Off beat! (04): Should Debates Decide Rulers?


09 Jul 2012: “The first the Retort Courteous; the second the Quip Modest; the third the Reply Churlish; the fourth the Reproof Valiant; the fifth the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh the Lie Direct.” – William Shakespeare, English dramatic poet (1564-1616) in As You Like It.

Presidential candidate Sangma has been challenging his rival presidential candidates do through a series of TV debates. Of course, Sangma knows that the numbers are against him and has also raised the bogey of ‘office of profit’ – in this case, Pranab’s chairmanship of Indian Statistical Institute, which he claimed to have relinquished before filing his nomination. Coming back to debate, Sangma (whose demand has been turned down) is not the first to resort to this tactic.

BJP Prime Ministerial candidate, L K Advani, and his sidekicks had been egging on incumbent Prime Minister and Prime Ministerial candidate of Congress, Dr Manmohan Singh, to a TV debate. The BJP thought that their garrulous, combative and voluble leader would win hands down against the soft, self-effacing scholar. Imitating them, lesser netas and state satraps, like Kumaraswamy of Karnataka, had been challenging their rivals for similar TV debates.

While Shakespeare envisages seven stages in an argument, our netas come directly to the seventh stage – Lie Direct. Kumaraswamy, for instance, in the same breath as asking for debate with then incumbent Chief Minister Yeddyurappa, had hinted at the latter having sought shelter in the former’s JD(S) party. In other words, debates are sought to be turned into forums to wash dirty linen and for mud-swinging.

In any case, debate is an attempt to import from America into an alien soil.  Older people recall the famous Kennedy–Nixon debate of 1960 which seemed to have turned the tide in favour of Kennedy. Commenting on it, Vir Sanghvi, leading Indian journalist, said: “Judged purely by content, Nixon won the debate – or so the story goes. But television is a visual medium. Kennedy seemed cool and assured. Nixon had a sweaty upper lip. He was lit so that he looked like he was unshaven. Viewers went with the visuals, not the content. The telegenic Kennedy won. The more experienced and cerebral Nixon lost the debate and eventually, the election.

Those who tell this story make the point that TV is not about content or substance. It is about image and performance. The West may have fallen prey to the cult of televised politics. But fortunately we in India can still avoid a situation where politicians are elected on the basis of TV ratings. And that is how it should remain.

Those who take this view argue that Manmohan Singh was right to reject Advani’s offer of a TV debate. Why turn everything into a TV event, they ask. Why not focus on old-fashioned campaigning and on issues of substance?”

On the other hand, Sanjaya Baru, former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and now a professor in Singapore, argued that as blockers of  Parliament debates, BJP hasn’t the right to call for a TV show: “Never before was a prime minister denied the right  to reply in a debate on a motion of thank to the President. Never before a prime minister been prevented from defending his record in office in a debate on a motion of confidence. Manmohan Sing was at the receiving end of such grossly unfair treatment from an Opposition that turned every Parliamentary debate into a duel. And now they want a TV debate?

Parliament is the most sacred space for democratic debate in our country. But in the fourteenth Lok Sabha, the leader of the Opposition, Lal Krishna Advani, made good use of his time to speak, and got boisterous back-benchers to deny the prime minister his chance to reply, while he sat in stoic silence. For five year they disrupted Parliament. They treated this democratic arena with contempt. And now they want a TV debate?”

Concluded Baru: “Adi Shankara, the great debater, sought debate not to demolish, but to win over. That is our tradition. But our TV has made political debate a gladiatorial sport. Indian TV must create a new culture of reasoned discussion to feel entitled to host a debate in prime ministerial stakes.” That applies to Presidential stakes as well.

Chew in this. And share!

John B. Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website (Interactive Cerebral Challenger) with instant response format. Try responding!

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