By Shashank Hariharan
Over the past couple of months, the intensified political situation has led to an increase in the number of debates and speeches. The debates about intolerance and anti-nationalism, the Rohit Vemula suicide case, JNU campus agitation, the 2016 Annual Budget, and most recently the World Culture Festival issues, have made politicians, the media, and the people participate and express their opinions across different media. The American elections too are heating up and the debates are becoming more entertaining by the day.
Unfortunately, the increase in demand for these debates has led to the decrease in quality, like the last can of a milkman.
Most debates have been reduced to cheap political mudslinging and petty arguments with very little credible content. It is safe to say that a large section of the media looks at the situation as a money-making opportunity. A TV show with 10 speakers where only the moderator is permitted to speak is called a private tuition and not a debate.
The definition of a ‘debate’ is — a method of formally presenting an argument in a disciplined manner. If you compare a debate to a burger, then facts are the patty, oration is the cheese and context is the sauce. If a debate does not have the patty, cheese, or the sauce, it is a futile exercise; much like eating two slices of plain bread. The problem arises when you start being satisfied with those two slices of bread.
The positive responses to the talks today are surprising to say the least and anyone who questions, argues or disagrees with the point of view of one group is seen as an enemy by the other. Political debates aim at finding solutions for relevant public issues in most cases, and presenting party ideologies in some. A debate is the easiest platform to breed propaganda and it depends on the viewer’s reasoning ability to distance themselves from it.
The American GOP debates have stooped to a new low over the past few weeks. Interesting takeaways of the recent GOP debates have been the size of their body parts, one’s tendency to sweat and ability to do yoga. Unless a peace treaty depends on the strength of your handshake, or the value of a nuclear deal is decided by the length of a president’s penis, points like these are not just irrelevant but also an insult to the audience. With indecent interruptions and regular taunts; Trump, Cruz, and Rubio made a recent GOP debate look like three children fighting over ‘Who’s Daddy Strongest?’.
Trump’s popularity is understandable to an extent. At a time when people are tired of over-promising diplomatic politicians, he speaks his mind to the extent that it is rude, crass, and disgusting. But it is hard to believe a speaker’s point if none of their arguments are backed by logic, facts, ideas, or solutions.
While India hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, it doesn’t look like we are too far from it. When earlier this month,The Telegraph conducted a debate on the issue of tolerance vs intolerance in India, I expected a reasonable discussion. While I thought that the quality of the entire debate was poor, I was surprised by the audience’s appreciation for Anupam Kher’s argument.
Early on in the debate, Kher launches a tirade against anyone questioning the government and sets the tone for a fiery and dramatic argument without a modicum of restraint. He shames a former Supreme Court judge, attacks the Congress VP, and turns the topic of the debate to Modi vs Gandhi. He mocks the upper classes, who according to him are the same as intellectuals wearing diamond studs. He also mocks the layman for being one who finds it difficult to speak English in the most derogatory and demeaning way. You would imagine that the following speaker, Barkha Dutt, would feel like the Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede, being a seasoned journalist. Instead, she makes no counter arguments and ends up getting equally swayed by the frenzied passion. The 6 speakers successfully did what a non drinker would do at a party — eat all the peanuts and leave the alcohol. Reason shouldn’t always have to hold a higher place than emotion in a debate, but rationality is what differentiates a debate from a speech.
News channels have made primetime news their entertainment section where spokespersons of all parties indulge in what is popularly known as ‘tu tu main main’. Opinions are thrown around like gifts at an Oprah Winfrey show, for no reason at all. Calling the Newshour a debate is like calling Ashish Nehra a batsman. Constructive criticism has been replaced by the blame game, facts have been replaced by observations, and solutions by opinions.
Inside the parliament, the Scindia vs Irani debate over the Rohit Vemula case grabbed attention. While both speakers were passionate and high in drama, several facts were misrepresented and the sources for the facts were rarely quoted. To make things worse, the behavior of other members from both parties made the parliament look like a drunken brawl in a dingy local bar.
It is not that we have a shortage of good speakers in and out of the parliament. The debate over the JNU row between Ghulam Nabi Azad and Arun Jaitley showed important issues from both sides. The arguments were presented with wit, analogies, relevant examples from history, and most importantly with decorum. If you revisit the Rajya Sabha debates over the 2016 Annual Budget, you will find that members from all parties address pertinent questions to do with the administration and improvement of highly politicised topics like the MGNREGA, farmer suicides, and taxation issues.
Granted, it is easier to understand and form an opinion on the JNU fiasco as opposed to the problem of monitoring the subsidy for urea and its link to farmer suicide. However, that doesn't mean that you can disregard important facts and criticisms about the issue at hand. Today, the verdict on an issue of debate has been decided by us even before the speakers initiate their argument. By dividing people into ‘bhakts’, ‘sickulars’, pro, or anti Modi, we fail to appreciate a valuable point made by any speaker regardless of his political preference.
Our patience to think has been taken over by our desperation to blame. Any political party that comes to power will be questioned without exception. This is the very nature of a sound constitution and a great democracy. However, the more we agitate over illogical propaganda and destructive arguments, the further away we get from the solution. As the aggression and anger pile up, they get harder to diffuse. There is no shortage of good speakers by any stretch of imagination in our country: be it students, academia, media, and most definitely politicians. Unbiased reasoning by us as the audience will automatically draw stronger arguments in debates.
I hope we do not get swayed by the poor quality of discussions with no content or context. Let’s just decide to think for a second before we leap into the ring of rage.
The author is an advertising professional who sells ideas for products that people don't need but can't live without