Democracy is all about voice. Its governance premise—of, by, and for the people—requires that voices of the people must be heard. Therein lies the bedrock of the trust between those who govern and the people who choose them. Voices are expressed in different ways: the individual, groups of persons (with a unifying interest or public policy stance), people empowered to express the will of the people (ministers and MPs), and the media (the people’s watchdog). Are these voices being heard? Two years ago (in The Indian Express, November 23, 2015), I had said: open and distortion-free channels of communication are essential for both the governed and those who govern, some channels (including political channels) were clogged, the deliberate non-engagement of the media was costing the government, and some channels were mute from fear. The article concluded with the plea to end the collective sound of silence and open doors to discussion and dissent, essential ingredients of democracy. So, where are we today?
Centralised decision-making left most ministers with little voice. And, it has stayed that way. The council of ministers is largely voiceless. Except when it comes to apologia. Even among the coterie of favoured sons, few actually express themselves. Look at the disaster of demonetisation (DeMo). And, now the GST; implemented in haste, without listening to voices pointing out the dangers of serious disruption. The few with voice are mere apologists. Note that there was a collective silence of senior ministers to lynchings and wanton murders. The silence of those in authority becomes licence to all forms of goons. When they do have voice, it is motor-mouths talking about “presstitutes”. Earlier, it was adulation and awe that silenced most ruling party MPs; now, it is sheer dread. As 2019 nears, the risk of expressing differences is too high. Even providing ground-based feedback is fraught; especially in the face of alternate facts being propagated. The result: the MPs now constitute an echo-chamber. No sooner does any politician or the media provide a minor reality check, a chorus rises in defence of the prime minister. Criticism, mild or sharp, unleashes the shouting brigade. Where then is the voice of public representatives that a vibrant democracy needs to hear?
Individual voices are drowned out. That is, when the individuals are not trolled, socially persecuted or the victims of extreme violence. Instances abound: think about litterateurs, rationalists, and those ideologically opposed to the government. In a democracy, it is the state’s responsibility to nurture and protect these voices. Nowhere has the brutal repression of voice been starker than in Universities, our seats of learning. Think Hyderabad, JNU, Delhi and BHU. Colleges do not allow “controversial” topics or speakers, persons of other political persuasions are shouted down (or threatened by violence), imperious vice-chancellors rule by diktat and some even want tanks on campus. In 2015, I argued that the vast rural population has limited voice. It is too dispersed, hence, soundless. The dialogue has to be through MPs. With that channel choked, what do the constituents do? We have witnessed that this year: anger and frustration resulting in mass farmer protests in MP, Maharashtra, UP, and now Rajasthan and Haryana (all incidentally BJP ruled States). How large is the disconnect between MPs and their constituents? Why were the states and the Centre taken by surprise? Did no one tell them of agricultural distress? The response: knee-jerk loan waivers. One outcome: UP farmers getting loan waivers of Rs 1 and 35 paise!
Other constituents, like organised businesses, are cowering in fear. So too the apex chambers. Nothing new. It was so in 2015. With one difference: they have seen first hand how criticism invites immediate retribution. Anecdotes abound of tax investigations and CBI raids. Wiser after the fact, they have rationally chosen silence. The SMEs and the micro businesses are like the farmers—no voice. The economic agony inflicted by DeMo and GST seems to have passed clean over the heads of our ruling elite. Did you hear even one ruling party MP raise her voice about closures and unemployment?
The government changed its stance on the media. Non-engagement gave way to select ministers regularly giving time. Further, the government strategically decided to promote its own supporters in the media. So, we now have TV channels that are no better than a government-owned channel (or propaganda). It has also abused the fear of state power to quell dissent. Sample these instances: an editor of a national daily is summarily fired; a report on the failure of the PM’s Crop Insurance scheme in Rajasthan is pulled from the pages of a national daily; interviews embarrassing to the government are pulled or delayed by TV channels. Nevertheless, courageous journalism survives—in the print media, on TV and online. They have not been cowed by the fear of harassment by state authorities. But, they are under constant threat.
So, two years on, where are we? First, political channels of communication hardly function. Their being totally clogged is bad enough. However, more deeply worrying is the underlying problem that those we have chosen to govern us do not want to listen, much less hear. Denial is a way of life. And, they don’t particularly care. Second, shooting the messenger has become an unhealthy pattern. Think about: our universities, how dissenting individuals are trolled into silence, and how violence (or its threat) is used to win debate. Think media, the ultimate messenger, and how the state is dealing with it. Third, the voiceless many (some out of rational choice) remain mute and powerless. Hark back to what Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free, where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls, …where words come out from the depth of truth,…where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way…into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”. Have we lost our way?
Former chairman, TRAI