Monday, August 1, 2011

Anna’s research is malicious....but it nonetheless harms the government’s credibility

Yesterday’s release of some research findings in Kapil Sibal’s constituency is a malicious strategy of the Anna team to influence public opinion and put pressure on the government. Malicious, because the research appears to be done in an opaque manner. The design appears to be intellectually dishonest and the research appears to have been conducted expressly to elicit a certain motivated response. Malicious also because Anna’s team knows that research is not the way our democracy functions – we don’t believe in referendums – and yet they have gone about it. But equally, the government is finding itself in on a sticky wicket, because it is failing to communicate its point of view to the people.

First look at the research itself. The entire process of research appears to be so opaque. Who has done the research? India Against Corruption is just the body that has commissioned the research, but which research agency has actually done the research? How many people were contacted? Some reports say 75-80,000 people. Who are these people? How were they chosen? Were adequate steps taken to have a proportionate representation of the population? If so, can we know how many people from Socio Economic Classes A, B, C, D and E were chosen? What were the age groups these respondents belonged to? Were the people chosen “randomly” as per acceptable research standards or were the forms simply “distributed” amongst the people as some reports indicate? If so, then how do we know that one respondent didn’t fill up ten or even a hundred forms? Were “back-checks” – a standard feature in the research business to ensure the veracity of the fieldwork – conducted and if so, by whom? These are not high-tech theoretical questions that I am asking. These are standard questions in any research. I doubt if due processes have been followed in this research.

Research is a highly specialized process best left to experts. A lot depends on the way in which questions are framed and asked. A lay researcher could ask questions in a way that brings in a bias. And therefore skew the results. For eg., if asked “Do you think the Congress is a corrupt party?”, the respondents may say something like “Yes, the Congress is a corrupt party”. The BJP would gain enormously from this finding. But if the question is “Do you think all political parties are corrupt?” the answer may still be an overwhelming “Yes”. But now, the BJP would not be able to take advantage. To that extent, the results are totally different. That is why research is always conducted by a neutral expert who has no personal stake in the result. In this case, we know that the Anna panel has a motivated interest in the result. It wants to push its version of the bill through. If they conduct the research themselves, it is obvious that they will do it in a way that suits their objectives. That’s why the research results should be rejected.

But let’s leave the research issues out. Let’s discuss if research is the way to go about discussions in our country? Do lay people even understand the issues involved in the Lokpal debate? Do they know what the Constitution states with respect to many things that are part of Anna’s draft? Yes, the Constitution can be amended, but do lay people understand what other implications of that could be? Lay people cannot be expected to understand all this. Lay people can only express emotions. Emotions can vote in or vote out a government. But lay people cannot shape bills. Let me give an example. There are widespread protests and strong emotions amongst the people of Greece against their government’s efforts to cut expenditure. Expenditure cuts hurt the people. So is the Greek government wrong in making the expenditure cuts? The protestors have no idea how to solve their country’s problems. If a research were done, the Greeks would reject the cuts. They would only be expressing their emotions.....and they could well use these emotions to vote out the present government in the next elections. But would that make them right? Will it solve the problem? Obviously, the Greek people would be totally wrong. That’s why a country cannot be run by lay has to be run by experts. That is why we have a bureaucracy – the experts – and it is the bureaucracy that actually runs the government. If there is a minister (a representative of the lay people) who suggests some revolutionary ideas, the bureaucracy holds him in check because many of those ideas may be unconstitutional. It’s a myth that in a democracy, the people run the country. The people only elect their representatives.....but the country is run by the experts who have to follow the Constitution and work under the restictions of its various provisions.

I want to raise another fundamental question here. Does being a democratic set-up mean that we have to always go by the opinions of the majority of the people? For eg., if a vote is held all over India, and a majority of people feel that India should declare itself a Hindu country rather than a “secular” one, should we call ourselves a Hindu country? This is not an easy question to answer. But my own view is that it is important for any country to be progressive and “looking forward” and hence there may be times when its leaders are at odds with public opinion. There is nothing wrong in this. When Mahatma Gandhi berated his people for stoking religious fires, he went against public opinion. When sati and untouchability were removed, the government went against the beliefs of its people. If this were not done, then India would also become a “taliban” country. After all, there is enough and more support for the taliban within Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also reflects public opinion. But that doesn’t make it right. Likewise, even if a majority of the people in the country want Anna’s version of the Lokpal bill, it cannot be passed because it may be flawed. The government would be right in going against the opinion of the people.....even though the same people could vote it out the next time.

The real problem is that neither the “experts” (the bureaucrats) nor the government itself has made attempts to explain to the lay people what is wrong with Anna’s draft. It is not enough to say that bringing the PM under the Lokpal will “create problems”. People want to know: what problems? Is it just a bogey the government is giving, or is it a genuine point? Till date, only the intelligentsia understands why the judiciary should be kept out of the Lokpal’s purview. No one’s bothered to explain the problems to the lay people. It’s not enough to say that the Constitution gives MPs an immunity inside Parliament. It’s necessary to explain this in elaborate terms to the people. If its a complicated matter, the government must use specialized tools to simplify the matter. But it has to explain. That is the essence of a vibrant democracy. The people must feel engaged. That’s the mistake the government is making. It is simply not engaging with the people. It should explain clearly why it is taking the stand that it is taking. Else, the people will get the impression that there is some other agenda that the government has.

How should the government engage with the people? The answer is having mass contact programmes. Actually just think about it, all the mass contact programmes are being done by Anna and his team. Are the Congress politicians reaching out to the people trying to explain to them what is wrong with Anna’s draft? I haven’t heard of any rallies being conducted by the Congress leaders explaining their stand. The government hasn’t even bothered to brief the media adequately. They just keep saying something is wrong. It is left to the media to figure out for themselves what is wrong. In contrast, the Anna team has been all over media explaining in great detail why it wants what it wants. It’s engaging the people a lot better. I personally feel that the government is not wrong in rejecting many of Anna’s demands, but it is terribly wrong in failing to engage with the people.

The real truth is that the government has forgotten how to engage. Not engaging leads to a trust deficit between it and the people. Even if its intentions are noble (and many doubt that), its ability to convince people is presently very poor. Kapil Sibal may be a good orator, but he is incapable of engaging the people. In many ways, there is need for more “old style” politicians to come forward. Those who can engage people in the streets and villages (and in media) rather than just intellectually debate inside closed offices. This is a message to the Congress. Go out there and engage with your people.....hold your own rallies.....convince the people that what you want is right and noble.....or else get out of government.

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