In a complex society like India, government plays a pivotal role and affects nearly all aspects of people’s lives. That the government enjoys and exercises considerable influence on our lives was evident a few weeks ago when our Prime Minister announced that the old ₹500 and ₹1000 notes would no longer have legal tender.
How these far-fetched decisions are made should indeed be a matter of public debate. PM Modi’s website released a statement stating that over 93% people support demonetisation, which seemed highly ambiguous, quite contrary to reality. Sadly, that is what symbolises our public engagement. Does the government take public confidence into account when implementing such policies?
What has been the characteristic malaise of successive governments throughout Indian history is their propensity 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 to the public as if the very people who presumably were sensible enough to elect them into office have suddenly turned into people who know nothing.
Do those meant to serve us actually listen to us? If listening is done poorly or not at all, by the very organisations meant to serve and represent us, how well do we achieve democracy, if at all? How does a government listen to hundreds of thousands of people, even millions or billions?
In the present, as was the case with the past Indian governments, communication has always been about transmission, not transaction. That too concentrated in the hands of a few individuals while the media is left to speculations of ‘unknown sources’ most of the time. This has been shaped by many systemic and institutional factors including culture, policy, structure, technology and indeed humans.
Even the public disclosures that should be willingly made under the RTI Act are elusive. A large part of the government efforts and budgetary allocations are directed to distributing its messages, a euphemism for one-way transmission – sophisticated means of speaking – advertisements, public relation campaigns, marketing, social media, websites – with a brutally labyrinthine architecture. What is missed out on is the long lost art of listening.
The emphasis of governments on a ‘two-way’ communication through electronic means is often represented as a way of conversational, transparent and open public engagement. Nothing could be further from the reality. If you contact a government agency, however important, there is a very high probability that there will be no future correspondence.
Whatever little listening happens is plagued with confirmation bias, i.e., surveys and public consultation are mostly intended to betray 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 during 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.
Even social media, which could have been a means of seamless communication and instant feedback, is nowadays used to distribute messages mainly to an intended audience. Government campaigns have always been about what the government wants to tell people to do, not about what the people want to tell the government to do.
Disproportionate emphasis on quantitative research, i.e., polling as a method to gauge public mood is also a mistake. Qualitative research, i.e., independent public consultations in digital as well offline forums can be very a good source of data. Traditional polling represents a very narrow set of questions that represent the preferences of an even narrower populace.
The relatively high correspondence rate of the official Twitter/Facebook pages of the Indian Railways and the Ministry of External Affairs show that identifying and responding to public issues can be a very effortless way of creating goodwill among people, both domestic and foreign.
Listening is essential in a democracy. People have a right to be heard by their representatives. That is what legitimises democracy in public eye. Functioning of a stable society is impossible without the means of a free -flowing two-way communication – talking and listening – with an openness to the others’ point of view. In today’s political climate the world over, listening is in short supply.
To be sure, listening – pretence and token listening excluded – is not to be taken as a wishful panacea for all maladies, but as a means of recognition, acknowledgement, understanding, consideration and appropriate response to others’ opinions. To expect a political agreement to result from this would be disingenuous futility. But governments have to move away from informing, disseminating, educating, showing, telling, distributing towards listening, learning, seeing and adapting.
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 of listening.
Political decisions right from voting to the life-changing decisions taken at the helm of democratic institutions have, as a matter of unwritten institutionalised public policy, deprived themselves of listening to the grievances of others. It has rendered the public emotion susceptible to angry and radical inclinations.
Declining trust in government institutions, declining participation in the democratic process, disengagement of members in political parties is a wake-up call for all of us. We need to resuscitate democracy by the old ways of listening and engagement. 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, i.e., people. Until it does so, it will be a mysterious body which we all know very little about. We will also remain a mystery to the government.