Time for the face-off

Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal
Union Home Minister Amit Shah had little trouble not responding to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s challenge for a debate with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief ministerial candidate ahead of the Assembly elections. Despite the torrent of impassioned rhetoric that accompanies every election, Indian electoral traditions have not adopted this progressive tool of modern democracy. But as the claims and counterclaims become more fabulist and toxic, the next election could be a good time to start.

The widely televised American presidential debates are the best known of this tradition but several others also conduct leaders’ debates, some of them with political configurations resembling India’s — Ireland, the UK (though Boris Johnson shied off this time), Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The campaign ahead of the Delhi polls shows why. For the BJP, the most emotive issue of this election has been the passage of the Citizens’ Amendment Act, the impending National Population Register exercise, and the influential protests at Shaheen Bagh in the south-east of the city-state. The BJP leadership has made these contentious issues of Indian identity the centre of their campaigns. Though Mr Kejriwal is campaigning mostly on his track record in delivering near-free electricity and water, and setting up primary schools and local clinics, he has felt it incumbent to refute what he sees as the BJP’s divisive politics. The challenge to a debate with the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate is an adroit manoeuvre, since he is well aware that his principal opponent, strapped for choice, is reluctant to reveal its hand.

It is possible to counter-argue that our parliamentary system provides for a debating forum in the form of the Upper and Lower Houses. Certainly, both Houses have seen some spirited debates in recent years. But it is unclear how far many people beyond the educated elite actually watch these debates. It is also unclear how far even the most skilled orator could influence people, given the rising influence of inflammatory social media. That apart, brute majorities offer little scope for reasoned debate in any case. The prime minister’s long reply to the Motion of Thanks to the President's Address is a case in point. It offered the country’s chief executive an open platform to make a campaign speech — some of it falling well short of a fact checker’s scrutiny — ahead of the state polls, including disrespectful references to the opposition. As the campaigns for the parliamentary elections last year and the recent one for Delhi have shown, the Election Commission has few effective disciplinary tools at its disposal. A few days’ ban on politicians insulting candidates or minorities and exhorting the public to violence amounts to little more than a tap on the wrist. On the other hand, a face-to-face debate, with clearly set out rules of engagement, between key candidates in state or national elections, would force politicians to extend some modicum of respect — a critical tool of healthy democracy — and explain their stand on key issues. No less importantly, in these polarised times, it will enable journalists of all ideological hues to ask all candidates hard questions. After all, the nation wants to know.

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