There are several ways in which citizens participate in the democratic process. Public opinion is one of the most effective ways. People quite often enter into discussion on political parties, leaders and candidates and express their opinions on various issues. They do so while travelling in a train or a bus, or at other public places. They also discuss policy decisions taken by the government.
Many write letters to the editor expressing views on different issues or participate in protest rallies and discussions on radio or television. All such views take the form of public opinion and influence various aspects of democratic process, such as voting behaviour, functioning of a government and the working of administration.
Meaning of Public Opinion
The concept of public opinion has been defined in a variety of ways and definitions appear to be complex. Public opinion is not the unanimous opinion of the people, nor it is the opinion of the majority. Public opinion is an organised and considered opinion of the people on any issues of public concern. Public opinion can also be defined as the complex collection of opinions of different people and the sum of all their views. To a great extent, various definitions on public opinion include the following characteristics:
- public opinion is an aggregate of views
- views are based on reasons
- these views aim at ensuring the welfare of the whole community
- public opinion influences the decisions of governments, functioning of political parties and running of administration
Importance of Public Opinion in Democracy
The role of public opinion, in a democracy, can hardly be ignored. Democratic government draws its authority from the people and claims its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. No government can function without the support of the people. The process of development of public opinion generates thinking, promotes awareness and invites people’s views on issues of public concern.
The following roles of public opinion are especially important:
- An alert and free public opinion is a check on absolute power
- It ensures a system in which no organ of the government overrules others
- It promotes a process to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people
- It influences government in making laws in the interest of the people
- It strengthens democratic values and norms
- It protects rights, freedoms and liberty: ‘eternal vigilance’ is rightly called the price of liberty, i.e. every citizen needs to be vigilant in order to protect democratic
Public Opinion: Agencies for its Formulation
Public opinion is not the simple aggregation of views or opinions expressed by individuals or groups. In fact, public opinion is formed on the basis of such views and opinions, but there are number of agencies that contribute to its formulation.
1. Print Media: Newspapers, periodicals, magazines and other print materials have been contributing to the formulation of public opinion since a long time. The news items, articles, news stories, letters to editors and several other published items on almost all the critical public issues update the individual views and opinions. These also assimilate and concretise varied views and opinions and help them evolve as public opinion. These media instruments also facilitate communication of public opinion to all concerned.
2. Electronic Media: Cinema, radio, T.V. channels and now cell phones have emerged as perhaps the most effective tools that contribute to the formulation of public opinion. Their audio-visual mode helps a great deal in assimilating views and opinions expressed even in the remotest part of the country. They help in converting views into the most representative public opinion and also in communicating it to all concerned.
3. Political Parties constitute an important agency for opinion formation. The political parties and their leaders feed the people with facts and ideas. The leaders of political parties undertaking padyatras, rathyatras and workers of political parties conducting mass awareness activities about their programmes and policies. These contribute a great deal in the formulation of public opinion.
4. Legislatures: Legislatures, Parliament and State Legislatures in our country are the most effective institutions that make substantive contribution to the formation of public opinion. The impact of their contribution has increased manifold since the beginning of the live telecast of legislative debates. These are places where most of the discussions and debates on all the critical issues of public policy and public welfare take place. These are watched and heard by the vast majority of population. Legislature’s platform provides authentic information and ideas on which public opinion is effectively formulated.
5. Educational Institutions: Different educational institutions also help create public opinion. Schools, colleges, universities and professional institutes leave on the minds permanent impact. These formal educational institutions impart political education and contribute to the formation of public opinion as well.