Lessons from a debate

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, mostly the worst. Thursday night’s Presidential debate was hardly the event it was hyped up to be. Mitt Romney’s practiced zingers must’ve quietly rotted away as the incumbent President decimated his own performance by thoughtfully staring down at what might’ve been his notes, the cold wood of the lectern or ironically, the bleak future if he lost.

Romney has lied, retracted, blustered through his campaign and has more flip-flops to his name than a Hawaiian beach, and Thursday was no different. However, there was one crucial difference between last night and the past few months of horrendous bloopers and embarrassing moments for him: he looked good doing it. Prez O let him get away with lies, which is absolutely unforgivable. I can’t fathom the kind of strategy that will direct a Presidential candidate to keep staring at the lectern as his opponent packages untruths into slick made-for-TV soundbytes. Romney the consultant decimated Obama the professor. Certain articles mention that debating is not Obama’s strong point. He’s a Harvard Law graduate. Law. Aren’t they supposed to be good at debating?!

As I mulled over Obama’s disastrous turn, it occured to me that I had the opportunity to critique his performance because of the forum. The debate allowed Americans to scrutinize their future leaders, as they scrutinized each other’s policies. It allowed the people to get a good look at the men and women who aspire to occupy the highest office in the land, call themselves leaders of the free world. And in that harsh scrutiny stood out each candidate’s character – honest and thoughtful, or cunning, deceitful and petty. For example, when Romney petulantly demanded he be given the last word on a question, Obama had a fatherly, indulgent smile on his face as he gamely allowed Romney to proceed. This doesn’t just demonstrate the different strategies adopted by the candidates, it’s a window into the kind of people they are. Obama came across as a very thoughtful, pragmatic leader who takes his decisions very personally. He’s eager to defend his policies with an earnestness present only in people who truly believe what they’re saying. He’s also consensus-driven and over four years of determined efforts at developing a bipartisan approach, he now carries the disappointed look of someone betrayed.

I can’t vote in the US, but if I could, these are valuable inputs that could sway my decision. Do I vote for the academic who has sensible ideas but lacks the bluster and personality to push them through? Or should I vote for the slick liar who doesn’t think but does? (Of course, there’s no real choice in this case – I’ll go for the thinker because I’d rather have a stalemate economy than one which is buckling under the weight of five new wars.)

I can vote in India, though. Do I really know who my next Prime Minister is going to be? Do I know what she thinks of our foreign policy? What are her views on taxes? What about diffusing regional tensions? What India lacks is a forum like the US Presidential Debate to allow voters to see the true character of whom they’re voting for.

This is hardly an easy task.

First, India is divided along regional and communal lines. Parties exploit such factionalism by claiming to represent the interests of the latest new splinter group of disenfranchised voters. Janata Dal (Konkani Speaking Motorcycle Riders Division)? Not implausible. Thus, loyalties are mostly to political parties, not individuals. Individuals who make it to the top of this heap and command instant recall, are usually propelled by an army of sycophants who also employ local thugs for not very innovative, but forceful and effective marketing efforts (vote for bhabhiji or else…).

Individuals are also fickle. A colleague once pointed out the  difference in rabidity of college football fans compared to those who supported NFL teams. His reasoning was simple – college players mostly play for their college so it makes sense to support individuals because you always know whom, and what they represent; NFL players are traded more frequently so there’s little reason to root for a team or individual with such fluid values. Similarly, it’s useless to assume a politician’s fealty to his current political party. To compound the problem we have too many political parties, each exploiting their own niche, resulting in no clear majority. This means a motley crew, many of whom we didn’t even vote for, eventually get together to form the government.

Second, undecided voter affiliations aren’t on the basis of manifestos or even intent, but on who dishes out the most freebies or adopts timely populist stances. This presents the problem of having undecided voters who aren’t swayed by information, but by handouts. Quite like buying an iPhone for free, but locking yourself into a four year contract (oh wait…).

