Sunday, October 7, 2012

Why India cannot have televised debates between PM candidates….

After the exceptionally brilliant television debate between Obama and Mitt Romney, many Indians wistfully wonder why we cannot have similar debates between our PM candidates on TV. There are several reasons for that of course like “language issues”, “multiple parties rather than just two-three”, “party-based elections rather than individual-led” etc. But the most important of them all is the low level of maturity of our leaders and our media.

Language issues refer to many things. The absence of a common language across the country that leaders can converse in; the inability to speak fluently and concisely so that debates don’t go on endlessly. Given such language issues, a “better debater” (one who has better control on language) may win a debate over a poorer debater, even though he may be much lesser informed. By “multiple parties”, obviously what I mean is that debates would have to be held between innumerable leaders and the whole advantage of public debates would be lost. By “party based elections”, what I mean is that a leader’s personality and views are somewhat less important than a party’s ideology and agenda. That is why our PMs are mostly elected after the party secures a leadership. That is why we have party manifestos instead of TV debates.

But the most important reason why debates are meaningless in our country is that our leaders simply don’t have even a basic appreciation of debate decorum. The decency to let someone complete his or her point. The ability to complete one’s point within the allotted time frame. The willingness to listen to the other person’s point and attack only when time is provided for it. And equally, the maturity not to turn the debate into a personal attack on each other.

Just look at what happens on debates on TV channels. Each participant makes wild accusations against the other and the anchor makes absolutely no attempt to moderate the discussion, believing that a chaotic and raucous debate makes great content. Reputations are routinely sullied on prime time TV – and the channel takes no responsibility of holding back accusing panelists, or of putting out the right facts on prime time once they come out. It’s part of our culture –accusing someone in public is considered part of acceptable politics. In a country that lives on gossip, public accusations without an iota of evidence are cool. How can one have meaningful debates in such an environment?

Take the Kejriwal accusation against Robert Vadra as an example. Kejriwal’s big moment under the sun emerged not from any “scoop” but from publicly available documents. He has made wild allegations without giving the opposite party any time or opportunity to react or respond. The media has played along, again without giving Vadra a chance to explain. The other accused –  DLF – has given what appears to be a solid explanation questioning the facts that Kejriwal has put out. The point here is not about what is right or who is right or wrong. The point is about the quality of our basic value systems. Kejriwal could have filed an FIR against Vadra. He could have approached the courts.  But no, he chose to make arbit accusations in media. In the recent past, an India Against Corruption activist accused BJP President Gadkari of trying to scuttle the demand for a probe against corruption charges in the irrigation scam in Maharashtra. Again, she had nothing to prove, and indeed her case would be thrown out in the first hearing in the courts. So she preferred to go to the media. With such immaturity, how can informed and intelligent debates take place on TV?

The media has no ethics about carrying such wild accusations. In fact, Scam TV decided to put up a full show on the IAC activist’s charge against Gadkari. Even the respectable TOI put out the accusations against Vadra on page 1 yesterday, but put our DLF’s detailed explanations only on an inside page today. Tarnishing someone’s reputation in this way is worse than the worst forms of corruption. And yet Kejriwal’s main weapon all along has been exactly that. With such disdain for the basics of justice, how can we dream of decent TV debates?

A key requirement of TV debates is that debaters must swear to stick to facts. In India, everyone prefers half-truth and full-lies. For example, Kejriwal’s charge that Vadra acquired the Saket hotel property at a throwaway price is factually wrong. Today DLF has clarified that the market value of the Saket property was indeed Rs 150 crores (the charge made by Kejriwal), but the company also carried debt worth Rs 80 crores on its books. Vadra paid 50% of the equity valuation (Rs 70 crores) and “assumed” (took on) liability for the Rs 80 crores debt. Hypothetically, if the debt was Rs 150 crores, a person could buy the company at “zero” price. That would not be a scam! That would only indicate that the one who bought it had taken on the responsibility of settling Rs 150 crores of debt. If Kejriwal were less driven by political sensationalism, he would have understood this in no time. After all, he was an IRS officer in his earlier avatar. But Kejriwal intentionally hid this.If all this went on prime TV in the form of a debate, we’ve had it. How can lay people be expected to understand this when an ex-IRS officer refuses to do so?

The real truth is that we simply cannot have televised debates between PM candidates in our country. We simply do not understand the basic rules of a debate. For us debates are based more on emotions, and less on facts. Anyone can make a random personal charge against someone else and get away with it. We routinely misunderstand a “toilets are more important than temples” comment (poor Jairam Ramesh is in trouble for this). Not surprising then that as a society, we don’t deserve the joys of such TV debates…..


  1. sooooo agree with this post.. I would have loved to see such debates take place rather than this silly pandering to audiences bought by the local branch of the party.. it would give a better idea of who Im voting for...

  2. Mr. prashant,your topic of this post 'why indian cannot have televised debates b/w PM candidates' is quite sensible but your example in the article is very silly.
    because firstly,whatever kejariwal has done is not voilation of our law for which he coulb held guilty. he has also said if the charges slapped against vadra are to be found frivolous then he is supposed to face defamation charge against vadra.
    second,when you talk about morality then it does not arise from only one side ie. only kejariwal is bound to follow all the ethical codes...and xposing someone before public who is corrupt is not voilation of ethical code but its moral duty.
    the public of the nation should also know about the reality of their rulers.
    third, if vadra was not guilty he could have orgenised a press conference and by counter reacting at the charges he could not only restore his image but give a blow to kejariwal's ambition. why is he still refraining from media