Whenever you have a discussion about presidential debates on television, somebody or the other will inevitably bring up the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960. By now that debate has passed into legend. According to folklore, Richard Nixon was comfortably ahead of John F. Kennedy when the two presidential contenders agreed to meet for a televised debate.
Judged purely on content, Nixon won the debate—or so the story goes. But television is a visual medium. Kennedy seemed cool and assured. Nixon had a sweaty upper lip. He was lit so that he looked like he was unshaven (what they call 5 o'clock shadow).
Viewers went with the visuals, not the content. The telegenic Kennedy won. The more experienced and cerebral Nixon lost the debate and eventually, the election.
Those who tell this story make the point that TV is not about content or substance.
It is about image and performance. The West may have fallen prey to the cult of televised politics. But fortunately, we in India can still avoid a situation where politicians are elected on the basis of TV ratings. And that's how it should remain.
Those who take this view argue that Manmohan Singh was right to reject L.K. Advani's offer of a televised debate. Why turn everything into a television event, they ask. Why not focus on old-fashioned campaigning and on issues of substance.
It's a powerful case but I don't necessarily buy it. First of all, the Kennedy-Nixon folklore is more myth than reality. Yes, Kennedy did look better but it's not clear that he won the debate. The polls were divided on who the actual victor was. Many said that Nixon had won. Moreover, that debate did not swing the election. In the event, Kennedy won by a tiny margin, almost entirely attributable to the votes that Mayor Richard Daley had stolen for him in Chicago's Cook County. Had the election been fair, Nixon might actually have won.
Nor do I believe that television necessarily favours the shallow and superficial at the expense of substance and depth. Take George W. Bush. You need only to watch him on TV to recognise that he is a moron. And yet, he ruled America for eight years in a tele-visual era.
The advantage of a television debate is that it allows voters to see where the candidates actually stand on the issues. At present, party spokesmen slug it out on news channels but the big leaders pass unchallenged.
Does Advani see no contradiction in supporting the legacy of Sanjay Gandhi while attacking the Congress for its undemocratic nature and its commitment to dynasty? Does Manmohan Singh regret his single-minded advocacy of the nuclear deal at so high a cost? Is Prakash Karat embarrassed that he has never won so much as a municipal election? Does Sonia Gandhi share Manmohan's commitment to economic liberalisation? Would she like to see Rahul as PM some day?
These are significant questions, the answers to which could determine India's destiny. But we never get these answers. We never find out where the truth really lies because these leaders appear only in controlled situations and rarely open themselves up to genuine, hard-nosed questioning.
Take Manmohan Singh. He must be the only prime minister of India to have never given a full-length interview to an Indian. (I don't include that brief comment about the Left and the nuclear deal to The Telegraph, made to serve his own political agenda.) Instead, he has spent five years giving interviews only to White people who he knows will not ask him questions on domestic politics he does not want to answer. Is it not shameful that the prime minister of India should shun any interviewer who is a citizen of his own country?
Sadly, our politicians avoid probing questions because they know they can get away with it.They are rarely questioned on the issues, never confronted with their contradictions and rarely asked to justify their actions. They like it that way. Manmohan is ready to leave the debates to Abhishek Singhvi and Kapil Sibal. Advani would much rather let Arun Jaitley do his dirty work for him.
A presidential-style debate would cut through this edifice of evasion. Our top politicians would be forced to explain their stands and to defend their positions. They will not be able to hide behind party spokesmen or to take refuge in enigmatic one-liners.
But of course, they'll never agree. The only reason why Advani has challenged Manmohan Singh to a debate is because he knows that the PM will never say yes and the debate will never happen. Advani is as reluctant to have his contradictions exploded as Manmohan is to explain himself.
So, they fall back on the old excuses: we don't have a presidential system; TV is a superficial medium; etc. And the people of India are denied the answers we deserve.
By Vir Sanghvi