For any modern government, strategic communication is 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 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 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, and in particular Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been remarkably 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 Ujwal Bharat, effective messaging, often by the PM himself, has contributed to their relative success. But this messaging is mostly one way. Much less attention is given to feedback from citizens, particularly if there is negative criticism. For improved governance, there must be receptivity to positive and negative feedback. Highlighting only the positive and preventing or suppressing the negative will, over time, create an echo chamber within which an alternate reality begins to rule.
Public opinion is crucial for governance
In a democracy like India, an independent civil society, media and academia, and an openness to dissent and debate ensure that there is credible, reliable 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 rational and timely revisions to its policies and their implementation.
Apart from keeping such independent channels of feedback open, being receptive to the opinions and insights that they feed back to the government can only improve governance, and make it more effective and efficient. 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 and respected 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 or dissatisfaction building up against its policies that are best addressed before they become crises. We have a good example of the consequences of the failure to do this in the ongoing farmers’ agitation.
How not to harm India’s strength
Governments have tremendous patronage to handouts 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 for the reasons already mentioned. Governance is a matter of trust between citizens and their governments, and trust can only be based on truth. The best messaging from the government relies on telling citizens the truth, on gaining credibility. This is also important in foreign relations. The most valuable asset a diplomat has is the credibility they enjoy with their interlocutors, and such credibility reflects that of the country they represent. Having successfully deceived someone or gained advantage by being economical with the truth may work sometimes but it eventually undermines national interests. See where a long history of peddling untruths has brought Pakistan.
It is in this context that one views with concern some recent trends in our country. A significant section of the 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 Modi government may consider branding journalists as ‘white’, ‘green’ and ‘black’ — signifying pro, neutral (fence-sitters) or anti-government — and more ominously, seek to “neutralise” the black category, are deeply 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 or news that it considers inconvenient or not aligned with its ideological position. 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 that wants to be seen as a vishwa guru.
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.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Views are personal.