Barack Obama and John McCain have just concluded round one of the US presidential debates. Sarah Palin is getting herself battle ready to face up to Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden. The presidential debate is a unique American democratic institution, an opportunity for the candidates to confront and challenge each other on personality and policy-related issues. The debate is the big moment of an election campaign, a gladiatorial-like television arena allows a nation to compare and contrast candidates. Debates don’t always make presidents, but they have led to the undoing of a few. history tells us that the “dark shadow” on Richard Nixon’s face during the presidential debate of 1960 was enough to make the younger, charismatic John Kennedy appear even more appealing to the electorate. So, if the US can do it, why can’t the world’s largest democracy experience a presidential-style debate, especially in this age of round-the-clock TV which thrives on studio chat?
A few months before the 2004 general elections, I wrote to then Prime minister AB Vajpayee and opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, inviting them to ‘The Big Fight’. This was meant to be the grand finale of our election programming. As it turned out, I was living in fantasy land. Both politicians sent gentle regret letters and we had to make do with English language TV’s favourite debating couple: the articulate lawyer-politicians: Kapil Sibal and Arun Jaitley. While Messrs Sibal and Jaitley were delightfully combative, they weren’t quite the casting coup we had been hoping to pull off.
Perhaps, one was expecting too much. Vajpayee was a pre-TV era politician: while his oratory may have drawn gasps of admiration in parliament or at a Ram Lila maidan, his eternal pauses weren’t quite suited for the cut-and-thrust of soundbite TV. As for Mrs Gandhi, in over a decade in public life, she has barely given three-and-a-half interviews, most of them choreographed, the questioning in most instances confined to the gentle and routine.
Our other prime ministerial aspirants are no different. Mayawati, for example, prefers barking at journalists at press conferences rather than opening herself to interrogation. LK Advani, perhaps because of his journalistic background, has always been more willing to answer tough questions, but not quite in the debate format. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears terrifyingly camera-shy: in almost five years in office, he hasn’t given a proper interview (even the annual ‘meet the press’ appears to have been abandoned). The ‘Crown Prince’ Rahul Gandhi has been even more elusive: soundbites on his marital plans or the occasional statement on the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) might grab headlines, but are hardly a substitute for political communication. Narendra Modi, like Advani, is a combative interviewee, but doesn’t seem to appreciate discomfiting questions. Sharad Pawar on TV is a cure for insomnia, while Mulayam Singh can be a monosyllabic disaster matched only by the mumbling H.D. Deve Gowda. Only Lalu Yadav can truly claim to be a natural, ‘made-for-TV’ neta, and even he now seems to have lost some of the ready wit that once gave him ‘star’ quality.
Why are so many of our top politicians uncomfortable with the idea of being questioned on TV? Partly it is a reflection of a feudal and non-transparent political system that doesn’t feel the necessity to explain policy choices in an open forum. Unfortunately, unlike in the US, TV appearances have little connection with political winnability in the Indian context. With caste and family identities defining success in polls, communication skills seem to matter less and less. It is no coincidence that some of the finest public speakers in Indian politics are in the Rajya Sabha and not in the Lok Sabha. Our political system doesn’t demand the kind of communication skills that have made Obama a front-runner for the US presidency. Indeed, even without his skillful TV manner, Obama would probably have lost to the more substantive, but less charming Hillary Clinton. Contrast that with a Mayawati who during last year’s UP election campaign was almost contemptuous of the media, especially TV, and yet scored a stunning victory in the elections. Her captive vote-bank didn’t need to see their Behenji on TV before deciding to vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party.
In a way, Indian electoral politics has defined the limits of the power of TV. While a spirited TV debate can energise a section of the urban middle-class audience, it cannot reach the wider electorate. Moreover, in a multi-lingual country, it is difficult to create a ‘national’ constituency through a strong TV presence. As TV gets localised, the nature and character of its content is also getting more regional, thereby limiting the scope of ‘national’ leaders emerging through TV.
And yet, while TV soundbites perhaps can’t get you votes, they can influence public opinion among the chattering classes. Much of the terror debate, for example, has played out in TV studios, where the shrill ‘Bring Back Pota’ campaign of the opposition has pushed the UPA government on the defensive. Television, in fact, tends to place a premium on strong, often extreme positions; moderate voices who try to hold onto a rapidly shrinking middle ground are quickly dismissed as wishy-washy and ineffectual. A soft-spoken home minister like Shivraj Patil, for example, only finds his seeming indecisiveness magnified on TV because he doesn’t come across as a firm speaker. On the other hand, an Omar Abdullah was almost ‘rediscovered’ as a politician because of his five minutes of fame during the trust vote debate.
Which is why politicians with an eye on the future would do well to hone their TV skills. It may not make them mass leaders but it would certainly give them a cutting edge in becoming opinion leaders.
Post-script: I do hope to persist with my efforts to create a presidential-style debate on Indian television. I intend to write to Mrs Gandhi, Mr Advani and Ms Mayawati to appear together on a televised show ahead of the next general elections. It’s unlikely to happen, but it may still be worth a shot. If they don’t agree, there’s always Messrs Sibal and Jaitley to turn to! Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network