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No reason why election debates shouldn't happen in India

columns Updated: Sep 17, 2015 12:40 IST
Aniruddh Bhattacharyya
US 2016 elections

You know the silly season has arrived in American politics, when putative candidates to occupy the White House after 18 months take to the same stage now in an attempt to upstage each other.

That, of course, is the beginning of the primary debate cycle, though the Republican Party, in an attempt to accommodate the numerous pretenders, has even taken its debates to a secondary stage. The first act of the drama has played out; in turns farce and furious, in a show that featured more polemics than policy.

For those who may want to know, the Republican National Committee has 10 more such debates scheduled for the primary season. The Democrats will respond with six of their own. By the time the debating process concludes, both sides may well have exhausted the voting public.

The primary debaters tend to spend their time indulging in fratricide, or rather what some would describe as infantilicide. Where else can you get multiple people on the same platform who otherwise are as enthusiastic about each other’s company as Kim Kardashian is about keeping her personal affairs private? Kardashian took to Twitter the evening of the first Republican debate, tweeting that she wanted #HillaryforPresisent (that was later deleted). But, like many arguments proffered at the gab galas, her spelling is beside the point.

It took former Arkansas governor, former presidential candidate and former talk show host Mike Huckabee to state: “It seems like this election has been a whole lot about a person who’s very high in the polls, that doesn’t have a clue about how to govern. A person who has been filled with scandals, and who could not lead, and, of course, I’m talking about Hillary Clinton.”

Meanwhile, Donald Trump went on the offensive, proved offensive, and nevertheless proved that in a nation where Kim Kardashian’s endorsement is a thing, he can parley odiousness into polling leads. Take that, bleeding hearts (or bleeding eyes, as he jabbed at a female debate host).

While India has adopted US-style electioneering, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also go for the debate format. It does exist in other parliamentary democracies too, like Canada and Britain. Since these no longer occur in our Parliament, perhaps a new podium is required for that odium.

It offers an interesting opportunity to appraise the leaders’ arguing abilities. Will one be inarticulate in several languages? Will another flub historical fact with his usual élan? Will a third’s private mutterings be recorded for posterity through a secret device? The big question, of course, will be how do you choose the debaters? Party leaders, prime ministerial aspirants? Since we have nearly 1,800 registered political parties, you can see the problem. You could always have a certain per cent vote share benchmark, or, even better, hold debates along the Republican format, to the nth tier.

It’ll be a windfall for talk television. Think of the hours of programming that the chattering class will be able to harness out of a debate, when they manage to anchor an hour-long discussion out of a tweet?

The wonderful part of these debates is that they’re essentially slanging matches, to see which candidate can best rubbish his or her opponents. The content of their positions at these televised talkathons goes out with the trash once the cameras have ceased rolling.

In other words, pretty much like the manifestos of Indian political parties, and the manifest promises of leaders at rallies. You may just as well bring that pandering to a panel. During the 2008 debates, for example, then senator Barack Obama repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton’s position on healthcare reforms.

He opposed Clinton’s prescription of individuals mandatorily having to buy health insurance, saying: “I think we can anticipate that there would also be people potentially who are not covered and are actually hurt if they have a mandate imposed on them.” The healthcare law Obama the president introduced included that mandate.

So, is it time for such debates to enter Indian living rooms? At least let that debate begin.

(Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs. The views expressed are personal)