As the Delhi election nears, the question of whether India should adopt a system of US presidential-style debates has again cropped up. However, the question is posed inaccurately because presidential debates were absent from electoral politics for most of US history. Even after the first series of such debates was held, between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, the continuance of such debates was by no means assured. It was not till 1976, 16 years after the Kennedy-Nixon inaugural, that the debates were revived in presidential elections. Even as late as 1992 George HW Bush almost did not debate Bill Clinton during the presidential election that year, parrying the issue until late into the election.
Indians should not look askance upon election debates as if they are naturally suited to America while being irreconcilable with the Indian parliamentary system. Americans did not reject the debate format because of its novelty and neither should we look upon the issue with a jaundiced eye. To debate or not to debate is a question that should be decided on the merits.
Political scientist Thomas M Holbrook has argued that presidential debates educate voters about candidates. Such an event, if well conducted, will serve the same purpose in India. Holbrook asserts that less-informed voters benefit the most from debates. In this way, voters can be exposed to the ideas of candidates standing for election to ascertain their relative competence. That is a key justification for having debates.
Kiran Bedi claims that she believes in ‘delivery, not debate.’ But how are the voters of Delhi to know whether they agree with her notion of delivery? On a recent episode of a news show she berated an anchor for not believing, simply on her say so, that a file she brandished before the cameras was prepared by her and not someone else from the BJP. Has our political discourse sunk to the point that we have to digest as gospel truth what our political candidates tell us? It is precisely to scrutinise and evaluate the efficacy of such claims that we need and require debates during elections.
There is another point which is particularly relevant vis-à-vis the candidacy of Bedi, the BJP’s face in the Delhi election. Her selection as CM candidate had been announced only a few days before the election. Consequently, voters are relatively uninformed about her positions on various issues regarding Delhi (which makes her statement on ‘delivery’ even more vacuous). A particularly useful time to hold debates is when voters know very little about a candidate, avers Holbrook, because that’s when they can learn the most about him/her. That’s all the more reason for there to have been a debate before the Delhi election.
Sachin Dhawan is assistant professor and assistant director, Centre for Law and Humanities Jindal Global Law School. The views expressed by the author are personal.