Public debates by Prime Ministerial candidates can reshape our democracy!

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UPA recently called for a blanket ban on opinion polls in India, tagging these as subjective and manipulative. Undoubtedly, such a demand by a ruling government showcases the complexes the party is suffering from and the insecurity that is prevailing amongst the party members. How wonderful it would have been if, on the contrary, the party had called for a full fledged public debate between all Prime Ministerial candidates, and influenced the results of these opinion polls through their arguments and vision? At any given point of time, a public debate between political leaders goes a long way in shaping public perception, much better than opinion polls. Really, what could have been more transparent than a public debate where the potential candidates defend themselves and their parties’ policies?

The history of such debates dates back to Abraham Lincoln times, when a series of seven debates took place that lasted for a few hours. However, it was in the 1970s that President Gerald Ford gave a defining shape to the modern concept of debates. He agreed to participate in three debates on three different issues, out of which two debates were on domestic agendas and foreign policies. Even vice-presidential debates were introduced during those times.

Interestingly, in America for example, the holding of these debates is not a Constitutional compulsion; but over the years, as is seen in progressive democracies, it has become an imperative part of the pre-election process. These series of debates are supposed to discuss all issues of concern to the civil society, ranging from political, social to economic agendas. Not only do these debates remove prejudices and biases, but they also allow the voters to peep inside the minds of electoral candidates. These debates are generally held only after the parties announce their presidential candidates and are in the final laps of their election campaigns. The debates are held in front of large crowds, and are also simultaneously telecasted across the nation on both radio and television. These debates are of such importance that, for example, the 2012 US presidential debates were viewed live by more than 70 million people each time, and later on by many millions more across the world! The three nationally televised debates in 2012 between Obama and Romney shaped public perception significantly and clarified the political agendas that were in the minds of these party representatives.

Now contrast this with India! No Prime Ministerial candidate ever dares to face the nation on national television prior to elections, leave alone debating with opponents. So much so that parties keep the voters wondering about their to-be prime minister even after getting elected. In most of the elections in India, a political party declares the name of the Prime Minister candidate or nominates one only when elections are over. Not only is there a huge opacity about the Prime Ministerial candidate, but a dark veil is cast on political agendas too. In such a scenario, the Supreme Court and the Election commission should immediately pass a resolution to, first, make it mandatory for national political parties to declare their Prime Minister candidates before elections; and second, also make it compulsory for these candidate to come for live public debates at least three or four times before the polls. This procedure could be replicated at the state level too, with Chief Ministerial candidates being asked to attend debates on state forums. The debates could perhaps be designed in a way that would cover all vital issues of the nation and could also be moderated in a way that would allow enough time to all candidates to express their views and opinions on contentious topics. Not to leave out the fact that recordings of these debates could be archived for easy access later on for all voters – through the Internet, TV, radio and other media.

Imagine the clarity voters would have if all electoral candidates in India were to debate on important issues three to four times on national television. And also the clarity these leaders would have through the responses they receive from critics and people post-these debates. I highly recommend such debates between Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal on issues of poverty and corruption (social), inflation (economic) and foreign policies (geo-political). with candidates defending their stands with the help of policies which they plan to introduce or implement once and if they were to get elected. Such debates in the long run would also eliminate the fissures that appear because of a coalition government. And above all, these debates would make the leader more accountable and answerable to the electorate and not to the so-called party “high-command”. Such transparency empowers the electorate and upholds the concept of participatory governance systems. The fact is that politicians need not be worried about such debates. Isn’t it true that in any ongoing Parliamentary session, the debates between politicians are telecasted live on national television? Then why fear moving these debates to national public forums?

But I would like to go a step further and request the Election Commission to make it compulsory for all Prime Ministerial candidates to go on a nationwide visit meeting their voters. This visit should be conducted before the polls, with these candidates visiting all the states across the nation. Given the demographic and geographic spread of our nation (and variation in culture and language), such visits become more logical and vital. There have been incidents where a large part of a constituency has failed to recognize the Prime Minister by name or by face or even by both – leave aside knowing the names of other candidates! Such visits would break the shackles that bound our democratic structure and not only enhance the meaning of democracy but edify the voters with election agendas, manifestoes, the leaders’ points of view and parties’ policies. The EC and SC should immediately call for such moves that bring the leaders closer to their citizens rather than keeping them inaccessible and aloof. After all, if we have to live up to the nom de plume of the world’s largest democracy, then we have to imbibe at least the easiest of progressive steps to make our democracy more mature.

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