The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The business of keeping the people informed

One of the most fascinating and inexplicable transformations that we all see every time an election is held is the manner in which excited, energetic politicians standing for election are dynamos of vitality, of fiery rhetoric and phrases. They mesmerize audiences with a barrage of slogans and promises, and communicate with the people who come to their meetings in a very direct way, but suddenly become prisoners ' once they become ministers ' of a system of 'communication' which can at best be called brazen, often foolish, propaganda.

The very people who electrified their voters and clearly got their votes now appear in the most dreadfully designed posters and advertisements, grinning vacuously, amidst self-congratulatory hyperbolic guff about the achievements of their ministries. Posters and advertisements are only a part of the story; there are brochures, done just as dreadfully as the advertisements, printed on expensive paper in the most tawdry manner, consisting of a whole litany of great things the ministry has done, all of it presented in a haphazard, near-chaotic manner.

If it weren't so amusing it would be pathetic, this transformation of a dynamic political leader into a grinning performing clown adorning ludicrous advertisements that one doesn't believe for a moment because, among other things, of the shrillness and sheer exaggeration in saying what could otherwise be said more quietly and possibly with greater effect.

Why do they do it' It's a mystery that I have never been able to fathom. More than anything else, the one thing a minister who has won an election knows is how to communicate with people. What happens to him after the election' Does all the saluting, kow-towing and servility that his office brings with it rob him of his native common sense'

Perhaps it does. What does affect every minister, though, is the rather frightening facts and figures ' the rows and rows of digits, percentages, the categories, the baffling names of the schemes, some of which he probably understands only vaguely and is therefore even more frightened of. This, of course, is where the bureaucrat comes into his own. He presents it deferentially, and suggests, again deferentially, that perhaps the 'masses' need to be told about it. And the minister immediately agrees and orders that a publicity, or to be more politically correct, an 'information campaign' be launched.

Now, it has to be admitted that an important part of governance is keeping the people as informed as possible, clearly and fully. And it is important that this be done in a manner in which the people believe what they are told through the various agencies that the government employs to inform them. But there are some problematic issues here. Most ministries want to do all this themselves. We're providing the money, they argue, and we're providing the content. We're actually carrying out the damn schemes. Why should someone else do the communication part'

There is a good deal to this argument, but there are, as I said, problems. One is that the compulsion to promote the minister as central to the campaign, such as it is, is irresistible. So his face adorns every poster, advertisement, brochure, handout, everything. I've just seen a 16-page pull-out on Madhya Pradesh carried by a national newspaper ' or was it a journal' ' where the chief minister's gob appeared on every page. (And Babulal Gaur isn't the most photogenic political personage going.)

The second problem is one of consistency. Some ministries can be over-enthusiastic and swamp people with their propaganda; others may have very scanty information, presented rather dully. And yet the second ministry may actually be doing very vital work, something people would be anxious to know about.

A third has to do with skills. Many ministries think that they're born with communication skills. Which is why we have such ridiculous campaigns, done by people who think they know it all. Communication skills have to be learned, painstakingly; just as a communicator does not necessarily know about the complexities of export rules and regulations, someone dealing with export knows nothing about communication. No one, repeat no one, is a born communicator, leave alone a skilled one.

This is why it becomes necessary to have a central agency for the dissemination of information, a Central ministry. I am not saying this because I was secretary of this ministry, but because it is a need which all ministries will finally agree is valid. Certainly, when I was in charge of another ministry, culture, I saw the importance of having such a Central coordinating ministry. It's not that it can know everything about every ministry's activities,although it does get a large amount of information from the information officers posted in each ministry. But the information needs sorting and the relative importance of some items pointed out; only the individual ministries can do this, and it is right that they should.

That said, it has to be emphasized that the techniques of informing people are something best left to the ministry that has specialized in just this for decades. True, there have been occasions when one or the other ministry has been infuriated by what it saw as wrong information, or insufficient information, disseminated by the ministry of information and broadcasting. But this is often because of the niggardly amounts of information about their own work the ministries make available for dissemination. They think nothing of spending crores on several full-page advertisements, hoardings, posters, banners, and other campaigns when they do it themselves; but if they hand over the work to the information and broadcasting ministry, they provide a scanty amount that is barely enough for a single advertisement or brochure.

There are three basic points. First, a government that cares about taking the people with it in its efforts to improve the quality of life must keep the people fully, clearly and correctly informed, in a manner the people believe. Second, this is a skill that has been developed over the years by one ministry, that can and should be improved, admittedly, and use must be made of it. Third, the final decision on the nature of the information given, and the manner in which it is given, must be made by the political executive, not by bureaucrats, irrespective of how skilled they are. Bureaucrats can never get the feel of public opinion as a politician can; and if a politician can abuse the process so can a bureaucrat. I don't for a moment think that a single politician can, or ought to, do this. It has to be a group of them, considering the optional plans prepared by the ministry of information and broadcasting in concert with the other ministries, and this group has to decide.

It ultimately depends on just how much importance the government gives to the business of keeping the people informed. As I say, informing them doesn't mean shoving publicity down their throats. People aren't fools, and by dishing out impossibly glowing, optimistic pictures of what is being done one only invites amusement and derision. What needs to be provided is rational, truthful information ' put across clearly and fully. No covering up of failures and mistakes. They have to be told everything, because they deserve to know everything.

But does the government really think this is an important area of activity' Or does it think that the usual lies, distorted and unrealistic propaganda are good enough' The truth is not negotiable; if the government realizes this and still wishes to keep the people informed, it has the means of doing so, of coming closer to them, and of gaining their confidence and trust.

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