Jan 012013

My blog for Tehelka last week :

There is a fabulous quote from the fantastic BBC comedy “Yes Minister“.  It deals with ministers and their memoirs :

“Any statement in a politician’s memoirs can represent one of six different levels of reality:

a. What happened.
b. What he believed happened.
c. What he would have liked to have happened.
d. What he wants to believe happened.
e. What he wants other people to believe happened.
f. What he wants other people to believe he believed happened.”

Protests in Delhi. PTI photo

A decade from now, when Ministers in the current Government pen down their memoirs, I  wonder how they will account for the last eighteen months since the beginning of the first Anna Hazare protests in Delhi,  in particular their role in them. Will they be heroes? Will they be villains?  Will they be buffoons? Or will they come across as people who were clueless about the changes that are taking place in society and the demands of a newly empowered people? I am afraid, no matter how they spin it — their 6 levels of reality will read the same “we didn’t know what was going on”.

For the majority of India (70% under 35 years of age), Independence took place eons ago. There is little or no connect with either the freedom struggle, the British Raj or issues from that time. For almost half of India (50% below 25 years of age) the world is one of instant gratification. The number of people in India who were born after Emergency exceeds those who remember it.  India is changing, and this is not just the rapidly burgeoning cities. Rural and small town India are growing rapidly. Year after year more and more people are being pulled out of absolute poverty. People have begun, for the first time in history, to nurture aspirations that go beyond class, caste, and region. They understand that they are independent citizens, and they have rights. They also understand that if they shout loud enough they will be heard.  They see people around them being freed from patriarchy, discrimination, poverty — and they ask, rightly so, ‘why not me’. They have neither the time nor the inclination to wait. This, dear politician, is your target audience.

The one thing with pervasive media — be it 24 hour news channels or social media — is that one narrative no longer dominates. Social media especially  puts communication power back  in the hands of the individual citizens. Media agencies and journalists on social media are all trying to attract audiences to their version of the  narrative, and that is only possible when they engage with the audience. Politicians, especially in the west, extensively use this medium to reach out to potential voters. Demographic shifts there, as here, have ensured that audiences are more diverse, look to the future rather than past glory, look for affiliations beyond ethnicity or language. In India too politicians are beginning to use the medium but bar a few — the rest are using it to broadcast rather than interact. But, even broadcasting — i.e. one way communication to many — is better than no communication.

It is ridiculous that the Government of India, with all the resources at its disposal, with a full fledged TV network at its command, with every ministry having spokespeople, with the PMO having a specially dedicated communication cell, manages to look like a complete amateur with the reaction time of a snail with a fracture. The Delhi protests against rape began on Saturday morning, and the first reaction is late on Saturday night. When a gunman kills children in a school in the USA, the President takes the lead in addressing the people — telling them he understands their anguish, promising change.  It may just be words — but there are times when words are needed. Compare this to the response time and quality of response by the Government in every situation. How difficult would it be for someone in the Government — not the Party but the Government — to come on air and talk to the people?

The people elected the Government. The Government is accountable to the people. And part of this accountability is telling us what is going on, taking us into confidence,  assuring us about action,  and the steps taken to mitigate the issues.  It is actually as simple as that.

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