Preparation is the key to success for any debater; ensuring that all eventualities have been considered helps one to guard against their opponents’ arguments and ensure consistency. Yet it was impossible for myself, Carin (Hunt) and Emma (Livingston) to be prepared for what our week in Calcutta would hold for us.
Arriving at the airport on December 13, we were immediately immersed into what would be a fantastically surreal few days. Reaching the Calcutta Club, which graciously hosted us during our stay, we were immediately taken to be interviewed, alongside our Cambridge counterparts Matt (Hazell) and Richard (Coates). Talking up the rivalry between our respective institutions, and being asked to give our insights into the approaching debate, we felt more like sports stars in the build-up to a key fixture rather than humble university students! This was a taste of the celebrity treatment we’d come to be almost accustomed to. This continued that evening with a party atop a floating restaurant, with a free bar that we were more than happy to utilise!
The next day saw our first speaking engagement, in the Alsoc Challenge Debate, held at St. Xavier’s College (in association with The Telegraph). Oxford and Cambridge squared up against the host school and three other institutions (Presidency University, Calcutta University, Loreto College) on the topic “This house believes that social networking is a failure of communication”. The debate was held in a format unfamiliar to Emma and I, however after seeing the teams ahead of us clash over whether too many tweets made a twit, and with a fantastic crowd, we gained confidence throughout the contest.
It was genuinely inspiring to see so many people turn out to watch a student debate — testament to the culture of debate which runs through this amazing city. This was embodied by Sourya Dasgupta and Aditya Vikram Doshi of St. Xavier’s, whose wit and charm guided them to victory. Emma and I were nonetheless delighted to take second place, especially as it meant we’d beaten the Cambridge boys! Moreover, following the debate, as the friend requests flooded in on Facebook from audience members, we saw that the communicative power of social networking was alive and well!
The following day saw us whisked around the city to various events. After a morning of shopping, we went to a talk by Jeffrey Archer, which was certainly an interesting experience, the controversial author afterwards accusing me of being “useless” for my choice of subject in history!
We were then taken to partake in a panel discussion on education, ending the day with Alsoc’s (Alumnorum Societas) 35th annual reunion, where we were lavished with VIP treatment, and danced the night away. We even managed to introduce the alumni to some English dance moves, so the next time you see someone busting out Big Fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box on the dance floor, you know who to thank!
We arose early on Sunday to prepare for the showpiece event of the week, the Calcutta Club The Telegraph International Debate 2012, against our old rivals on the lawns of the club. As we tucked into breakfast, we were agog as the stage for the evening took shape in front of our eyes, which, along with the 2,000 or so chairs, formed a formidable backdrop for what was to come.
A day spent nervously crafting our speeches flew by, and soon it was time to take the stage. Introduced by the ebullient and effervescent Kunal Sarkar, we took our seats, joined by Ranjan Rowchowdhury and Rudrangshu Mukherjee on Team Oxford, and Rajat K. Ray and Sugata Bose on Team Cambridge.
I was given the prestigious, and daunting, role of opening the debate, on the motion “In the opinion of the house, populism not policy, defines parliamentary democracy”. My speech consisted of defining the terms of the debate, a few cheeky jibes at our rivals, and an argument why politics, and politicians, inevitably lent themselves to populism; it also gave me the chance to question the motivations of Oxford’s 26 prime ministers, and stake my claim to be the 27th!
Following me was Matt from Cambridge, who, in a far from standoffish manner, attempted to reduce my arguments into shards. Obviously I’m a bit biased when I say that he didn’t quite get there, but he did excel in pointing to examples of momentously important policies that were unpopular amongst contemporaries as examples of how policy takes precedent over populism.
Messrs Roychowdhury and Ray clashed over the finer points of the definition of the term “populism”, before Emma Livingston, a resplendent jewel in her emerald dress, delivered a mesmeric speech on how 21st Century life inevitably produced populism; using the example of Facebook also allowed her to remind everyone of our victory over Cambridge in the previous debate. Richard shot back with claims that 21st Century people were more responsible than we perhaps gave them credit for, and couldn’t have the wool pulled over their eyes by self-interested politicians.
Rudrangshu and Sugata then went head-to-head, as the debate became even fierier than before.
Moving onto the last speakers of the debate, Carin ‘Dublin Dynamite’ Hunt spoke about how people didn’t look within the boundaries of their nation when voting, but to their own immediate interests, allowing politicians to offer populist short-term gains as a means of claiming office. Clara Spera, who had joined us for the day, followed for Cambridge with a tour-de-force summary of the debate as she’d seen it, before Matt and myself attempted to condense the evening’s clash into three-minute speeches. Given the quality of the debate, and the smorgasbord of arguments, which had been brought out, this was a difficult task!
Then it was time for the vote. A show of hands would decide the victor, and, by a close but clear margin, the audience sided with Cambridge, granting our rivals a deserved victory.
I’ve referred to Cambridge as ‘our rivals’ throughout this piece, but this is meant in good humour; Richard, Matt and Clara are great friends of ours and were fantastic travel companions. Together, we have shared a unique and unforgettable experience, made possible by the generosity of The Telegraph, Alsoc, the Calcutta Club and Dr Sarkar, and made even more special by the enthusiasm for debate and argument which is so integral to Calcutta. Thank you for welcoming us to your wonderful city, treating us like movie stars, and listening to what we had to say; we take with us a million memories, and hope you’ll have us back soon!
Matt Handley is a 20-year-old history student of St. Hughes College, University of Oxford