Public opinion is an amorphous thing. “Public opinion is a term describing an ill-defined, mercurial and changeable group of individual judgments,” wrote Edward Bernays, father of public relations, in his seminal book Crystallizing Public Opinion.
For Bernays, the “obscure tendencies of the public mind” have to be ‘crystallised’. This process does not happen organically. Myriad forces shape the minds of individuals and through them, public opinion is formed. “The most obvious of these forces are parental influence, the school room, the press, motion pictures, advertising, magazines, lectures, the church, the radio,” Bernays writes.
Bernays’ work in the field of PR shows us that public opinion is not a given. It is moulded.
Everything is not fine
Jagat Prakash Nadda, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has said, for the second time, that US President Donald Trump lost the election due to his mismanagement of Covid-19 pandemic, whereas Prime Minister Narendra Modi handled it well with bold decisions such as the nationwide lockdown.
More than 1.4 lakh Indians have lost their lives to Covid so far. Even the per million death toll is especially stark given that India is a young country and Covid targets the elderly. The Modi government’s lockdown was supposed to end Covid in 21 days but did not. Instead it created a historic migrant labour crisis that took many lives. As a result of the ill-planned lockdown, the Indian economy is seeing a greater contraction than any other major economy in the world. Bangladesh has overtaken India in GDP per capita.
It is strange, then, that the president of the ruling party can claim and celebrate success in Covid management. He can do so partly because there is almost nobody to point out the failure. In the United States, there was an activist liberal media and a hardworking Democratic Party that went out to make sure it reached the last voter.
The media, opposition and civil society in India have all become part of the conspiracy of silence, a conspiracy so huge that India’s first recession in recorded history does not feel like an emergency situation. There is complete silence over what the government should do to end Covid or bring back fallen incomes or revive the animal spirits of the economy.
It’s not as if the public is not distressed about Covid or the economy, but that the public opinion on these issues is not being crystallised into a sentiment against the Modi government’s performance.
This is what makes the farmers’ protests on Delhi’s borders so significant. They break the conspiracy of silence that helps the Modi government produce an illusion that “everything is fine”. Protests like these become part of the forces that shape public opinion across the country, even for non-farmers. The nation is watching to see if Modi comes off as being a sensitive leader who handles dissent maturely.
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When the word gets out, it goes far
How public opinion is shaped can be summed up in these words of Urdu poet Kafeel Azar, sung memorably in a ghazal by Jagjit Singh: “Baat niklegi to phir door talak jayegi.” When the word gets out, it goes far.
We see this again and again in public discourse, the impact of words of dissent on the government. An invincible Indira Gandhi was shaken by Jayaprakash Narayan’s public movement against her. The Lokpal movement gave an outlet to people for their disenchantment with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA-2). There is no sign yet of the legislative rules to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019, thanks to the large-scale protests it caused.
This is why the opposition parties make a big mistake by not raising their pitch against the Modi government’s failures. Defeated, de-funded and demoralised, opposition parties wait for the public to rise, like with the farmers’ protests. They want the media to do the opposition’s job. But only the opposition will have to do its job for itself.
A few weeks ago, in the market in Kalyanpur, a kasba in Samastipur district of Bihar, a man wouldn’t stop telling me how terrible Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had been to people. Not letting migrant labourers return to their own homes, doing very little to alleviate people’s economic suffering during the lockdown, and have you noticed the price of potatoes lately?
He was not your reticent voter who is apprehensive of expressing his political views to an itinerant claiming to be a journalist. He was loud and vocal. He was Halwai by caste, BJP-voting community, so he wasn’t a traditional opponent trying to do propaganda. Did you see what migrant labourers went through? How they walked thousands of kilometres? How some died? Nitish did nothing, he said. I was, by this time, bored of his whine. What about Modi, I asked him.
“Modi is fine,” he said. You think the lockdown was useful? Yes of course, he said, but Nitish should have made better preparations to implement it. I pointed out to him it was the Modi government that shut down the trains, and asked people not to move. Wasn’t it the Modi government’s responsibility to give you better economic relief than Rs 500 a month, I asked, since it was the Modi government that imposed a national lockdown? And as for the price of potatoes, it has gone up not just in Bihar but elsewhere too, because checking price rise of essentials was the central government’s responsibility.
The articulate man suddenly found his lips sealed and looked away. End of conversation.
The questions not asked
With the exception of the CPI(M-L) Liberation on a few seats, almost nobody spoke against the Modi government in the recent Bihar assembly election. Tejashwi Yadav, Chirag Paswan, the media, the public on the streets, the Yadav and Muslim core voters of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) — everyone was speaking against Nitish Kumar.
This was because Narendra Modi was widely perceived to be too popular to speak against. Yet Modi’s invincibility also seemed to come from the fact that no one spoke against him. Nobody asked questions of the failure of the lockdown to end Covid in 21 days. Nobody asked about the economic relief to those who lost jobs. Nobody asked about a shrinking economy.
The questions not asked — the absence of a counterpoint — only made Modi even bigger. I would go to the extent of saying that the opposition made a mistake by focusing only on Nitish Kumar and forgetting Narendra Modi. By contrast, in the 2015 Bihar assembly election, the Nitish-Lalu combine made people question Modi on things such as the rising prices of dal with the memorable slogan ‘Arhar Modi’.
Simply put, the opposition to Modi won’t succeed unless the opposition is expressed.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.