Echo chamber of governance

There must be receptivity to positive as well as negative feedback

Echo chamber of governance

TRANSPARENCY: Governance is a matter of trust between citizens and their governments and trust can only be based on the truth. - File photo

Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

FOR any modern government, strategic communication is the key to ensuring that it is able to convey to citizens its policies, the rationale behind them, create public awareness about the issues and mobilise public opinion behind the intended policies. Strategic communication is not a one-way street. The government machinery must have the capacity to receive feedback on public reaction to its policies, monitor implementation and make changes as may be required. Strategic communication is a continuous information loop in which the government and the citizens it serves are in constant and active conversation with one another. This is particularly important in a democracy where governments are accountable to the people and serve their interests. In some ways the Modi government, and in particular the PM himself, have been effective communicators, able to establish a direct and even emotional connect with a large number of ordinary citizens. In launching campaigns such as Swachh Bharat or Ujjwal Bharat, effective messaging has contributed to their relative success. But this messaging is mostly one way. Less attention is given to feedback from citizens, particularly if it is negative. For improved governance, there must be receptivity to positive and negative feedback. Highlighting only the positive and suppressing the negative will, over time, create an echo chamber within which an alternative reality begins to rule.

If the role of professionals is only to validate the preference of the political leadership, we shall run into a dead end.

In a democracy like India, independent civil society, media and academia and an openness to dissent and debate ensures that there is credible and timely feedback on government policies and their implementation. The government may claim that it has its own feedback mechanisms. Even the political party machinery at different levels may perform this role. However, those within the government are unlikely to acknowledge their own shortcomings or convey negative news to the political leadership for fear of being put in the dock. When things go wrong, bureaucrats become the favourite whipping boys and we saw that happen recently. Party functionaries, including senior ministers, may not wish to convey messages they believe may alienate the leadership, particularly if the top leader is seen as a powerful figure who could make or break political careers. It is for these reasons that democracies have other influential constituencies which can contribute to a more comprehensive and balanced critique of governmental actions.

An independent media has a critical role to play, as is political opposition and a well informed and equally independent academia. The advantage with such democratic institutions, which are empowered and safeguarded constitutionally, is that the whole range of citizens’ feedback is constantly available to the government which can then make timely revisions. Keeping such channels of feedback not only open, but also receptive to the opinions and insights that they feed back to the government can improve governance. This must not be viewed as a constraint on the government nor should there be an overly sensitive reaction to any criticism. Public opinion, as expressed through a free media and expert opinions from credible professionals in their respective fields, can only help the government in delivering benefits to the populace. If the role of professionals is only to validate what the political leadership’s preference is, then sooner or later, we shall run into a dead end. These sources of feedback also serve as an early warning system alerting the government to public resentment against its policies which are best addressed before they become crises. We have a good example of consequences of the failure to do this in the ongoing farmers’ agitation.

Governments have tremendous patronage to hand out and there is always the temptation to leverage that into positive coverage for preferred policies or to camouflage their shortcomings or failures. This is self-defeating. Governance is a matter of trust between citizens and their governments and trust can only be based on the truth. This is also important in foreign relations. The most valuable asset a diplomat has is the credibility he enjoys with his interlocutors and such credibility reflects that of the country he represents. Having successfully deceived someone or gained advantage by being economical with the truth may work sometimes, but eventually undermines national interests.

It is in this context that one views with concern some recent trends in our country. A significant section of Indian media, which has a justifiable reputation of being professional, fiercely independent and investigative, has yielded to the fruits of governmental patronage or the fears of being targeted. Others remain immune and we must be thankful for the role that they are playing. Recent reports that the government may consider branding journalists as white, green and black, signifying pro, neutral or anti-government, and more ominously, seek to ‘neutralise’ the black category, are disturbing; as are some of the elements in the proposed regulation of OTT platforms and digital media. These provide the government with a wide scope of discretionary power to prevent the carrying of content that the government considers inconvenient. This is short-sighted because the shoe may be on the other foot if there is a political turnaround in future, as there well might be.

There are several new compliance requirements being imposed on independent think tanks and research institutions. They are discouraged from working together with international counterparts. This can only lead to intellectual impoverishment of a country we want to be seen as a ‘vishwaguru’.

The great strength of India is its capacity to manage immense diversity. The very plurality of its society brings opportunities for intense debate, argumentation and the airing of an incredible spectrum of views and perspectives. This is the source of creativity, innovative spirit and adaptability of our people. Putting a monochromatic frame over this plurality has not succeeded in the past, and is unlikely to in the future.

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