Last week, Britain made history when for the first time, the leaders from the three mainstream political parties debated in front of a studio audience and was also televised live. Such debates have become a regular feature in the US where this tradition started with the historic debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon way back in 1960. Other countries to have tried this include France, New Zealand, Australia and Iran (Source).
Importance of these Debates
The importance of such cannot be overstated. Firstly, these debates provide a direct platform to leaders to directly reach out their target audience. These leaders otherwise usually spend crores on traveling around the country and in organizing rallies which is mainly attended by party loyalists and not ordinary people.
The present spending limit for candidates is Rs 25 lakhs in Parliamentary elections and Rs 10 lakhs in Assembly elections. How many Indians can spare such large sums of money. More importantly, once they get elected, wouldn't they be motivated to get return on investment. India does not have open and clean system to raise funds for political parties like that of the US. Thus such debates can create a level playing field by reducing the role of money power in elections.
Secondly, such televised debates can lower the power of media-houses. Media houses and Journalists are universally known to have their own biases and often cover stories favorably. For e.g., in UK media has largely ignored the Liberal Democrats in the past. However, last week their leader comprehensively dominated the first Election debate in UK. Thus, the debate created a level playing field and allowed real talent to flourish.
Additionally, a major issue plaguing Indian media today is the rising phenomenon of paid news. It has been widely reported in the international media and it includes the big media houses as well. For e.g., a 2004 article in Asia Times Online claims that even Times of India sells its space for paid coverage (I can't comment on its authenticity). Another more recent article (2009) on Wall Street Journal says,
Ajay Goyal is a serious, independent candidate contesting for a Lok Sabha seat in Chandigarh. Never heard of him? Neither, probably, have a lot of people in Chandigarh because when it came to getting press coverage for his campaign he was faced with a simple message: If you want press, you have to pay.In the recent Maharashtra elections, three newspapers that compete with each other, Lokmat, Pudhari and Maharashtra Times, carried the same piece, with the same picture and headline on Ashok Chavan. There are people on record saying that representatives of the Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar, Punjab Kesri, Eenadu asked for money. (Source)
So far, he says, he's been approached by about 10 people – some brokers and public relations managers acting on behalf of newspaper owners, some reporters and editors – with the message that he'll only get written about in the news pages for a fee. We're not talking advertising; we're talking news. One broker offered three weeks of coverage in four newspapers for 10 lakh rupees ($20,000). A reporter and a photographer from a Chandigarh newspaper told him that for 1.5 lakh rupees ($3,000) for them and a further 3 lakh rupees ($6,000) for other reporters, they could guarantee coverage in up to five newspapers for two weeks.
In such a corrupt environment, it is important to reduce money power and create a level playing field which is exactly what these debates tend to do.
Some people might question the efficacy of such debates. Televised Debates is not everyone's cup of tea. However, such debates only judge the articulation and fluency of the candidates which has no relation to their ability to Govern. Such debates would effectively rule out the likes of ManMohan Singh any chance of becoming the Prime Ministerial Candidates. But isn't fair enough. Aren't leaders expected to articulate and inspire.
And is it too high price to pay, considering if such a system is in place, it would force the likes of Mayawati to come out and face the music and answer questions from the audience. Mayawati has conveniently and continuously ignored the media since the dalits to read or bother newspapers and English new channels. Such debates will not allow candidates to make false promises as they will be cross-questioned. The likes of ManMohan Singh can continue to hold other important positions like Finance Minster or in the Planning Commision.
Another important aspect is that, the party which is ahead has little to gain from a debate in which the leader might slip up, and forfeit their advantage. This has been evident in Britain where there has been a tradition that at every general election the leader of the Opposition challenges the Prime Minister to a televised debate (on the grounds they have nothing to lose) only to be turned down by the Prime Minister (on the grounds they have everything to lose). LK Advani too had challenged ManMohan Singh for televised debate on the eve of the elections which was rejected by the Prime Minister.
Conducting such debates in India
Conducting debates in far more linguistically homogeneous societies like UK or US is far more easy. The obvious question is in which language would you have such a debate. India is far too diverse linguistically. Hindi is unsuitable in the south or the north-east while English is restricted to the urban and elite class. Secondly, India has a multi-party system and any meaningful televised debate can occur with such a large number of participants.
In such an environment, it is difficult to imagine conducting election debates in National Elections atleast in the foreseeable future. But why can't we have such debates in Assembly Elections. States in India were created linguistically and every state has a state language. These debates can be conducted in the state language. Furthermore, each state typically has just two or three major political parties or groups. So an effective debate can be conducted under the aegis of the Election Commission of India.
We proudly call ourselves the World's Largest Democracy. But there others like Arundhati Roy who call India's democracy a fake democracy. The reality is somewhere in the middle. We only have pockets of Democracy. Even after 62 years of independence, democracy has not reached every part of the country.
We must bring democracy to every doorstep and Election Debates are a great way to achieve this because it gives a voice to everyone.
If we strengthen our democracy, development will follow. This new democracy can take on anyone including Naxals. Democracy is for the people, by the people and of the people.Our forefathers fought hard so that we enjoy basic rights. It is now our turn to fight their unfinished battles. It is now time that the Indian Civil Society shun its ignorance and demand a level playing field. It is time that our leader must face the music.
Would love to see a debate between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi in 2014. And if you still haven't watched the UK Election Debate, you may do so on Youtube.