Great democracies are not made by the number of voters who turn out on voting day or the periodicity at which elections are held. Robust democracies are nurtured by the engagement of the people with those who choose to represent them. The state for Plato was “the individual written large”. In his ideal republic, the leader is a philosopher-king who has the knowledge to be a just and able ruler. That knowledge has to be exhibited before it can be demonstrated.
In our media-dominated times, such knowledge can be tested long before an incompetent buffoon is allowed to run amuck once voted to power, as happens often in our system of democracy. The reason is our inability to ask the right questions and the dogged refusal of our political aspirants to answer any awkward queries.
The first presidential debate between US President Barack Obama and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney may be a televised spectacle geared to up television rating for American channels. But the debates serve a very valuable purpose. They throw up all the issues that ordinary Americans are obsessing about and force, on air, the two candidates to state their positions on those issues. In the first debate, the two candidates sparred over unemployment, taxes, healthcare and the role of the government. They used data and research to make their points. Sure, they would have had teams to do that but the effort and their own involvement showed.
That’s because the candidates have to convince viewers (and potential voters) that they have a plan to address the problems. It’s a moot point whether once the elections are over they will stick to their declared positions, but in researching and preparing their answers, they are forced to build their knowledge base.
Is there a particular reason why in India we are not allowed to have any such expectations from our political representatives? Shouldn’t each candidate be forced to appear before TV viewers or even speak to radio listeners and prove his/her grasp of local and supra-local issues? There has already been a call for the Prime Minister to make himself available more often to the people through the media. Perhaps, the time has come for us to insist on that presence before anyone aspires to be representing us.