When the word “debate” appears 31 times in a single page of The New York Times on a Monday morning you know you are in the US at an exciting time. A new week, a new month and the final countdown has begun with the first of the US presidential debates in Denver. By the time you read this, you would know whether the hype and financial backing of Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, has been successful in narrowing the lead of the Barack Obama camp. But the weekend before the debate saw enough hype as Republican spin doctors took centre stage on television shows such as Meet the Press and the Fox TV Sunday Debate. By next Sunday we will know if they are back on the box explaining what went wrong or building on the gains by Romney.
A worthwhile debate
The debate in Denver between President Obama and Romney will be the 27th TV debate in the history of US presidential elections. Is it important and relevant? One may question why debate and why do it on TV? Especially when history shows a record of mixed verdict on whether a TV debate can swing the final election results in anyone’s favour. Also remember that TV is no longer the only source which helps form opinion in today’s digital age. But data shows that on average the TV debates get a viewership of 50-80 million Americans. Last week The Wall Street Journal reported that in 2008, 52.4 million viewers tuned in for the first presidential debate between Obama and John McCain. The first debate surely sets the agenda apart from helping voters to form opinions and the numbers seem pretty strong. So clearly, the fuss and buzz around the great political reality show on TV seems justified.
Unlike in India, it seems the average American voter waits for this one single opportunity to get a first-hand experience of what kind of person will lead them for the next four years. It helps them to make a choice. They judge whether the candidates are leaders with vision, articulate problems well, have a good understanding of domestic and global issues and most important do they offer hope and solution to the average American? I feel that America’s tradition of trying to establish the last-mile connect with the voter reflects the spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s famous closing lines in the Gettysburg address of 1863: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Today’s TV debates capture the same spirit about how and why a government exists. Just like Bill Clinton once said in the early 1990s—“It’s all about the economy stupid”, the TV debates establish “It’s all about the people stupid”.
The India debate
We in India fail to understand this basic fact. I feel as a voter it is not just the political leaders who failed us, but we have also failed in our duty. We do not even demand that leaders speak to us, so the concept of debate in today’s India remains much distant. Clearly the Prime Minister speaking at the time of a crisis is not good enough; we need it more often and definitely through debates when elections take place. In a democracy, a 3D model has to replace the present 1D model. We need Discussion, Debate and Decision and not a Decision-alone model. The time is coming near when we will have to seek a mandatory open forum through the Election Commission for our Prime Ministerial candidates to debate issues. If the names are undecided before the elections then let the party leaders do the same. Seems difficult, but worth a try. Politics on TV may then not just be about endless shouting bouts like today, but a more meaningful way to let the voters be aware whether our leaders are worthy to lead the world’s largest democracy. It clearly seems to work in the world’s oldest democracy.
Shivnath Thukral is Group President-Corporate Branding & Strategic Initiatives at the Essar Group