The image-building fallacy

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

It is time our policymakers and heads of state institutions highlighted through publicity campaigns the qualities of an organisation that actually exist, and not cast it in a mould that is patently inappropriate.

POETRY, T.S. Eliot said in one of his essays is "the thing itself, and not another thing". He was saying, in other words, what the old story about six blind men trying to describe an elephant also says, even though the story is more diffuse and elaborate.

Many will say that advertisements tend to be doing just the opposite; making things out to be what they are not. And whatever the truth of this is in relation to products like toiletries, or cars or insurance policies, in one area they most certainly do move away from `the thing itself' and try to create in its place something that is entirely fanciful. This is the image building they try to do for public institutions such as the police, or the medical care system in different States.

In Delhi, some years ago, a well-meaning Police Commissioner, Vijay Karan, started a publicity campaign to present a different image of the police; he wanted the public to believe, from what one gathered, that the police were a caring, concerned force, in whose experienced hands the residents of Delhi were safe. "With You, For You, Always" was the slogan that appeared on all police patrol vans, on hoardings, and on banners on special occasions. Most people in Delhi became, over time, familiar with it.

The sad truth, though, was that it was so entirely removed from reality that it became a slogan that caused more derision than anything else. It was lampooned, became the butt of numerous satirical stories and comments, and then emerged as a metaphor for just what was wrong with the Delhi Police; the seniormost in that organisation had a notion of what it was that was far, far removed from the public perception of the police force and slogan came to represent the kind of lotus-eating attitude that plagues all, or many, of the public institutions we have to deal with.

The residents of Delhi know just what the police force in that city state is. To say that such a force was with us, for us always became a grotesque, and even sinister, joke. Not the kind of effect Vijay Karan would have had in mind, to put it mildly.

The mistake was in thinking that publicity, or advertising, can change what an institution really is. It cannot, as any reasonable person knows. What it can do is highlight the qualities - the good ones, naturally enough - of an organisation that actually exist, and not cast it in a mould that is so patently, even foolishly, inappropriate. We know the police are with us - with us to extort a bribe for an alleged traffic offence, or to enforce the dictates of a local gangster. A journalist in a Delhi newspaper did a story some years ago after taking an Assistant Commissioner with him in his car through the streets and deliberately jumping traffic lights, sometimes as many as three times in the same place. There was no reaction from the traffic police lounging nearby. But, significantly, as it neared sunset, the time for the first drink of the evening, the policemen vanished, and the journalist reported the mortification of the police official who witnessed them fastening on to passing trucks demanding - and getting - sizable amounts, which would cover the cost of liquor and eats. This was what "With You, For You, Always" translated into.

BUT the image-building fallacy is not confined to the police. A friend told me, just a week ago, of the horrific time she had in one of the biggest public hospitals in the capital - Safdarjung Hospital. Her maid was due to have a child and there were some complications, so the husband had taken her to that hospital for medical attention during the delivery. Within hours of his taking her there my friend, the wife of a distinguished and respected former diplomat, and herself a celebrated performing artist, received a frantic phone call from the husband pleading with her to come to the hospital. No one was attending to his wife, he said, and he did not know what to do. She went at once, and was appalled by what she saw.

There were milling crowds and bad tempered staff hectoring them in the most unpleasant manner. She was denied entry to the ward, in the most offensive terms, in spite of her pleading that all she wanted was to find out how the patient was. Finally, she saw the Medical Superintendent, and it was, she said, another world - a world of politeness, courtesy and assistance. A world that ended outside the Medical Superintendent's door. The assurances of all help being given proved to be as laughable as the Delhi Police slogan; a junior doctor raised an imperious finger when my friend tried to explain the little information she needed, and with a circular movement worthy, my friend said, of a dancer, he pointed to the door. When my friend tried to renew her request, the gesture was repeated, less gracefully.

And ironically, the Ministry of Health has big hoardings within that hospital and elsewhere extolling the virtues of timely vaccination, of prevention of various diseases and exhorting people to adopt hygienic habits in the bathroom and elsewhere. All these have pictures of smiling doctors and smiling nurses, as if that is the kind of staff you can expect in the medical facilities provided by the state. And everyone knows, as my friend found out to her cost, just how true those depictions are.

The enormous expenditure on this kind of publicity and advertising ought to be a major concern to the state. It achieves nothing; if anything, it generates adverse publicity and anger.

The cause is, every time, the fact that the officials at the policy-making levels and the heads of institutions, choose to live in a fairy tale world, a world peopled with ubiquitous, soft-spoken orderlies and attendants, with subordinates waiting to carry out every order, of air-conditioned rooms and cars, of comfort and well-being. From that world the rest of the world tends to be what one thinks it ought to be, and that is the fatal mistake they make. They think they can order it to be what they want it to be; they think they can make people think what they want them to think. It never occurs to them that reality is quite different, and needs to be seen. The Caliph of Baghdad did not roam the streets at night for romantic reasons; he did so as an astute administrator who did not want his own luxurious surroundings to blind him to the condition in which his people lived.

One could take the argument even further, and point out how enlightened officials in the Planning Commission, and in the Ministries of the Central government, wrap themselves in a magical, fairy tale world of statistics and figures, convincing themselves that things are going just as they had planned. Those figures, too, are a kind of advertising - they reveal what these officials want them to reveal, nothing else.

Advertising is a valid projection of the virtues of a product; it cannot make a product what it is not. It is time that our policy-makers and heads of state institutions like hospitals and the police realised this, and looked at their institutions to remedy the terrible ills that afflict them. It will be after that is done that they can say that they will be with us, for us, always.

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