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A NOISY SILENCE

- Putting the argumentative back in the Indian

When future Indians — or whatever they call themselves then — look back at these Lok Sabha elections of 2014 they will easily see a few things that will shame us Indians inhabiting this current period of history. They will no doubt note the huge and obscene inequality of our society, of how so many had so little and how so few had possession and control of so much. They will note how tenaciously the rich and the powerful fought to avoid conceding even small scraps to the have-nots of our time. They will note those who rose from the ranks of the poorer segments, from oppressed class, caste or ethnicity, and how easily so many of those ‘leaders’ crossed over to the cliques carrying out the oppressing and denying. They will note the compromises made even more blatant by time, the justificatory delusions, the lies, the sleights of hand, and the crippling of lives and the innocent blood that flowed from these deeply installed anti-truths and pompous, naked-emperor buffooneries. Being far away and, in a sense, above the current arena, they may apportion blame more equally than we can do now, but lay down blame and judgment they surely will.

One of the things they’ll surely say about us is that by 2014 we had become a people incapable of conversing among ourselves, that we couldn’t let each other talk, that we were a people so afraid of our own different voices that, instead of arguing, we shouted ourselves into an ugly, unmusical electronic cacophony that was actually a kind of noisy silence.

Now, on television we’ve seen craziness happening in other countries as well: you’ve got the bizarre claims and theatrics of the American Right for example, you’ve got Russian politicians punching each other, you’ve got the one-man circus called Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, but by and large, in countries attempting to maintain democratic franchise you’ve also got the core of democracy: open arguments around issues, as in semi-civilized, intelligible, verbal and written battles about defining problems and challenges and putting up competing solutions to those challenges. As the various election campaigns reach a peak in India, it’s obvious that there is no ‘debate’ in any real sense of the word. Instead, what we have is the following: candidates making parallel declamations, politicians shouting over one another, ministers pretending not to hear uncomfortable questions and giving deflective answers, party-soldiers chucking nicknames at each other, candidates accusing each other in loops, most campaigners treating the wider voting public as if that public consisted entirely of simpletons.

Never before has so much money been spent in an Indian election and certainly never have such amounts been spent on talking at people, on creating armour-encased channels of one-way communication. It will seem unbelievable one day that two of the main characters in this election jatra both contrived to fight a campaign without facing one serious television interview. Rahul Gandhi managed to loop banal repetitions at an easy set of questions while Narendra Modi provided yet another declamatory monologue, but this time punctuated by simpering oohs and aahs from his so-called interviewer. Till the time of going to press, there is not one serious televised question and answer session about these elections to be found from among J. Jayalalithaa, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayavati, Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee. Not one.

The only significant leader who enters an even playing field with interviewers and answers questions with some candour is Arvind Kejriwal. Unfortunately there is now only one question anyone has for him, the one about his resignation and he has repeated his answer to that question several times. Neverthless, whether he eventually proves irrelevant or not, what Kejriwal has contributed is a ‘normal’, one could even say ‘international’, model of public answerability. His willingness to stand up and answer questions properly may not win him too much come May 16, but the Indian public’s appetite has certainly been whetted. Hopefully these will be the last Lok Sabha elections where important leaders can get away without being grilled on national TV.

If a series of interviews, preferably with ‘hostile’ interviewers, is a requisite (just as a batsman is required to score runs against hostile bowling and not off underarm long-hops), then so is a series of televised debates between contestants. On the stage at rallies most politicians like to hide their real self and stare dramatically over people’s heads at some imaginary addressee. On a small stage, facing opponents, a panel of questioners and a live audience, you just cannot get away with that. The intimacy and directness of the debating format obliges the candidate to look the voter in the eye, as it were. Of course politicians can ‘act’ in debates, but even if you’re acting, there is an approximation of how you will do your acting on a one-to-one scale when in power, how you will come across to your cabinet, to others, to world leaders who will conduct tough negotiations with you. Debates can provide a good approximation of how you will react to pressure, what you will do when challenged, and also how you yourself put pressure on the other person. Are you a bully? Are you weak and shuffling? Are you devious and shifty? How do you answer the tough questions? Are you honest? A fudge-master with a fake broad smile? Do you speak in loops, repeating the same thing over and over again or are you a sound-byte merchant speaking in memorized slogans? How do you handle facts, figures and issues without aides whispering in your ears?

Also, since we don’t have a presidential system, our elections aren’t and shouldn’t be about just one person. You want to be prime minister? Your party will sweep and you won’t need to form any coalition, you say? Very good, where is the rest of your team? If you win, will your deputy prime minister be the man who’s accused of extra-judicial killings? Will your law minister be a man who thinks people should be hanged for extra-marital sex? Will your home minister be the biggest scamster the country has seen? Can your foreign minister locate Iran on a map? There should be debates of different members of declared teams, between potential holders of specific portfolios, and it should be possible for the public to examine not just the future prime ministers but the composition of the cabinet they will lead.

How do we do this in a literacy-challenged, multi-lingual country such as ours? In the case of state assembly elections, where one language is usually common, the matter is fairly straightforward. As for the Lok Sabha, where there is a will there is a way. Simultaneous sub-titling is not unheard of and neither is simultaneous voice translation. If by pressing a button one can choose the camera through which one wants to watch a football match, one should be able to choose the language in which one wants the translation of a debate. If all the major parties are willing (or even eager) to do away with obfuscation they can agree with broadcasters on fair modes and methods. The ones that are not willing should pay the price at the ballot-box.

In any case, no matter who takes over the government in May, the genie is out of the box. Perhaps one can’t say for sure about Indians in the future, but many millions of us are going to look back at these current elections in a few months’ time and see the concerted attempts made by so many different people to dupe us and deprive us of a democratic dialogue. It’s time the business of silent majorities listening to bombast while watching bad theatrics changed. It’s beyond high time we put the informed and argumentative back into new generations of Indians.