It is debating season in the US presidential election calendar. The first of three presidential debates was held on 3 October between incumbent President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. The debates are grist for the prime-time mill and a full-employment act for news anchors, analysts and election pundits.
Other democratic countries have begun to follow this tradition. The UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Mexico and Brazil hold debates among the leaders of their parties before a federal election. Prior to the election in 2010, for the first time on live television in the UK, current Prime Minister David Cameron debated with former prime minister Gordon Brown and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. The debate calendar for that year included three leaders’ debates and several “functional” debates between members of the three parties. These functional debates were held for foreign affairs, finance (the chancellor’s debate), education, health, etc. Australia held only one debate between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott prior to its 2010 general election. It being prime time, the debate was re-scheduled so as not to clash with the final of the popular MasterChef Australia reality series. There were four parties represented in the prime ministerial debates of 2011 for Canada. Two debates were held—one in English and one in French. National parties with at least 5% of the popular vote are eligible to participate.
The history of US presidential debates is long and the stuff of legend. The first live debates were believed to have been between Abraham Lincoln and senator Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 (without a moderator). The first-ever live television debate for the presidential election took place in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was watched by more than one-third of the population of the US at that time. Kennedy’s photogenic appeal and performance was widely credited with undoing Nixon’s lead in the race to succeed president Dwight Eisenhower. Debates are not constitutionally mandated in any country. This is because the age of television is relatively new and constitutional amendments too few in many of the above countries. There is strong popular support for debates in many countries.
Should India hold debates before general elections?
Like with almost anything in India, this is a complex question with myriad possibilities. On the face of it, the very idea raises more questions than it answers. What purpose would debates really serve? Is it mere westernism, ill suited for India? Will this be one way to bring in issues and ideology into national politics? Would it bring added perspective to people’s choice? What is the role of debates in a parliamentary system of government? What is the role of debate in a polyglot, heterogeneous polity such as India? In the multi-party tapestry that makes up the Indian political fabric today, which parties would you invite? Is seven too many? Three too few? Would it be injustice if you didn’t invite some parties that could never hope to make it on their own but could legitimately play queen-maker in a coalition government? Which institution would be credible enough to set the rules of engagement? Like elsewhere, does India need to get to a two/three party system at the Centre for it to even consider the question? Which language would the debates be in? Should India eschew personality politics (can we, of all peoples, do that)?
Complexity is not reason enough to duck debate. Ask yourself this simple question—given where we are, are we better off with debates (howsoever imperfect) or without? If the answer to this is yes, then we owe it to ourselves to find a way. My answer is a resounding yes. I propose that late in the election season, approximately two months before elections, India hold a single party leader’s debate and three functional debates (with other members from the party allowed). The Election Commission (EC) is the only authority with the credibility to pull this off. The EC will be charged with setting the dates for the debates and also appointing a debates committee that would set the rules of engagement. There should be a national threshold of 3% of votes for a party to be invited. If you apply that number to the result of the 2009 election in India where 364 political parties competed for 543 Lok Sabha seats, six parties—Indian National Congress, Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party—would be invited. The president of each party would be free to nominate either himself or others to the leaders’ and functional debates.
Will you join issue with me on this?
P.S. “What the TV debates did was to generalize this tribal sense of participation, this emotional judgment of the leader, from the few to the multitude....”—Pulitzer Prize winning author Theodore White in The Making of the President, 1960.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at email@example.com
To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand