries and departments at the Centre and the States to sensitise their bosses to the prevailing currents and cross-currents of opinions as contained in the media?

The only procedure I have known to exist is for the staff of the media advisors to place before levels of Joint Secretary and above a clutch of clippings of editorials, commentaries and news reports pertaining to the responsibilities allocated to the Ministry/Department, but only from prominent national dailies and not from the publications at the grassroots.

Unlike in other democracies, there are no regular scientific and well-conducted surveys of public opinion in India and dissemination of the findings, on subjects bearing on accountability and governance.

Eric P. W. Da Costa’s Indian Institute of Public Opinion was at one time performing a yeoman service in keeping the governments on their toes, but it is now languishing, if it exists (of which I see no evidence).

In this light, I call upon the Press Institute of India and International Press Institute to take up the vital question of public opinion as a factor of governance as they are the only institutions suited for the purpose.

Published on January 13, 2013

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