Let’s hear from them more often
It’s 100 day tacking stock time, in the States as well as in Bangladesh. Pundits of all hues tell us that the new administrations that came in January performed in this, failed in that, the mess they inherited, the mess they created, the spins, the honest approach, yadda yadda…. In addition, in the US, there is a plethora of opinion polls and surveys that can tell us what the ordinary Americans think about the new administration. While the details vary, these polls suggest that an overwhelming number of Americans like President Obama, even as they have doubts about some of his specific policies, while some hard core Republicans remain firmly opposed to him.
Sadly, in Bangladesh, there is a darth of polls and surveys like this. Some newspapers have online polls. But those polls don’t represent the wider voting public — how many people in Jhenidah click on Prothom Alo’s online survey? What we need are surveys and polls that seek opinions of people across the country that represents the citizenry as much as possible.
As far as I know, the Daily Star-Nielsen Opinion Survey is the only such poll in Bangladesh. The latest installment of the survey was done on 9-12 April, and the results were published on 16 April. Surprising the chattering classes, the government appears to remain quite popular.
Let’s quickly look at the key results.
- Over two-thirds of the surveyed think the country is moving in the right direction.
- When asked to name one issue that the government should focus most on, two-fifths said prices or food security, with corruption and law and order getting around a tenth each, and electricity getting just over a twentieth.
- Well over half think the economy’s improving.
- Around three-quarters think the government is managing the prices of essentials well, with three-quarters thinking this is the government’s major success.
- Well over a third think that the judiciary and administration are politically biased, though slightly more people thought that these institutions are independent.
- An astonishing number of people (over four-fifths) support the government’s handling of the BDR crisis.
- Surprisingy, over half think law and order has improved, although this is the government’s biggest weakness (with a quarter thinking so).
- Tellingly, over half have no idea what Digital Bangladesh is.
- Over half think corruption has lessened under the government and over half have no opinion about Hasan Mashhud’s resignation from ACC.
- Only about a third were satisfied with the opposition’s role, with another third being dissatisfied.
- Over half think the political culture has improved.
- Two-fifths have no opinion about the BCL.
Nielsen is a global marketing research firm. It does opinion polls in many democracies, and in the one I am personally most familiar with (a medium sized English speaking country), its polls are the most reputed. It provides a brief methodology which looks to be in line with how such surveys are done around the world. As such, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt the authenticity of the results.
And the results do appear to be sensible. Only a few months ago the ruling coalition received 57% of votes. The BDR crisis notwithstanding, the country hasn’t experienced anything that would suggest that people who voted for the Grand Alliance in late Dec would abandon them so quickly. When compared with our neighbours, Bangladesh does appear to be in a more stable shape.
But the results would come as a surprise to anyone whose main source of information is TV talk shows and op ed columns. Those would have one think that the government’s popularity has slumped, over the law and order, BDR, and the electricity situation. Those would have you believe that even as rice prices have come down, people are angry about cooking oil and onion.
Many years ago, before internet, VOIP, and cellphones, whenever someone would come from Bangladesh, NRB uncles (aunties rarely had access to the political adda) would quiz him about the latest state of play in Dhaka. The answers would be predictable — things were either great, or the country was going to hell, depending on the respondent’s own partisan views.
The same attitude colours our pundits even today. That’s why, before the election, Nayeemul Islam Khan and Mahmudur Rahman could see the massive tide in favour of BNP. That’s why, with one notable exception (someone who knew their Nielsen polls), every Green Zone pundit gave me the impression that it would be a close election, while the random man on the street (sadly, our streets are no place for women) invariably predicted an AL landslide. And that’s why, armed with nothing but the preconceptions, elements of the civil society, foreign diplomats, and generals sought to remake our politics, thinking the political parties and their leaders had no support.
This poll provides lessons for all of us. This is a popular government, therefore it would be suicidal for the opposition to launch an andolon. As for the government, people trust it with decisions, which means people will hold it, and no one else, to account should things worsen.
But there are important lessons for us — the know-it-all talking heads, op ed columnists, and yes, bloggers. Let’s stick to providing precise commentary on specific matters. Let’s do point out where we believe the government is falling short. But let’s never assume that we know what the public is thinking, let’s not write/speak for the ‘people’ — we have no idea what the people are thinking.
And let me ask the media to conduct more such polls. The Daily Star deserves kudos for breaking the ground. Let’s have more such surveys. Let’s hear from the people more often. Our Republic can only be stronger for it.