Keep on speaking

In the countdown to general elections, the Congress and the BJP are trying to put their best faces forward. Even as Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi made a rare public appearance at a CII forum to speak of what matters to him, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has travelled to various forums to put forth his political and economic views. While assessments of these talks may differ, a public argument has begun as these leaders make their case directly to the people, present their credentials and promises for public judgement.

Of course, obsessive comparisons of the two, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, are eventually misguided. This is not a presidential-style contest between two individuals. Their speaking styles, personas, backgrounds and policy preferences have been contrasted, but ultimately, the national outcome in a fragmented polity does not depend on a single personality, or two. India's elections have too many moving parts, they are an aggregate of several regional contestations. And even if the Congress or BJP heads the next government, its leader will only be one actor in a sprawling ensemble cast. What's more, there is little evidence to show that televised debates and speeches significantly influence voter behaviour. Even in presidential systems like the US, for all the anecdotes about Kennedy's youthful charm and Nixon's five-o'clock shadow, studies have shown that public debates tend to reinforce voters' beliefs and party preferences, rather than change outcomes.

The significance of these public occasions is not so much that they will impact the upcoming election, therefore, but what they reveal about policy approaches and governing philosophies. Modi has spoken of his idea of development, how he conceives of government as a catalyst of private initiative, his ideas on land acquisition, women's empowerment and creating a responsive bureaucracy. Rahul Gandhi's one speech was more scattered, but from it can be gleaned a to-be- tested turning point in his party's relationship with entrepreneurial India, apart from a rationale for rights-based legislation, for policy geared towards more inclusive growth. Others like Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Nitish Kumar have also recently elaborated on their own administrative priorities. This public reflection on substantive political questions is a heartening development. More leaders should join in, with their own perspectives, widening the scope of the debate and challenging each other. Perhaps Modi could be asked to explain his view on secularism, for instance, and Rahul Gandhi could be nudged to articulate his position on some of the policy contentions within his own party. A lively political fight on these important questions could not but be entrancing and edifying for citizens. We're all ears.

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