Parliament is the most sacred space for democratic debate in our country. But in the Fourteenth Lok Sabha the leader of the opposition, Lal Krishna Advani, made good use of his time to speak, and got his boisterous backbenchers to deny the prime minister his chance to reply, while he sat in stoic silence. For five years they disrupted Parliament. They treated this constitutional arena of democratic debate with contempt. And now they want a television debate? Wah!
No other prime minister of India has addressed as many press conferences around the country as Manmohan Singh. After Rajiv Gandhi, he was the first prime minister to address a national press conference in the mammoth Vigyan Bhavan auditorium, seated alone responding to over 500 journalists from all over the country and abroad. The media in every state capital from Mumbai to Bhubaneshwar and Panaji to Port Blair has had the opportunity to interact with this PM and ask him what they wished. And they say he is media-shy? Bah!
I think Dr Singh will do very well in a TV debate, as he has indeed done in parliamentary ones whenever he has allowed his adrenaline to flow! Moreover, at a time when the people of India want a wise, experienced and safe pair of hands to continue to steer the country through challenging and turbulent times, the quiet competence of Dr Singh, his wisdom and sagacity and his wealth of experience will shine through the TV cameras.
But what is the sanctity of a debate with Mr Advani? He has become the master of doublespeak. How does one debate with a mind in constant motion? I am not referring to the Jinnah observation. Recall his famous last words in the Lok Sabha on the 123 civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States.
"I shall conclude my remarks by saying that 123 Agreement, as it stands, is unacceptable to the nation because it is deeply detrimental to India's vital and long-term interest. Let me say that hereafter if nda gets a mandate, we will renegotiate this deal to see that all the adverse provisions in it are either deleted or this treaty is rejected completely."
Renegotiate! Remember? That was November 28, 2007. Read the election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party for the 2009 elections. Search through its 16,000-plus words for a promise to 'renegotiate' the nuclear deal. Nahi hai, illay, leydoo! Not there.
So what does one make of a debate that consumed Parliament but has no bearing on BJP policy? If a debate is just about words, go feed it to the birds.
This TV debate controversy is making much of a muchness. This is not a presidential election. We are not voting a PM into office. That the members of the Lok Sabha will do. Our job is to get the right party in, so that the PM we want gets elected. At least with Congress and BJP we know who the PM will be. What about the alphabet soup fronts? Think about it. In 1996, we would have had Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee debating on TV, while Rip Van Deve Gowda would have woken up to become PM!
There is a larger point to be made as well. Populist TV in India has converted discussion into debate and debate into argument. I have always felt Amartya Sen has not served the cause of democracy in India well by glorifying our "argumentative" character. In fact the great Indian philosophical tradition was not one of point-scoring through argument, of declaring a winner and a loser. Debate and discussion are about the search for truth. Indians are as much consensus-seeking as argumentative. The panchayat was based on a consensual approach, not argumentative.
Adi Shankara, the great debater, sought debates not to demolish but to win over. That is our tradition. But our television has made political debate a gladiatorial sport. Indian television must create a new culture of reasoned discussion to feel entitled to host a debate in the prime ministerial stakes.
(Sanjaya Baru was till recently media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He is now a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.)