[ A version of this piece appeared in today’s Hindustan Times]
There were many memorable highlights of my debut Lok Sabha election campaign from Chandigarh last year. But the one experience I cherish most was a public debate we three major candidates held for NDTV. I really hoped that if there is one thing that would catch on and become a regular feature of our elections, it would be the holding of public debate among the major candidates. Alas, that has not been the case.
Before the last General Elections, BJP was very keen to have its PM candidate debate the sitting PM on live television. But come Delhi assembly elections, the same BJP has not agreed to its CM candidate, Kiran Bedi participating in a televised debate with Arvind Kejriwal. Most of the TV channels took up Mr Kejriwal’s offer but BJP had its own reasons — which frankly no one else could make much sense of — for not participating in such a debate.
An election debate is just not about winning the vote. It is about getting to the heart of the issues that matter to the voter. The purpose of the debate is to expose all important issues for public scrutiny. In such a debate, everyone can see both sides of the argument and form their own views. Having critically examined the two political leaders, the electorate can then make informed judgments about who has comprehensive solutions to their most pressing problems.
That is the fundamental purpose of the debate Mr Kejriwal has offered to hold with Ms Bedi. Let the policies, programmes, ideas and leadership of each party be scrutinised by its rivals under the public gaze. A leader should be able to defend his party’s manifesto from the counter-arguments by her rivals. She should either be able to persuade the masses or amend her party’s programmes to offer what the public wants. This two-way interaction lays the bedrock of purposeful democratic governance.
For most voters, their vote is the only instrument of holding the politician accountable and a public debate allows them to use that instrument more effectively. For eg, take the issue of women’s safety in Delhi. AAP has laid out its programme for women’s safety in detail in the manifesto. It includes new fast track courts, CCTVs in FIR Registration Rooms, a Suraksha App on every mobile, new toilets for women, adequate street lighting, last mile connectivity in public transport, Women’s Security Force, and CCTVs in public spaces and buses. Ms Bedi has her 5 ‘P’s. If she agrees to a televised debate with Mr Kejriwal, the relative strengths and weaknesses of AAP’s programme and BJP’s acronym can be weighed by the voter from the comforts of her living room. Having seen both sides defend their positions, the voter then knows what she is going to get when she votes for either party. The public is the ultimate beneficiary in this case. Who can object to such a proposition in electoral democracy?
The debate, contrary to what many people assume, is not about the oratorical skills of either Ms Bedi or Mr Kejriwal. Their oratory is not the issue here. The real issue is the specific programmes that the parties have for the people of Delhi. While AAP has released its detailed manifesto (http://www.aamaadmiparty.org/AAP-Manifesto-2015.pdf), BJP is not even bringing out a manifesto for these elections. Despite having been in power at the Centre since May last year, it has not moved on the promises it made about Delhi during the last General Elections. The most glaring among them is the promise of a full statehood for Delhi which remains unfulfilled despite BJP having a full majority at the Centre. It is primarily to avoid uncomfortable questions about its broken promises and lack of specific programmes that BJP has shied away from a public debate.
A public debate is the very essence, the very life blood of democracy. It lays the ground rules for establishing an active citizenship and a responsive democracy. Election debates help in creation of an open and accountable administration while preparing the people to fulfil their responsibilities as citizens of a democratic polity. They also serve a larger purpose, especially in a society as diverse as ours, by reinforcing the basic democratic dictum that we have to be tolerant of others’ opinions and respectful of differences that we may have with others.
These Delhi elections, with its largely urbanised and educated electorate, provided us with an opportunity to set new democratic norms. It could then have been an exemplar for all future elections in the country where every voter is better informed about the choices available to him. If we want to be better informed while buying a television set or a mobile phone, why would we elect our leaders without being fully informed about them or scrutinising them thoroughly?
Gul Panag is a member of the national executive of the Aam Aadmi Party. She tweets as @GulPanag