The public is watching

Sanjay Kapoor

How ephemeral popularity can be. Take Manmohan Singh, for instance. Till 2009, his supporters claimed that Congress returned to power due to his integrity and popularity. In little more than a year's time, his fortunes have plummeted to new depths. He just cannot put a foot right. Every time he moves even a muscle, he seems to sink deeper in the quicksand. Although much of his problems are of his own making, let us not forget that governments, all over the world, are looking inadequate and beaten. Whether these are democracies or dictatorships, all of them are floundering in the face of intense public scrutiny.

Take, for example, the US President Barack Obama. His amazing popularity and the way he worked the crowds now seems so long ago. When I met him in Washington during the primaries, I had wondered why Indians can't get a leader like him. There was real envy towards the American people. In the penultimate year of his first four-year term, Obama is in tatters. His much vaunted articulation has ceased to help him, as has his ability to balance between the Left and the Right. His ratings are falling with every passing day. No one is sure whether he can secure a second term. If the economy does not rebound in the next few months, then he will surely sink. Republicans, who have been very uncomfortable with his coming to power, have not helped the cause.

France's Nicholas Sarkozy is in no better shape. When he became the president, he gave evidence of boundless energy and openness to new ideas. Here again, Sarkozy has begun to look far more diminutive than his short height. The only bump in his fortunes seems to be coming from his amply pregnant wife – the controversial Carla Bruni.

And in the United Kingdom, Premier David Cameron gives an impression of being freshly minted, but his term has been soiled by the unprecedented London riots. Although the authorities have tried to show that the acts of violence were not guided by any ideology, postmodernist philosophers like Slavoj Zizek find enough proof in shoplifting as the assertion of the mass discontent towards the authorities. Cameron, who was on a holiday to Spain, had to rush back to make sense of the violence, before it mutated into something unmanageable.

People in other European countries reeling under the economic slowdown are also wild with their governments. Greece, Ireland, Spain, Italy and countries in other continents are wondering why their governments are botching up the "simple" business of running the country. While the answers are not forthcoming, the questions are going viral courtesy social networking sites and the internet.

Indeed, one of the major factors that is feeding this widespread discontent is communication technology. For the first time in human history, people of every country have access to internet and mobile telephony. Although the digital divide is still around, educated sections in every country have begun to use the internet and are accessing information to gain wisdom. Better understanding of social, economic and political issues has raised expectations from the government, with people demanding transparency and accountability. In many cases, huge masses of people are analysing the information on their own and coming to their own judgements. Journalists are no longer the sole arbiter of information. Social media like Facebook and Twitter are lending credibility to many ordinary people who send out their views in the public domain.

It is a difficult world where reality is changing by the minute. Governments no longer control the agenda of news. On the contrary, they are at the receiving end of public scrutiny. Their every move is watched and judged by millions of minds that are disillusioned with the status quo. The people expect their leaders to be of impeccable integrity, and insist that their governments must deliver. They protest against any display of sloth or poor reflexes on the part of the government. Moreover, they resent policies that seem anti-people and are not in consonance with global standards. No wonder, nuclear power plants are being opposed everywhere, and on the extreme end, dynastic politics as well.

So this is the big question of our time: Is communication technology, through the values it is helping to disseminate widely across the world today, creating an architecture, even though a bit nebulous, of global governance values? If that is the case, then can politics in countries like India keep pace? 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2011

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