Debate ideas, not personalities

Sachin KalbagIndians are emotional people. It is no surprise, therefore, that our national discourse is, like our stock market, clouded by sentiment. Worse still, the outrage is temporary, and the very sentiment that pushed the issue to the top of the headlines and coffee shop discussion agenda is pulled down until another outrage takes its place. And the cycle repeats.

We are also an individualistic society where personalities are put on a pedestal one day and pulled down and buried the next. No matter what the issue is, it is about the person rather than the idea.

Voters’ choice: Elections in India have been fought over caste, religion, prices of vegetables, corruption and even freebies provided by the various candidates

Something similar is taking place in the latest obsession in our media discourse -- the political battle between Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi for the 2014 general elections. Depending on what side you are on, your leader is expected to be next messiah of the Indian public. And both sides, unfortunately, come across as a bombastic George W Bush in the wake of the war against Afghanistan and Iraq following the September 11 attacks in 2001: “If you are not with us, you are against us.”

It is rare to see -- although there is a smattering of policy debate here and there -- ideas being discussed. It is less than a year to go for the next Lok Sabha elections (in fact, less than nine months if you believe some pundits), and no political party has put forward a public document telling us what it will do to a) Rejuvenate the economy; b) Define or redefine our foreign policy goals; c) Secure our homeland against internal and external terrorists; d) Provide jobs and job security to millions; e) Secure our borders against an increasingly aggressive China; f) Rekindle the manufacturing and agriculture sectors; g) Make India a competitive business destination by kickstarting a fresh round of reforms; and finally h) Tackle corruption from the highest to the lowest levels.

Indian voters become obsessed with personalities because we have hardly been presented with ideas for executing the grandiose goals mentioned in a party’s manifesto. Which is why the current political battle is not a clash of ideas, but an entertaining conflict between two party leaders, or at least between their supporters. Sooner or later -- mostly sooner --more such personalities will enter the battleground. And as with the national discourse, the cycle will repeat itself, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For the voters, really, this is a losing battle. Something that we have been losing for the last 60-plus years. Elections in India have been fought over caste, religion, prices of vegetables, corruption, even freebies provided by the various candidates. But it is difficult to pinpoint an election where the candidates have fought over ideas for governance, for development, for specific programmes that ensure safety of citizens or provide a boost to the economy.

Unfortunately, the 2014 election is moving exactly in the same direction. It is a choice between hope and execution in which hope will win because execution and hard work -- the slow paths to recovery and glory -- just aren’t sexy enough. The Americans experienced the same in 2008. Senator Barack Obama was such a beacon of hope that not many ever paid any attention to whether his ideas were feasible for an economy wrecked by war and financial scandal. America survived, but the jury is still out on whether poor Americans have lifted themselves out of helplessness.

That is not to say that Obama is a bad president. He perhaps did everything he could under the circumstances, but it is also important to realise that many of his ideas were fundamentally a throwback into the socialist era. The person may have succeeded in winning a second term, but it is his ideas that are still under scrutiny. There are lessons to learn from the American polls, however insignificant they may be.

Will a similar situation play out in India, regardless of the ideology of the main competitors? This is not an easy question to answer. It is imperative, therefore, that political parties now freeze on their prime ministerial candidates and start debating ideas and how to execute them. Let people vote not only for personalities, but for ideas and for a clear roadmap for the execution of those ideas. The governance will inevitably follow.

Sachin Kalbag is Executive Editor, MiD DAY. He tweets at @SachinKalbag 

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