Third, the selection of the PM is a political game fought after the elections, which is absolutely ridiculous! The selection is also out of the voters’ hands because they vote for the party and then the party decides who will lead it. In some cases there are clear leaders like Atal Vajpayee (my sincere apologies to Mr. Advani), but take the case of the 2004 General Elections. Who expected Manmohan Singh to become PM? A man who has never won an election himself is now the leader of the world’s largest democracy, his candidature sweetened with phrases like “Reforms of ’91”, “impeccable integrity”, “highly educated”, “thinker”. That’s all well but can this man lead a raucous coalition of entitled crybabies? The last four years have proven that he can’t. Had he stood face to face with other candidates, his diffident nature would’ve been clear for all to see.

Fourth, let’s say we even manage to agree on the possible PM candidates of each party. What’s going to happen when we get them together on a stage to debate each others’ political manifestos and records? I personally feel it’s going to devolve into a shouting match about scams. There’s hardly an untainted minister left in Indian politics and there’s always enough history to be used as cannon fodder.

In market research, it’s advisable to use scaled questions when asking people to rate things. Giving them choices of Yes or No inhibits nuance in their answers. That’s the accusation leveled at US politics where it’s always a Donkey-Elephant race with independents rarely making a dent (except in the case of Ross Perot who cornered 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 elections, effectively causing George Bush Sr’s candidacy to crumble). But India is the other extreme where the scale goes from 1-100. How do you choose the best when there’s so much choice it’s impossible to make one? How do you choose a leader when his selection is shrouded behind a secret curtain of political machinations?

Is it time to re-think how we elect our leaders? A simple 2-point scale is enough.



10 responses to “Lessons from a debate”

  1. mesnovio says :

    My earlier reply was actually directed at daddysan. Modi’s critics who can see nothing good or right about him, remind me of a Cossack folktale:

    A young Cossack, who was a gifted horseman, dreamed of owning the best steed in the village where he lived. So he toiled and saved money to buy his dream horse, and eagerly waited for the annual animal fair that was held in a nearby village. At last, the big day came and our young Cossack set off for the fair, dressed in his Sunday best. He inspected all the horses on sale and finally found a stallion with a flowing mane, flaring nostrils, rippling muscles and a glistening white fleece. This was the horse he had dreamt of and toiled for! The owner asked for a huge sum, our young Cossack paid the money without even bothering to haggle over the price. Horse bought, its proud new owner mounted the steed and cantered home. He rode straight to the village square where his fellow Cossacks gathered every Sunday evening for raucous drunken revelry, dismounted and called them over to show off his new horse. A collective gasp was heard as the Cossacks gathered around: None had seen a more handsome stallion than this. One of them patted the horse and praised his strength; another counted his teeth and declared he couldn’t be more than a year old; a third ran his fingers through the mane and sighed. The village elder was so impressed that he declared the stallion the official stud of the village horse collective and ordered a fresh round of vodka for everybody. Then along came the village cynic, who was also the local correspondent of Pravda and the designated Cossack ‘intellectual’. He walked around the horse, went back to where he had been sitting sipping vodka, struck a pose similar to Rodin’s Thinker, got up after a while, walked back to the horse, lifted its tail, sniffed and declared, in a stentorian voice similar to that in which judges give their final verdict, “The horse stinks.”

    The non-stop rant against Modi proves the comparison between the Cossack in the folktale and intellectual-activist Cossacks (like daddysan) is not misplaced.

  2. Aditya says :

    I don’t know much about politics. But i seriously loved your article. Brilliantly written. & Yes i think India needs such debates.

  3. riffraaf says :

    Funny, you mention Obama having the fatherly smile. Romney brought up the fact that he was the father of 5 sons and hence he had heard it all. The other guy actually showed that he was an adult. Hmm.

    I take these elections too personally (probably for my own good) so it was pretty disappointing to see Obama not pushing back at all. One theory I heard was that he was knocked off his game. His team did not anticipate Romney’s complete etch a sketch move to the center that night so he was busily thinking how to respond to it. Watching Elizabeth Warren debate Scott Brown in Mass. recently was quite eye opening as well.

