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August 14, 2011

Page: 14/29

Home > 2011 Issues > August 14, 2011

Who will inform the voters?
By Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala

FUNDAMENTAL principle of democracy is that the people are sovereign. They know what is best for them. A government elected by the people will necessarily promote interests of the voters. It is seen, however, that people are often not able to correctly define their own self-interests. For example, youth are attracted to junk food even though it is harmful for their health. Or the bonded labour genuinely thinks that the landlord is his protector and benefactor. Therefore, democracy leads the society in a negative direction if people are not provided information to enable them to correctly define their self-interest.

Voters are by nature shortsighted. They are focused on immediate personal gains to be obtained from the politicians rather than long term welfare of the society at large. An honest MP will get road made in the village but may not help much in getting an out-of-turn gas connection. On the other hand, a corrupt MP will not get the road made but help in getting gas connection. He will siphon off Rs one crore from the budget and distribute saris worth Rs ten thousand. Unfortunately, the voter recognises the sari but not the road. He does not have the mental capacity to understand that taking a sari today will lead to the road not being built and he remaining in perpetual poverty.

Voters are manipulated by the MPs due to this shortcoming of theirs. American psychologist Edward Bernays has explained the matter. Bernays assisted President Woodrow Wilson in turning American public opinion in favour of the First World War. He worked for American Tobacco Company in the 1920s. At that time it was taboo for women to smoke in public. He persuaded Women Rights Activists to take out a procession in New York City smoking cigarettes. This got huge publicity and encouraged smoking among the women. Hitler’s propaganda chief Goebbels persuaded the Germans to cleanse their race based on Bernays’ teachings.

Bernays views on democracy are enlightening. He described the public as a herd that needed to be led. Bernays’ fundamental axiom was to control the masses without their knowing it. Bernays expressed little respect for the average person’s ability to think out, understand, or act upon the world in which they live. He said, “No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea.”

The mind of the people, says Bernays, “is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders... Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps linked with advertising slogans, editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints.” Economists recognise this too. EJ Mishan says, “consumers may be persuaded to desire almost anything if enough resources are devoted to the task of persuasion.” US President George W Bush persuaded the American people to launch war on Iraq using propaganda of weapons of mass destruction.

Yet we cannot decry democracy because it gives people a route to self-governance even if it is inadequate. The inadequacy arises mainly from provision of one-sided information. Say you are in the market to buy mangoes. Only one variety of safeda is available. You are likely to buy it unquestioningly. However, if other varieties like dasahri and langra are available then you will apply your mind to the rate, size, taste, etc. and then take a decision. Similarly, democracy fails if only one stream of information is provided. Democracy can be successful if alternative viewpoints are available and pubic has an option to choose between them.

Question, then, is how to provide the voter with alternate viewpoints such that he can actually apply his mind and arrive at his own conclusions. This, precisely, is the role of Hazare and Ramdev. They are placing before the people an alternative viewpoint and enlivening democracy. We cannot depend upon the elected MPs alone to deliver good governance. Actually democracy can take the society in wrong direction as happened in Hitler’s rise to power.

Democracy is successful if there exists an independent entity that correctly defines the people’s interests and informs the people accordingly. This information is not provided in the present system, at least, not adequately. The judiciary, executive, legislative and press all have their limitations. The judges are appointed by the Government. They are often inclined to toe the Government line in expectation that they will be rewarded with chairmanship of some Commission post-retirement. The executive is directly answerable to the Minister. The executive will only tell the people what the Minister orders them to tell. The legislators are more interested in getting re-elected and less in securing welfare of the people. They are happy to distribute liquor to get votes. The press is somewhat independent and to this owes the limited control on corruption in the society. But the press too has its limitations. Many newspapers are owned by individuals associated with a particular political party. Newspapers are often harassed for taking an anti-government line. The Indian Express faced such a situation for its opposition to the Emergency. The American press had an important role in misinforming the people about the so-called existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Therefore, more than an organised press is required. This function is fulfilled by Anna Hazare and Ramdev.

Great civilizations like those of Egypt, Sumer, Greece and Rome have ceased to exist because they moved fast in the wrong direction. They did not encourage debate among the people to determine right and wrong. The Indian civilization has been able to survive uninterrupted for nearly five millennia because it had created a space for such extra-constitutional centres of power. Historian A L Basham writes: “A strong king was always a check on Brahmanic pretensions, just as the Brahmins were a check on the pretensions of the king.” And, Romila Thapar says similarly: “The gradual politicisation of the office of priest (purohita) can also be seen in the priest becoming a check on the monarch.”

Gandhiji wanted to disband the Congress and convert Congressmen into 'Constructive Workers' who would live among the people and guide them in selecting the right MP. Lenin spoke of the Communist Party guiding the Government. The common strand in all these formulations is the existence of a centre of power that exists independent of the government. The role of the Brahmin and the priest is being discharged by Hazare-Ramdev movements. So let us encourage them and help the people make their own decisions.

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