Dilip Padgaonkar holds the televised debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as a lesson worthy of emulation for Indian political leaders. (Such glaring contrasts). Although televised debates between American presidential candidates were generally level-headed, their campaigns were not. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson’s supporters called President John Adams a “hermaphrodite, with neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In the 1828 campaign John Quincy Adam’s supporters called his rival Andrew Jackson ‘a murderer, his mother a prostitute and his wife an adulteress’. This year’s campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has been none too gentle. All the stories of nastiness in previous election campaigns are being dug up by the American media to tell the public that there was nothing new in it. Bob Schieffer cites Laura Brown (in News and World Report) as saying that ‘the role of the media in all this has not been exactly stellar.’ (Nasty campaign ads an American tradition)
In the 1960 election between the Democrat J. F. Kennedy and the Republican Richard Nixon (Eisenhower’s former Vice President), the Democrats put up a poster with the leering form of Richard Nixon holding out a finger and the caption ‘Would you buy a used car from this man?’ It was also in the 1960 election that a televised debate between the candidates was first introduced. The candidate that was able to deliver a knockout punch in the debates usually won. It was so with the Kennedy election of 1960 when the nation saw him as confident and relaxed while Nixon appeared ‘shifty, sweating and badly under the lights.’ The debates too were not devoid of their share of wit at the expense of an opponent and knockout punches. In the 1980 election, Ronald Regan debated Jimmy Carter. Finding Carter’s penchant for manipulating statistics irksome, Reagan taunted him with the humorous line, ‘There you go again!’ (The 10 best US presidential campaigns)
Therefore, if we have nothing to learn from the US Presidential campaigns or the US media, what was Padgaonkar’s point in bringing up the Obama – Romney television debate in his ToI blog? A few minute’s trouble to google would have told Padgaonkar, who once held ‘the second most important job in India’ that he was on a sticky wicket. Well, he has to begin somewhere. But his objective was different. It was to rile Narendra Modi for raising the issue of the alleged expenditure of Rs 1880 crore towards Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels. Narendra Modi did not refer to her treatment and has repeatedly said so. He tried to convince anyone who would listen that he did not make the statement from first hand knowledge but from newspaper reports that appeared in Gujarat, Haryana and even in the national media like The Indian Express and India Today. BJP’s Menakshi Lekhi who vehemently argued Narendra Modi’s case on national television pointed out that there was not one but several RTI petitions filed from various parts of the country. In spite of all this the media would have none of it. They buy into the versions of the Congress spokespersons, who flitted from one RTI petition to another in a clumsy attempt at bluff, bluster and subterfuge to shroud the issue in secrecy. They wouldn’t even hear the counter argument that if the GoI spent any monies on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels the people of the country are entitled to know about it. And that people in public life have to forego some of their privacy. Remember Sanjay Joshi and Abhishek Manu Singhvi? They had a right to their private lives but had to pay a price for being public figures.
It is a strange fact of life that in democratic India where all citizens are presumed to be equal, there is one family that is above the pale of the law and public scrutiny. It is a privilege that is not available even to rulers in traditional monarchies like Britain. Is it a hangover from our colonial past? ‘So be it’, would our Congress politicians with the skin of a hippopotamus, say, without batting an eyelid! The sad part of this drama is that the Indian media, which should have played its role as a bulwark against dictatorial mores has been not only abdicating its responsibility but is willy-nilly conspiring with the unseemly conduct of the ruling politicians.
Now, let us look at a proposition that Dilip Padgaonkar, unconsciously (and perhaps unintentionally) put forth. It is about the televised debate between the two contesting rivals. America introduced these televised debates sixty years ago (with the Kennedy – Nixon debate as mentioned earlier) to enable the voters to understand who they are (or rather their electoral college is) sending to the White House for the next four years to rule them. It helps the nation understand what a candidate stands for, what his understanding of various issues of governance is and how he intends to cope with them. Could a leader who reads her Hindi speeches written for her in Roman script be able to cope with such a debate? Or would the Prince whose understanding of the complexity of Indian politics leaves much to be desired, do?
How would Padgaonkar like Sonia Gandhi to debate with Narendra Modi on national television?