Tuesday, December 9, 2014

No Space for Public Reason?

It is becoming quite clear that the TV studio opinions and the social media outrages are increasingly determining governments' agenda. The exercise of public reason has taken a back seat -- at least in the cases in which media (conventional or social) decide to get involved. The result is that the governments just want to be seen as doing something, anything, even before they have thought through the issue. It's the impression that only seems to matter.

Consider the two recent cases -

First was the case of Rohtak girls who decided to stand up to their alleged harassers in a public bus. Media widely reported, even celebrated, the event. The Haryana government of ML Khattar (who had in the recent elections remarked that the girls should dress appropriately else it leads to trouble) immediately announced bravery awards for the girls. But then just the next day TV channels got hold of a new video showing the girls in yet another similar situation. Implicit questions were raised whether it were the girls who were simply of the aggressive kind. (As if a woman who has once stood up for herself should not take a similar stand ever again). That media wanted its talking points was not surprising but what was surprising was the Haryana government's decision to withhold its award to the girls. It's ridiculous that a government's actions be decided based on what's the mood on the dinner time TV debates. And yet that's what happened on two consecutive days -- first the rush to announce the awards, then to cancel them. They might have as well conducted a twitter poll or something.

Second is the Uber case. Due to the media attention, the central government felt obliged to be seen as doing something even before it had taken a considered view on the matter. (As is clear from the differing views of the Home Minister and the Transport Minister, the council itself is not clear what the strategy to deal with the situation should be). And it did just the easiest of things -- ban the cab service. In this particular case, the effect of media can be seen in still starker relief if one considers that the accused was a serial offender whose similar crimes were already brought to police notice earlier. But those crimes were committed in a small town in UP away from the gaze of media. (In fact there were reports that the neighbors from the village where the accused hailed distributed sweets celebrating the news that he was finally going to be punished now that he had committed a crime in the capital and media was involved.)

So clearly it's the media, and not some underlying public purpose, that is getting the governments to act. Or at least be seen as doing something, however meaningless those actions may be. Action is demanded and activity is delivered. As for the progress, that's a different thing.

Now, I have earlier held the view that in a democracy a government should respond to whatever its citizens demand even if those demands are not the most rational ones. (Of course, while remaining within the broader limits of our constitution). But now I am not all that sure about this.

The main question here, I think,  is the nature of representation that our politicians should owe us. Should they just be our delegates who must simply carry out whatever wishes we might have? Or should they be allowed to act as trustees who, in the words of Edmund Burke, "owe us not merely their industry but also their judgement"? Of course, given the distrust of the politician class the trustee model would sound dangerous to most. But then the delegate model, in combination with an hyperactive media, also has its own ridiculousness.

So I am not sure what the right balance is. But this much is certain -- that we need more places where calm public reason can be exercised. Parliament was one such place, but it's in decline now due to various reasons. Media is functioning within a competitive market. And as a rational actor has its focus on TRPs which doesn't really care much about providing that location for public reasoning. Where else?
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