    Agree that India should have similar debates. I can imagine it turning it into a complete shouting match. But what the hay. It’s a loud democracy and let them shout it out. At least people get to see who these candidates are for may be an hour.

  4. Lokendra Chauhan says :

    Neeraj, Great articulation as always! But I think things are more complicated than how you described. There are folks in US e.g. Fareed Zakaria, who have been saying that US should go for Westminster style democracy (what India already has) to get rid of the stalemate situation US Congress is in. At the same time we have many in India advocating for a presidential form of government (seemed like you are also saying that).

    Then there are the issues of interest groups in presidential systems, which take the form of coalition partners in Westminster democracies. Take it to another and we have folks who just hate the first past the post system followed by most democracies and root for the proportional representations. Maybe the problem is that no one has figured out the right equilibrium for the type of political system we need. It probably is a different equilibrium for different cultures/societies at different times. Maybe India needs a presidential system given its position on the development ladder so that it can move under some ideological direction and US is a mature enough democracy where a Westminster system might make more sense.

    Anyway, personally I think leaders should be there to innovate, not manage because innovation requires strong belief in one’s ideas. To manage things, I would much rather go for an automated Operating System than self-interested humans :) In fact, if you look the our evolutionary history, you will see that innovations lead to progress but they always happen on the fringes and slowly or sometime very fast take over the core/everything. So a political system replicating nature in such a way would probably make more sense i.e. a strong core/laws which are a bit self-governing types and systems/ institutions that always focus on long-term plans for everything (probably 50-1000 yr timelines), but allow for lot of experimentation and innovation (which are lead by the smart and committed leaders). So that good and successful innovative ideas can get adopted whenever they come along e.g. making fire, mobile phones, laws, institutions and probably organized religions was a great innovation at some point in history.

    Another part is legitimacy: Because of our short lives and short-term thinking habits, we end selecting the wrong kinds who come in enjoying legitimacy to govern us but often fall prey to their own personal ambitions/greed and lose that legitimacy. My thought (maybe wrong) is that having a highly transparent system with enough participation opportunities for citizens in decision making (crowd sourcing type policy making) would be better.

    Leaders are over-rated when it comes to governing, they rarely are able to change much when it comes to the whole society/system. Can any Indian party claim that they bring the growth rate down to near zero? No, no one can. So then claiming they can increase growth rate significantly for long term is also wrong (Right now I don’t want to get into the discussion whether economic growth rate is the right indicator to measure progress or not). What successful leaders actually seem to be doing is to make things sound sensible or articulate public opinion in a persuasive/convincing manner. Finally, the current political systems we have are not meant to lead to the future we all want. So serious amount of thinking and resources need to go into what kind of political system we humans need e.g. open minded enough to allow innovations to flourish and yet enforces a stable long-term outlook. Who knows, outcome of such deliberations may even be to just let different groups try different systems so that cruel evolutionary forces can select the winning systems but then it is our species which loses in that case.

    • daddysan says :

      Lokendra, a wonderful perspective. Thank you. A few things to add to your excellent analysis

      1. I’m not necessarily proposing a presidential system for India, only more knowledge about the person leading the country’s ministers.

      2. Greater transparency is exactly what the IAC sought to bring, but failed because of its own twisted, extra-constitutional agenda. In fact, your mention of personal foibles and greed triumphing over the greater good is intriguing because the IAC is the perfect example of a group formed by a noble objective but destroyed by personal ambition. Kejriwal is doing the right thing by looking to bring in more transparency through a political route.

      3. Point taken on lobby groups vs coalition partners. As I mentioned before, one form of government over the other is never going to affect power structures. I just want to know my leaders better.

  5. purplesque says :

    Precisely. Both Romney and Ryan have consistently shown the blustery aggressive if-I-attack-hard-enough-they’ll-forget-the-facts approach for long. Sometimes it doesn’t work, on the debate night it did. Forget the politics, though, it makes me dislike the people that they are.

