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Tyranny of manufactured public opinion

Thursday 9 November 2006, by KHARE*Harish

The intrusiveness of manufactured public opinion has complicated the governance matrix; the capacity to take difficult and tough decisions.

SINCE 1922 when a mob at Chauri Chaura turned arsonist, political leaders, from Mahatma Gandhi downward, have invariably insisted on controlling the crowd. A leader is known by his capacity to attract, engage, and persuade the crowd; those with charisma, like Indira Gandhi, can tantalise the crowd. As the democracy project has progressed since 1947, a political leader has come to be defined by his or her claim on our collective attention by the ability to move crowds. Hence, the political class’s claim to be recognised as the repository of public opinion and popular aspirations. This chemistry between the leaders and the crowds has been a critical element in the democratic experiment. But it now appears that this defining characteristic is in danger of being usurped.

Three recent developments form the pattern. First, there has been this so-called sex scandal in Jammu and Kashmir. Huge protests erupted after it became known that some senior political leaders and bureaucrats in the State were involved in a case of sexual exploitation of young women. Curiously enough it was some of the better known secessionist outfits that instigated these protests. Keen to embroil its rivals in the scandal, the State Government too encouraged demonstrations and demands for handing over the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation. In itself, this was not a bad proposition. A polity is always better off if an aggrieved group engages in rites of protest rather than in exchanging fire with the security forces. The demand for the CBI’s involvement too was a positive development; after all, on the face of it, some faith was being expressed in an all-India institution. But then the mobs, or rather those who controlled the mobs, moved in. The process of law was not allowed to take its course. Word was reportedly sent out from separatist quarters that no lawyer should represent the accused persons.

The bottom-line was this: when the "court of public opinion" had already decided that the accused were guilty, where was the need to go through the long and tedious processes of law? A small group of undemocratic voices had tried to usurp the democratic space to overwhelm the fairness of rule of law. The Supreme Court had to be petitioned to move the trial out of Jammu and Kashmir.

A second variation of this assertion in the name of "public opinion" is being witnessed in the Jessica Lal case. The decision of senior lawyer Ram Jethmalani to represent the accused has provoked an outbreak of moral indignation among the capital’s self-styled guardians of public interest. The so-called civil society has sought to harass the lawyer with a dose of what has come to be called "Gandhigiri" tactics. A section of the media has argued, more or less, on the lines of the Kashmir separatists: because "public opinion" believes Manu Sharma is guilty as charged he is not entitled to the best legal defence, and if Mr. Jethmalani insists on representing him then the eminent lawyer too ought to be black-balled!

What is somewhat disquieting is the assertiveness of those who manufacture "public opinion." That this assertiveness is becoming heady is all too obvious.

The argument of "public opinion" has been pushed to an absurd limit in the sealing controversy in the capital. A small group of traders has managed to whip up so much "public opinion" that the basic requirements of rule of law are being ignored. A lawful society is defined by the judiciary’s right to lay down the law and the administrative authority’s obligation to enforce that law. Mobs cannot be allowed to sit in judgment over court verdicts and directions. But given the current culture of controversy-mongering, the traders’ capacity to disrupt commercial activities and their willingness to create "trouble" have been dignified as an expression of "public opinion." The situation has been made worse by a deeply divided Congress Party and a thoroughly cynical BJP. What is more, there is little mention that many "traders" over the years have merrily connived with corrupt municipal officials to carry on business activities from illegal premises.

The intrusiveness of manufactured public opinion has complicated the governance matrix; the capacity to take difficult and tough decisions, especially decisions that involve choices between conflicting public policy options. Political leaders find themselves in a bind in such situations. For example, former Union Minister Jagmohan paid the price when he lost the Lok Sabha election because he insisted on some basic lawful behaviour on the part of the land mafia that wanted to use money power and muscle power to overwhelm any notion of urban planning.

Admittedly, the local leader, whether a Congress councillor or a BJP MLA, can only articulate the demands and interests of those in his or her area; this is often decried as "vote bank" politics. For instance, if an MLA gets elected from a constituency that has large pockets of "slum areas," it is only logical - as well as politically desirable, even morally defensible - for him or her to want to resist any attempt to "rationalise" the slums. Sometimes the immediate interests at the constituency level come in conflict with wider policy decisions; it becomes obligatory on the part of the "people’s representative" to seek the maximum benefits for his or her "people." It becomes the responsibility of the party’s leadership to harmonise various conflicting choices; it is the politician’s brief to minimise social pain and maximise fairness.

If Delhi’s political leaders find themselves in a pickle, it is because they have abandoned their craft. Political leaders have increasingly turned their collective back on the obligation to gauge what bothers the citizenry; partly because most political parties are leader-centric authoritarian outfits, and partly because some of these outfits rely on criminals and muscle power to capture ballot booths, instead of engaging the citizens in persuasion and education. Since most political parties have done away with internal mechanisms that would enable the top leaders to hear voices from the district and taluk levels, the national leaders themselves have lost the self-confidence that comes from democratic engagement. They have ceded their voice to the columnist and the anchor.

Even the judiciary has not been immune to the clamour of manufactured public opinion, though by training and temperament the judges are better equipped to resist the allure of public opinion. Nothing depicts this tendency better than the judicial protection conferred on Dr. P. Venugopal of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

Even in the healthiest of democracies, once the votes have been counted there develops a distance between the citizen and the government. In the best of times, it is organised interest (read monied power) that disproportionately influences the policy choices. And these organised interests are getting very good at appropriating symbols and slogans of "popular opinion." In a polity like ours when we are giving in joyfully to the freedom of the marketplace, it has become doubly obligatory for those who man the various constitutional institutions to display wisdom and statesmanship so as to deepen the citizen’s respect for the law. Otherwise, the best democratic impulses will become increasingly vulnerable to those who have the capacity to manufacture spurious public opinion.

See online : The Hindu

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