Democracy seeks people’s opinion on various issues of common concern because it derives its authority from the people, and claims its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. Democracy encourages the flow of ideas and promotes public debate and discussion, to ensure people’s participation in the aspects of policy formulation, legislation and in the wider processes of governance. The strength of a democratic system lies in respecting what its citizens feel and think, and in creating an atmosphere of fair and frank interaction of thought, approaches and perspectives for solving collective problems and building a polity of free and equal beings.

In the fulfilment of this goal of the democratic system, public opinion acquires relevance. It need not be the opinion of all the people, not even of the majority. Public opinion is not ‘private opinion’, however exalted a person might be. It is also not an ‘expert opinion’, irrespective of the wisdom and competence of an expert. It may just be called the opinion of the common people, of ordinary citizens, what in Latin used to be known as ‘Vox Populi’ (voice of the people) and the Roman axiom was ‘Vox populi, vox dei’ (voice of the people is the voice of God).

The significance of public opinion in a democracy is based on four assumptions – (i) that the public is interested in influencing decision-making; (ii) that the public has a considered view to communicate; (iii) that the public expects its representatives to heed and articulate its opinion, and (iv) that the public entertains the hope and the expectation that its opinion would count with the government and the legislators in the enactment of law.

But what is meant by ‘public’? The term ‘public’ is somewhat ambiguous. First, there’s no single ‘public’; in fact, there are several ‘publics’. The term ‘public’ means essentially a segment of society, sharing common interests and subscribing to similar views and opinions on matters of public policy. The entire people of the whole nation in totality do not constitute one single homogeneous public subscribing to one universal public opinion. This is a fallacy that should be discarded. What constitutes public is not fixed, it changes with the issue. So, public opinion is the ‘voice of the interested spectators of action’.

There is a different set of public expressing opinions on different issues and problems, and even on those there is no uniform opinion. Public opinion necessarily reflects plurality and diversity of opinions. On every major issue a wide range of public opinion can be expected, and as there are many ‘publics’, there are also many ‘opinions’. On different problems, different segments of public take interest and form their respective opinions.

Even among these interested groups, it’s quite possible that there’s variation due to ideological differences, or differences in other factors like age, vocation, class and tradition etc. On any given major issue, there can be a secular and rational public opinion, and a communal and sectarian public opinion; a national public opinion and a regionalist public opinion; a progressive public opinion and a reactionary public opinion. However, it is important to know that controversy is the very essence of public opinion in a democracy. It generates thinking, promotes wider awareness, and invites citizens to understand and examine the issue from different points of view.

If public opinion is to be recognized genuinely as both ‘public’ and ‘opinion’, then it should be differentiated from ‘propaganda’, ‘incantation’ of dogma and belief to conceal the lack of real content, ‘advertisement’ and ‘public relations exercise’. People are exposed to the information explosion with technological development of mass media and the phenomenal expansion of print and electronic media. In modern mass societies people read, listen, and see so much that it is not always easy for them to sift facts from fiction.