Has the debate about leaders’ debates finally begun in India?
The two main leaders on India’s vast political stage—Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress president Rahul Gandhi—have challenged each other to a proper debate. Gandhi threw down the gauntlet goading Modi to allow him to speak for 15 minutes in Parliament on matters of alleged government corruption, bank fraud and the treatment of lower castes.
“PM Modi can’t face me in Parliament’, I dare him to a ‘15-minute debate’. I will talk about the Rafale (fighter aircraft) deal, about Nirav Modi (main suspect in the Punjab National Bank fraud) and Modi ji will not be able to stand there,” he added.
Modi hit back, taunting Gandhi. Campaigning in the Karnataka assembly elections, to be held on 12 May, he in turn challenged Gandhi to speak for 15 minutes without a prepared speech.
“You speak in a language of your choice. It may be English, Hindi or your mother’s mother tongue (referring to the Italian roots of Sonia Gandhi).” For good measure, Modi, who is known for his rhetorical flair, also mocked Gandhi’s famous political dynasty. “How can I sit before you…. You are from a famous family, and we are the working class,” Modi said, according to a translation of his speech provided by the BJP.
All is fair in love and war, and politics. Karnataka, arguably, is the biggest state assembly election before the general election a year down the line. Modi alone plans to address no fewer than 15 political rallies over five visits to the state in the run-up to the polls. And, as speeches in the election hustings go, the ones in India can get pretty heated. Much harsher words are said and their speakers get away with it.
This debate about leaders’ debate will resonate with many Indians, who are fed up with unproductive parliamentary sessions. The last one, the second part of the important budget session that ended in the first week of April, was the least productive since 2000 because of disruptions. According to PRS Legislative, a think tank and research group, lawmakers in the lower House of Parliament Lok Sabha spent a dismal 21% of their time in parliamentary business while their counterparts in the upper House, Rajya Sabha, worked for 27% of scheduled time—all of it paid for by frustrated taxpayers.
Further broken down, the figures show Lok Sabha MPs spent a niggardly 1% of their time on actual legislative business, while their colleagues in Rajya Sabha did marginally better at 5%. All of this meant the burning issues—chiefly, a spate of ‘loot-and-scoot’ bank frauds; and a judicial attempt at alleged dilution of the law protecting scheduled castes and tribes from atrocities—remained undiscussed. The main protesters were MPs from two southern states. Those from Tamil Nadu wanted the central government to set up a board to resolve a dispute with Karnataka over the sharing of Cauvery river waters. And those from Andhra Pradesh wanted the Modi government to grant the state ‘special category status’, which would entitle it to a greater share of central funds. The disruptions also meant a no-confidence motion served by the Congress and others could not be discussed or voted upon.
Indeed, debates are disrupted with such frequency in Parliament that they not only present a television spectacle, they are actually studied by scholars. Carole Spary of the School of Political Science and International Relations in Nottingham University, UK, argues disruptions in India “highlight the symbolic significance (people’s) representatives attach to performing parliamentary rituals.” Punishments are rarely enforced by the Speaker, she says in a chapter on India in Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament, edited by Shirin M. Rai. This “accommodative approach”, says Spary, is surprising and “suggests disruptions have become institutionalized as an informal ritual of representation in the chamber.”
The reasons for such disruptions are many: to my mind, it may be helpful to examine who stands to gain from disruptions. Everyone’s clear about who the losers are—it is the Indian voter. As it is, the increasing diversity of Indian political life means more and more parties are represented in Parliament, which in turn means the time allotted to individual parties to raise question, debate and discuss is shrinking. Given this state of affairs, is it perhaps time to consider holding direct debates between the leader of the government and the opposition—maybe in both Hindi and English (a language that is better understood in the southern states, where the BJP is keen on improving its presence)? The opportunities for grand-standing are far fewer in such debates, as we have found out from the experience in the UK, where the practice was introduced in 2010 after years of resistance.
When first mooted in 1964, British Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home dismissed the proposal saying, “You’ll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest. You’ll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter.”
Since nobody wants a scripted democracy, we don’t have to be quite so shy about a leaders’ debate in India. Better to have the leaders face the nation in reasoned and informed debates than, for instance, having to bear the unseemly sight of MPs trooping into parliament with a holdall full of cash, as opposition MPs did in 2008 alleging this was cash to try and buy their votes in a no-confidence vote.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1