    There was definitely something up with the POTUS- I have seen him come back harder. I HOPE he is not the type who is too embarrassed by blatant lies to point them out- that sounds depressingly familiar.

    But yes, if I could vote in the US, I’d know who to vote for. In India? Not so much.

    • daddysan says :

      What really worries me is the clamor of “Modi’s the only one left”. Wow. A genocidal liar as my country’s PM? No thank you, even if the alternative is a five day old rotten potato basket.

      • purplesque says :

        Yes. Secularity and religious tolerance are more important, more basic Indian values than smart(er) economic choices-in my mind, anyway- but that is easy to lose track of when you are staring poverty in the face.

      • mesnovio says :

        Yes, I’d rather vote for the Congress, the ‘secular messiah’, the party that presided over the riots in 1984 in which over 4,500 Sikhs died: four times the number killed in Gujarat.

        Of course, you’ll see this as a “despicable” attempt to equate the two unfortunate events. I would agree with you. The hideous blood-letting by Congress goons that we witnessed in Delhi and several cities cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be equated with the ghastly violence that gripped parts of Gujarat after the torching of coach of Sabarmati Express by a Muslim mob. There are three reasons why any attempt at comparing the two tragic events would be immoral and wrong.

        First, the scale of violence is incomparable, as is the loss of lives and property. The death toll for the anti-Sikh pogrom was not less than 4,500. In the post-Godhra riots, about 1,000 people were killed. Lest I be accused of being callous, let me hasten to add that I believe every life matters and even one death is one too many.

        Second, the Government of India, which was then (and still remains) responsible for maintaining law and order in Delhi, refused to lift a finger in admonition, leave alone crack down on mobs of Congress hoodlums led by Congress cronies of the party’s first family, for 72 hours. The Congress, and the Government which was then headed by Rajiv Gandhi wanted to “teach the Sikhs a lesson” — the crime of a few individuals was converted into a collective crime deserving of collective retribution. As Rajiv Gandhi was to later declare, without the slightest trace of contrition or remorse, “When a giant tree falls, the earth below shakes.”

        In contrast, Mr Narendra Modi decided to call in the Army when it became clear that the State police were incapable of controlling the rioting mobs. Nearly all the Hindus who died in the violence were killed in police or Army firing. Not a single tormentor of Sikhs suffered so much as a lathi-blow in 1984. But let that pass. Could Mr Narendra Modi have done better? Could he have stamped out the riots before they exacted a terrible toll? Could he have ensured absolute peace and calm despite the provocation of the arson attack at Godhra?

        These are questions that can be debated till the cows come home without reaching a conclusion that is acceptable to all. I’d say he tried his best; others like you would say he didn’t. I would stand by my truth just as you would stand by your perceived truth.

        Third, no two incidents of communal violence are comparable. The causative factors differ as do local political, social and cultural dynamics. How can we then compare 1984 to 2002? More so when 1984 was a state-sponsored pogrom endorsed by the then Prime Minister of India, an endorsement that reverberated in his infamous declaration that the earth is bound to shake when a giant tree falls?

        It would, then, be asked, why is 1984 mentioned at all in the context of 2002? Here’s the reason why: Intolerant ‘secularists’, sanctimonious leftists and self-righteous liberals like you, who are unsparing in their criticism of Mr Narendra Modi, take extraordinary care in steering clear of even remotely accusing the Congress, let alone Rajiv Gandhi, of complicity in the mind-numbing brutalities of 1984.

        Anyway, we live in a democracy with plural voices. Freedom of speech is integral to our liberty. And the right of Narendra Modi’s critics to make fools of themselves is their inalienable right.

        • purplesque says :

          1. You forgot the biggest difference between 1984 and 2002- Rajiv Gandhi is no longer running for Prime Minister. Did you not get the memo?
          2. Not that you asked, but intolerant ‘secularists’, sanctimonious leftists and self-righteous liberals like me would never vote for the Congress, either.
          3. You should really see someone about this anger of yours.

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