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Saying as we mean it

india Updated: Dec 11, 2011 22:52 IST

Whether it is the Lokpal Bill, the foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail or the proposal for monitoring social networking websites, the common factor has been the inability of the government to effectively communicate. As a result, it has ended up cutting a sorry figure and inviting ridicule. It almost seems that the government failed to recognise the dynamic shift in principles of communication that has taken place in the past few decades. They believe that ordinary people will accept whatever they say without a murmur.

This is reminiscent of our homes during the 1960s and 1970s when a pronouncement by the father figure of the household was accepted by all within the family. Or when a statement made by a leader of the eminence of Jawaharlal Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri was heeded with almost no reservation.

Today, this situation has changed. Children, thankfully, frequently question their elders. Similarly, the public wants details before believing the government’s decisions.

The government fears the electronic media because of its ability to quickly reach the masses and mould public opinion. But it refuses to see the fault at its own end. If the government believes that a simple statement of intent on key issues will find immediate takers, it will continue to lose battles with the Anna Hazares of the world, opposition parties and the social media.

To be effective and to ensure support for its policies and programmes, the government needs to realise the change in principles of communication, which now includes the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of a message rather than just ‘who’ is making the statement. The reason why no one accepted the government’s assertion that it was for a strong Lokpal Bill was because it failed to back it up with how they will ensure that such a law would come into place. It failed to sell its ‘product’ to the masses.

Likewise, when it came to selling the concept of FDI in retail, commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma said that the reform would create 10 million jobs, help farmers get more and make products cheaper for consumers. Did enough people find the statement credible? No. Because Sharma did not substantiate those claims.

Government spokespersons have not felt the need to adapt to the changed communication requirements. No wonder government and party spokespersons face a barrage of questions on TV shows. The government has the most potent weapon of communication — to decide when to release information. And yet, it fritters away this advantage.

Information on any subject ought to be packaged at the first stage to cover the salient features in detail: what benefits it will bring to society; the need for a particular decision; the options considered; why this particular option is the best one; and how adequate safeguards have been taken to overcome perceived weaknesses. The arguments should be backed by figures and examples so that comment becomes irrelevant once the information is in the public domain. Information needs to be packaged well and delivered at the right time. This government needs to realise that.

Jitender Bhargava is former communications head of Air India
The views expressed by the author are personal