By Saanya Gulati:
From pepper spray incidents in Parliament, to protests at Jantar Mantar, recent episodes confirm the boisterous if not downright bizarre nature of India’s political discourse.
The ‘masala’ (gossip) that everyday political events provide is nothing short of a soap opera. The drama is often exciting. But this reduces our political discourse into a melodramatic script that lacks substance and depth. Besides, there are plenty of actual soap operas on Indian television!
Here are 10 things that our political discourse can do with some more of:
1. More respectful of differing opinions
“The moment I disagree with you, I will not listen,” says the news anchor to the panelists on his debate. If you were part of ‘debate club’ in school, the first rule you would have learnt is ‘to hear out your opponent before making a counterargument.’ Switch on Lok Sabha TV or any television news channel, and you will quickly realise that this rule simply does not apply.
Debates are often reduced to a debacle — from parliamentarians marching to the well of the House, to journalists screeching at the top of their lungs —with everyone wanting to be heard, but not hearing the other.
2. More data-driven
‘From the fight against polio to fixing education, what’s missing is often good measurement and a commitment to follow the data.’ writes Bill Gates.
If one has to make recommendations to improve the education system, s/he needs to know simple things like the student-teacher ratio or whether there is a principal in each school. Good data can help identify gaps in the current system.
Information should be available in formats that are easy to access and analyse —breaking away from the tedious filing system of many government offices is a good first step.
3. More focused on outcomes and quality
Pratham’s ASER Survey says there is a government primary school within one kilometre of almost every habitation in the country. Yet our education system is broken.
We tend to assume that building more schools is the key to fixing our education system. Or building more hospitals will resolve the health crisis. While the need for basic public services is unquestionable, the need for good public services is as, if not more, important. We need stronger qualitative measures of policy implementation and for our political discourse to shift from quantity to quality, and from inputs to outcomes.
4. More interactive
Web 2.0 and social media are changing the conventional ruler-subject paradigm of politics — more engagement is possible between voters and representatives today.
But to make our political discourse truly interactive, political parties and politicians should not use these platforms as yet another vehicle to propagate their agenda. The challenge is to create more regular and constructive exchanges between the electorate and decision-makers.
5. More nuanced
Mantras like ‘women’s empowerment’ or ‘development,’ which many of our leaders mindlessly echo, do not tell us anything about the what, how, and when.
The public is more critical of vague repetitive rhetoric of social identities and appeasement that was once enough to mobilise people — evidenced by the public’s reaction to the #RahulSpeaksToArnab episode. For a more nuanced political discourse, both individual interviews and speeches, but even party manifestos and agendas, should be more action-oriented and time-bound.
6. More proactive
During election season or when a scam is exposed, everyone is ready to debate politics. We selectively choose to take an active part in public life when it is convenient for us. ‘Democracy in India does badly in between elections,’ as Ashutosh Varshney, a prominent political scientist aptly put it in a recent talk.
For routine accountability, engagement and participation should be continuous, and more proactive on our part.
7. More transparent
While Parliament’s daily antics are broadcast live, there are many official proceedings that still take place behind close doors. An example of this is standing committees, which advise the government on landmark legislation before they are discussed in Parliament. This is one of the few forums that aid pre-legislative consultation. Making such debates viewable to the public can add value to the public discourse.
8. More encouraging of different stakeholders’ voices
Civil society and non-profit organisations hold a big stake in policy making. But there are few avenues for them to contribute to the political discourse in a meaningful and impactful way.
Creating channels through which organisations can use evidence from pilot interventions as a vehicle to advocate for policy reform can act as an important driver of large-scale social change. A poignant argument Manish Sabharwal, Chairman of Teamlease, makes is that the Government has execution deficit, private sector has trust deficit and NGOs have a scale deficit. If each stakeholder can play to its strengths, then this will strengthen our political discourse.
9. More decentralised
The hackneyed ‘Modi-Gandhi’ debates, albeit recently turned ‘Modi-Gandhi-Kejriwal’ are telling of how personality driven our political discourse remains. Amidst these discussions, we forget the complex and multi-layered nature of our institutions.
If we spend as much time assessing the candidates from our own constituency, we may start voting for issues that directly impact our daily lives. This in turn will also force parties to choose their candidates more carefully.
10. More reflective of India’s diversity
Questions like ‘what matters to the Indian voter?’ or the ‘youth’ do not have a single answer in a country as diverse as ours. It is statistically impossible to generalise anything for over a billion people.
Rural versus urban, class, and regional distinctions, undoubtedly influence the political discourse, resulting in the multiple narratives of what constitutes India. The role of our political discourse is not to unify these narratives — but to remain cognizant of this diversity, and receptive to marginal voices and communities.