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Let's have sharper debates

April 18, 2009 14:04 IST

There has been hand-wringing in recent days about the depths to which the main political personages have stooped, while hitting out at each other. This concern is misplaced, for there is nothing wrong in campaigners putting across their views bluntly, or sharply as the case may be. How else will voters find the issues framed clearly enough for them to form a clear view?

First Mr Advani took some swipes at the Prime Minister, for being "weak" -- which is certainly a charge that could be aired, given the unusual context in which Dr Singh assumed high office and has had to function. Has he, therefore, weakened the office of the Prime Minister, and reduced the effectiveness of the government?

Dr Singh hit back, as did all three members of the Gandhi family. Sonia Gandhi started off on the wrong note, by saying that it was in some way wrong to criticise the Prime Minister, which is a strange argument -- if you cannot criticise the head of government, then what is left of political debate?

Priyanka Gandhi (by all appearances the person in the family who is a natural at the game) took the issue into a more intelligent direction by seeking to define what was weakness and strength, through comparisons with the Mahatma.

Dr Singh then took the battle to Mr Advani's camp by making jibes at his record as home minister ("weeping in a corner" while the Babri masjid was being pulled down, was a sharp dig at the "loh purush").

BJP spokesmen responded by pointing to inconsistencies in the Congress positions -- how Dr Singh and Mr Chidambaram had on other occasions appreciated the dilemma faced by the Vajpayee government on whether to risk the lives of a hundred hostages or release an important terrorist.

Rahul Gandhi added his bit by asking whether Mr Vajpayee even trusted Mr Advani (since the latter had said in his memoirs that he was unaware of Jaswant Singh going on the relief plane to Kandahar).

Finally, Sonia Gandhi tried to counter the criticism that Dr Singh was not his own man as PM, by saying that Mr Advani was a "slave" of the RSS. Dr Singh on his part argued that the partnership with the Congress president had worked well, because he ran the administration while she focused on political management.

As in any debate, no one position is completely credible (most people would agree with the proposition that Dr Singh has not been an assertive prime minister, but who is to argue that this was not the best tactic in the circumstances?).

Equally, Mr Advani (who is projected by the BJP as a "strong" person who will lead a decisive government) took a few knocks in the counter-attack. The debate therefore has been a real one, about the qualities of the two main candidates for prime minister.

In fact, Dr Singh used a question at his meeting with members of the Editors' Guild, on when exactly he had moved from being a bureaucrat to becoming a politician, to make the point that he had personally negotiated coalition arrangements in 2004 with a number of important parties all the way from Tamil Nadu to J&K.

One wishes there would be more sharp debating of this kind, with thrust and counter-thrust, and without too much thought being given to personal sensitivities. The main protagonists have not jousted enough to help voters make up their minds on the real choices being presented.

Why not, for instance, a slanging match between P Chidambaram and Yashwant Sinha, on their respective management of the economy? Or on which of the last two governments did more for the highway programme? Or on who is more guilty of allowing the Naxalite problem to grow?

T N Ninan