Public opinion is a funny thing. It is prone to changing regardless of the facts. Image, perception and emotion are so important, that facts are malleable. The opinion of the public gets swayed even by ideas that fail, even when the public knows those ideas are bound to fail, even when they see them failing.
Three examples of this problem come to mind. The India Against Corruption Movement, the Swachh Bharat scheme and the odd-even car rationing scheme in Delhi.
Take the anti-corruption movement of 2011-2013. For at least two years, and even during the 2014 election campaign, the most important issue in India seemed to be corruption. The man on the street was surprisingly informed about the differences between the Anna Hazare version and the government version of the Jan Lokpal Bill. It was perhaps the biggest ever public participation in legislation. Yet, here we are in 2016, and nobody except the Supreme Court cares about the Modi government’s refusal to appoint a Lokpal.
Attacking the Modi government day in and day out on various issues, even the Aam Aadmi Party hasn’t been creating much noise about the Modi government’s inaction in appointing a Lokpal. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal sent out a series of tweets today, asking tough questions of the Modi government on corruption, Dalit rights, minorities, traders, judicial reforms and so on. But he didn’t ask why the Modi government is not appointing a Lokpal.
A number of naysayers had pointed out that we were all part of the corruption economy. There were people who said corruption was so entrenched it would never go away. The debates were endless, lasted months, points and counter points flew thick and fast.
Nobody seems to care about corruption anymore. Vyapam, Lalitgate, Vijay Mallya’s escape and allegations of land grab by the Gujarat chief minister’s daughter.
Even as public opinion was getting worked up about corruption in 2011-2013, it perhaps knew that little was going to happen about it. In which case, why did we become so serious about it?
Another such curious question is that of the Swachh Bharat scheme. A Times of India-Ipsos poll says that of all of Modi government’s various schemes, Swachh Bharat is the most popular. More popular than Jan Dhan, which has actually opened bank accounts for the unbanked, and more popular than Make in India, which has the potential to create manufacturing jobs, more popular than Start Up India, Stand Up India, which puts real money on the table to promote entrepreneurship.
Nobody says India has become any cleaner with the Swachh Bharat programme. Nobody knows what the programme really entails, beyond just saying let’s clean up India. When Rahul Gandhi made this point before students in Bengaluru, he was booed. Given that the central government doesn’t run municipalities, leave alone state government, it is not going to be able to clean up India. People know this, and yet they like the Swachh Bharat scheme. Why?
Even by the Arvind Kejriwal government’s admission, the odd-even car rationing scheme makes a minor difference to air pollution in Delhi. The second round of odd-even in April didn’t even reduce traffic congestion as much as the first round in January had done. Why then is odd-even so popular. Even more bizarre is the scheme’s popularity amongst car owners, who are the one inconvenienced by the scheme. They don’t even mind that the scheme spares polluting two-wheelers, or that the Kejriwal government has done little to improve public transport capacity even as it fines people for taking their cars out on the road.
The conclusion from these three examples is that the public likes moralising from its leaders. The people like it when they are told that the onus is on them to reduce corruption, to fight for new laws against it, to reduce pollution by sacrificing their car convenience, or to clean up the streets.
This is the same strain of public opinion that likes to emphasise the “fundamental duties” every time you talk about fundamental rights. Ask not what your country can do for you, they will quote John F Kennedy, ask what you can do for your country.
Public likes moralising from its leaders. They like it when they're told that the onus is on them to reduce corruption, fight for new laws against it and reduce pollution.
Narendra Modi understands such public behaviour as well as Arvind Kejriwal. Most episodes of his Mann ki Baat tell not what his government is doing, but what we the people must do. He appeals to our conscience and to our reason. He tells us to buy khadi to help the poor, to shun drugs and exam stress, to post selfies with our daughters, conserve every drop of water, give up LPG subsidy, play football, make lifestyle changes to avoid diabetes, save the forests, fight climate change, respect the disabled, keep tourist spots clean, do social work, donate our organs, end manual scavenging and so on and so forth.
This is in contrast to the language of rights that emanated from the Manmohan Singh government for ten years. Education, employment, food, information, forests – turning everything into a legally enforceable right was the UPA’s style of getting things done.
A leader’s job is not only to deliver governance but also show us the way. Getting things done and making change happen requires public co-operation, it can’t come from the mai-baap state alone. Too much of it, however, makes for a moralising state that lectures us like a grandfather, abdicates responsibility and passes the buck to us with emotional blackmail.