US presidential debates illustrate how immature our democracy is

  • Can we dream of a prime ministerial slugfest?

Sanjaya

New Delhi/Washington: After watching the second presidential debate that took place at Washington University in St Louis, Indians are sure to note the vast difference in the political discourse in the strongest and the largest democracies.

If we could organize a programme on the lines of the US presidential debates where the candidates for prime minister can be brought on one dais and closely questioned by uncommitted voters, the results would be great.

The prime ministerial candidates in the run up to the general elections are declared in advance or can be known. Had we had the benefit of Dr Manmohan Singh, the sitting PM, and Narendra Modi, the aspiring PM, answering some inconvenient questions, we would have voted with better perception and knowledge about our future prime minister.

 There is more heat than light in the hundreds of election speeches delivered by our leaders. Promises that cannot be fulfilled are made in election campaign and abandoned, with impunity, soon after getting into office. Their track record is not questioned. 

Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican challenger Donald Trump had a 90-minute slugfest similar to the one that took place in the first week of October. Both presidential debates witnessed both candidates freely indulging in insinuations and mud-slinging. In the second round, Trump questioned Hillary on the fidelity of Bill Clinton, the email scandal, soft corner for Muslims etc. Hillary repeated her charge that Trump did not pay his federal taxes, he was demeaning towards women, he was anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican and anti-immigrants in general.

The format for the second presidential debate was unique in the sense that about ten uncommitted voters, beside the moderators, were allowed to ask questions on a wide range of subjects.

In India, the voter has no such opportunity to question his future ruler. The word ‘lie’ is considered un-parliamentary. The Indian parliamentary practices allow a member to say what the minister said is far from truth, but he should not say the minister is lying.

In the two US presidential debates both the candidates used the word ‘lie’ without any hesitation a number of times. ‘It is a lie”. They are a bunch of lies’. ‘He is lying’. ‘She is lying all the way’. These words were not objected to by the moderators. They intervened when the candidate was digressing from the subject or when he or she shot off her time limit. And they butted in strongly and authoritatively.

Here, no Indian TV anchor would dare to do so. For instance, both Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi gave interviews to one channel, Time Now, with its opinionated anchor Arnab Goswamy soft pedaling Modi and making light of Rahul with, of course, a lot of help from the latter. There were no moderators like Anderson Cooper, anchor of CNN, and Martha Raddatz, anchor of ABC News. The Commission on the second presidential debate, that took place on Monday morning (Indian time) which was Sunday evening in the US, did have a chairman in Mike McCurry and a co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopt. Ours are one-to-one depending on the attitude of the channel and the anchor.

After the chairman and co-chairman explained the rules of the game, the chancellor of the University of Washington Mark Wrighton spoke briefly saying that more than 3,000 students of the university had registered themselves as voters to give their opinion on the debate. He said the university, by organising the debate and involving the students, is preparing future leaders. Then the president of the University Student Union, Kenneth Sung, made a few remarks. He hails from Singapore and the moderators boasted of the diversity that the US respects.

After Sung’s remarks, the spouses of the candidates were invited onto the stage. Bill Clinton on behalf of Hillary and Trumps’ children had made a brief appearance and went to their seats after which the moderators were introduced to the audience. It was so methodical and disciplined that every Indian would wish such a well organized debate in three or four regions takes place between the prime ministerial candidates before every general election.

And the respect the politicians and the media gave to the chancellor and the student leader of the university is something Indians have to emulate. It is especially so when we insult our vice-chancellors. Our VCs are considered to be anti-student (what with the developments in University of Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University  in the wake of Rohit Vemula’s suicide) and the HRD Minister dictates to and insults the VCs forcing some of them to resign in disgust. Not to forget was the discipline followed by the students of Washington University. There is no doubt that our students are noisy and not very respectful of the persons in positions. But then, respect is something that is taken rather than given.

A question asked in the debate about the appointment of judges to Supreme Court is pertinent in Indian context. We have been debating on the merits of Supreme Court Collegiums having exclusive powers to select the future judges of a high court and the Supreme Court. But both the candidates spoke as though they decide the judges and appoint them. They were eloquent on the qualities of good judges and what is expected of them. Many questions that were asked in the debate have relevance to India.

Sample the following questions the Indian voters would have loved to ask Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh had they been given an opportunity: Narendra Modi could be asked to clarify his role during the Gujarat riots, his act of sideling senior leaders like LK Advani, his view of Article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code, his take on the role of the karsevaks and the Hindu militants in demolishing Babri Masjid, the feasibility of implementing the promises he made in his election speeches, etc.

Manmohan Singh could have been questioned on his docile nature, subservient attitude towards AICC President Sonia Gandhi, his intriguing silence on countless corruption scandals and his lackluster performance in his second term. But alas, Indian voters have no such chance. The leaders say what they wish. They don’t have to practice what they preach. In spite of these huge limitations we boast of being a great democracy. The gullible voters are taken for a ride every time the elections are held.

There were demonstrations in America against Vietnam War.  Congressmen freely question the US government decision to send troops to Iraq. Even Trump was loud and clear when he said he would not have sent American soldiers to Iraq if he were to be president. Here in India no one is allowed to even question the claim of the government that there were surgical strikes, leave alone demanding proof.  

If you question the decision to undertake such strike, you are at once branded pro-Pak and pro-enemy. This only shows the gap between immature democracy and a mature democracy. Having said this, it has to be accepted that the US has its own deficiencies. George Bush could wage a war on Iraq by manufacturing an opinion that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons that could cause unimaginable destruction.  There is nothing great about their embedded journalists either.

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