The New Public Sphere
Public participation is the bedrock of a successful and vibrant democracy. Debates, discussions and a healthy exchange of ideas go a long way in strengthening the foundations of democratic systems. Countries across the globe took to newer modes of public communication even as their democracies kept evolving. With the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, science and knowledge found the fuel to spread from one corner of the world to the other. These printing presses also played a major role in the Renaissance that swept through Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The first experiment with public gatherings to take political ideas to people happened when the 19th century was drawing to a close. William Ewart Gladstone, who got elected as Britain’s prime minister in 1892, had made public gatherings the medium to communicate his political ideas. Around the same time, leaders in America too were engaged in similar experiments.
During India’s freedom struggle, the trend of using newspapers and magazines for communication picked up. Post-Independence, political parties continued to use them to further their political discourse. In fact, newspapers and magazines became a tool for politicians to convey their ideas to the masses.
Around the same time, radio emerged as a medium that not only provided a platform for political debates but also helped to spread social awareness even in distant villages. Radio programmes on farming, women empowerment and other indigenous issues were received well by people.
The entry of television triggered a huge transformation. The presence of visuals was television’s biggest advantage. It is for this reason that TV has remained a medium for debates between political parties.
The advent of new mediums, however, has in no way rendered the old modes of communication redundant. Even in this era of social media, print, radio and television remain relevant in several ways. Programmes such as “Kaun Banega Mukhyamantri’ and political exit polls keep people glued to television. Radio continues to be widely popular among the urban youth. Newspapers have undergone changes to meet the requirements of changing times.
The digital mode of communication is now the most effective mode of communication. Tweets and Facebook posts are sources of information even for the so-called mainstream communication channels. However, the discussions happening on these platforms seldom result in ideas that last.
The situation emerging from the coronavirus pandemic signals changes in the ways of public communication and mass contact. With social distancing norms becoming mandatory amid the growing need for public communication, media has emerged as a powerful platform. Since India is a multi-party democracy, political parties are expected to keep channels of communication open even during difficult situations.
Home Minister Amit Shah’s Bihar jansamvad rally has introduced us to a new experience of digital communication. The digitally-held rally saw the participation of crores of people. The experiment was also important as it allowed such a huge programme to be organised with such little resources and so little time. Because a large number of people turn up at public rallies, a lot of resources are spent in managing the logistics. And it is only natural for the public to join public communication programmes with enthusiasm.
The success of these digital innovations in public communication has opened the doors for its increased use in the times to come. This has also been possible because of the growing penetration of digital technology in India’s rural areas. There is no doubt it will aid in strengthening public participation in India’s democracy.
As India enters a technology-driven world, changes in the country’s political discourse are natural and communication between parties and people will become simpler. It is also possible that the use of banners, posters and pamphlets will reduce in the near future and there is likely to be greater acceptance of campaigning through digital means. The country is, without a doubt, entering a new phase of political public communication.
The writer is general secretary, BJP, and Rajya Sabha MP