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The Americans Aren't Afraid Of Electoral Debates, So Why Are We?

27/09/2016 4:48 PM IST | Updated 27/09/2016 8:01 PM IST
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It was heartening to watch Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump slug it out at their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York on 26 September. Irrespective of who scored better—Clinton or Trump—one thing was abundantly clear: people got to know their presidential nominees better.

Often I wonder, why are people so scared of open debate? Do they have something to hide? Is it the desire to hide incompetence?

How much I wish we had the same culture of debate to decide our topmost representative. In fact every time I've watched the US presidential debate, I've thought on similar lines. But nothing like this seems to be in the offing. The closest thing we have to a debate is when a leader says something at a rally, which is followed by political rivals launching a counter-offensive at a different rally or in a press conference. In this kind of "deferred debate", the beauty of a real face-off is missing.

Something closer to the US presidential debate happens in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, where students contesting for various posts participate in an open public debate in front of a large gathering. Unfortunately, JNU debates have become clichéd in their content since most candidates tend to parrot their predecessors. Ultimately, the best orators get the most applause, regardless of the substance of their speech.

When I was contesting for the post of general secretary for the Press Club of India more than a decade ago, I proposed the idea of a public debate. At least mediapersons should be able to debate over what they stand for. There were no takers.

Often I wonder, why are people so scared of open debate? Do they have something to hide? Is it the desire to hide incompetence? Are they afraid to show their inabilities in articulating issues? Or do people fear that a reasonable debate will not allow them to strike deals and spread rumours?

For example, Hillary Clinton raised embarrassing issues facing Donald Trump such as his tax payments, fine by Justice Department for racial discrimination, and obnoxious attempts to "investigate" Obama's roots. The debate gave Trump a chance to clarify his position. He too raised the issue of Hillary Clinton deleting her controversial emails. She termed it a mistake.

People have a right to know about their leaders—every aspect—since they will be the ones guiding the destinies of citizens for the terms they get elected. The people must make an informed choice. This transparency is missing in India.

The people must make an informed choice. This transparency is missing in India.

The first opposition to such a proposal for open debate in India comes from the fact that there are so many parties, unlike the US where it is largely a two-party system. But a system can be devised whereby parties are allotted time as per their participation. Even if you give time to all parties, people will watch only those debates that are substantial. Leave it to the people. A debate organized by the Election Commission of India is bound to generate interest. At the very least people should get to know their prime ministerial candidates. Similarly, debates can be organized at the level of Lok Sabha constituencies with local interest and participation.

The next hurdle comes because people say you need not be a good debater to be a good representative. True. But you must be educated enough to understand the task of legislation and the Constitution. If you can't, how can you govern? But this is bound to be termed elitist.

We Indians thrive in arguments and debates. We say that we should settle issues through talks and negotiations. Why then should we run shy of debates? It is time for the Election Commission to initiate debates even within the parliamentary system of democracy. It can only do good for the march of our democracy.

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