There is a veritable crisis in trust the world over. An “implosion” of trust is happening across the four institutions of government, business, media and NGOs, as trust levels have decreased in many countries and the credibility of leaders and leadership has come into question. Paradoxically, India is among the few countries where trust is still riding high.
Globally, the general population’s trust in all four institutions has declined, with two of the four institutions distrusted and two in three countries distrusters. And herein lies the contradiction: Bucking every trend, India has seen a seven-point rise in the Trust Index in 2017. The global Trust Index may have gone down this year to 47 percent from 50 percent in 2016, but India’s Trust Index has risen to 72 percent from 65 percent last year. Where global trust in the government is at 41 percent, in India it is 75 percent, up 10 percent. Interestingly, the Indian government is also the second most trusted after China and tied with the UAE. In India, trust in business is at a high of 74 percent, up five points; trust in NGOs is at 71 percent, up seven points; and trust in media is at 66 percent, up three points compared to the global figure for media (43 percent), which is down by five points.
Government is distrusted in 75 percent of the countries surveyed. Countries such as the U.S., the UK, and Italy that have shown a lack of trust have also respectively seen the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote and a failed referendum. Globally, two of the four institutions (media and government) are not trusted enough to do what is right. Trust is also critical to having belief in the system and it differentiates those who are uncertain and those who believe the system is failing them. The numbers within the latter indicate that one in two countries has lost faith in the system.
It is against this backdrop that we must understand why India is so trusting. Some would argue that because India has a “populist” leader in Prime Minister Modi, it is the most trusting country in the survey. Yes, India has put faith in his government over the last two years, with the hope for a better future. But it is not so much a vote for the government alone as much as it is for all the forces that collectively drive the economy.
Possibly, the momentum of the Indian economy is the reason for this sustained trust across institutions. There is hope that the economy will continue to retain its pace of growth – recently, per data released by the IMF, India surpassed the UK to become the world’s sixth-largest economy in GDP terms. Following the change in the rankings, India’s economy stands behind the U.S., China, Japan, Germany and France. India’s economy maintained its growth around 7 percent on the back of a price slump in global commodities, good rainfall, and lower-than-expected inflation, in addition to measures taken by the government to spur growth.
Interestingly, India isn’t untouched by the systemic distrust and fear. In fact, India has an above-average level of societal fear when it comes to corruption, immigration, globalization issues, eroding social values and the pace of change. “Concerns” about corruption in India are high at 83 percent; however, those who “fear” are less (52 percent) because there is hope that the government will find solutions. The demonetization of high-value currency notes announced by the Modi government has largely been viewed as a measure to counter corruption, despite the mass inconvenience caused and the outpourings of political outrage. A large section of even those adversely impacted by the absence of cash in the market are inclined to give Modi the benefit of the doubt and hope that his avowed objective of containing corruption will be achieved.
Globally, trust in the media is at an all-time low, falling from 48 percent to 43 percent. Only India, Turkey, Sweden and Indonesia have seen a rise in trust since 2016. Mapped against the cloverleaf, trust has gone up for India’s traditional media (+6 points), online media (+4 points ) and search engines (+6 points ). A review of the past five years shows that Indians have grown to trust the media in general; trust in online and search engines have also gone up. This increased trust in media in general is probably the result of the broad satisfaction with standards in India’s media. And because the media tries to strike the right balance for supporting freedom of speech, in most cases, and for the societal issues it may raise. Add to this the significant growth across India in mobile, Internet penetration, social platforms and the use of apps and tools. The year 2017 may prove to be a litmus test for the media’s health, given recent business growth issues.
Last year, the traditional pyramid of influence — with elites on top — was turned on its head globally and influence lay in the hands of the general populace, creating a trust gap of 12 points. This year that gap has widened to 15 points, with the highest trust gap of 21 points in the U.S. India’s trust gap measured 10 points, where the informed public are more trusting of the institutions than the mass population. Now the inversion of influence is clear: the mass population now has influence and authority.
A great example of this is the recent controversy surrounding Jallikattu, the bull-taming sport in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court of India had banned the practice, citing animal welfare concerns. But after week-long state-wide mass protests by youths, an ordinance was issued recently, allowing the popular sport to make a thumping return.
For communicators, there are interesting findings in the survey. Last year, trust in CEOs experienced a spike both globally and in India, but this has changed dramatically in 2017, plummeting 8 points in the country. People like yourself (up 7 points) and NGO representatives (up 8 points) are now as credible as experts in India. Personal experience is more believable over data, and there is more reason to believe a company’s social media than advertising.
While that may hold true, there is a strong sense of belief that businesses can act in a manner that combines profitability with responsibility to improve economic and social conditions in the communities where they operate. Respondents believe companies must do more – treat their employees well, offer better products and services, place customers ahead of profits and pay more attention to customer needs and feedback. Companies must be transparent in their practices and take responsible action in the face of crises.
This weaves in with the overall trust conferred upon the government – the need to do the right thing for a better future. The complete inversion of influence necessarily mandates that institutions work with the people. Yet again, business and government have been given the opportunity to work in tandem in such a way that public policy, societal and economic gains and information flow can lead to sustainable development and redress the concerns of the masses. India has bet on hope and on better days to come, and trust in its key institutions is a result of that hope.
Rakesh Thukral is managing director, Edelman India.