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Modi-Rahul debate?

By Kumar Ketkar

Last week, Congress president Rahul Gandhi challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to an open debate on the Rafale deal. Earlier, he had suggested that he was ready even for a comprehensive joint debate. But apparently, Modi did not pick up the bait. NDTV held a panel discussion on the subject and asked a BJP spokesperson why Modi was not accepting the challenge. There was no forthcoming response.

Readers may recall that in 2013, Modi had similarly challenged the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to an open debate. So confident was he about his oratorical skill that he believed he could easily destroy Singh in that exchange. In 2014, during a visit to the US, I found that a large number of non-resident Indians (NRIs), who think everything in the American system is ideal, had instantly supported the idea. Suddenly, it began to be seen as the most ideal feature of election campaigning.

The competence, capability and credibility of the candidate would be determined by the score they got in instant television polls. The entire English-speaking metropolitan middle class seemed hooked to the idea. And they were convinced the Modi-Singh show would prove a great TRP draw in which the ‘Accidental Prime Minister‘ would be floored, much like a losing wrestler in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the famous American TV show! (The book titled The Accidental Prime Minister came out later and the trailer of a film based on it just a fortnight ago.)

When juxtaposed with the shyness and the zero decibel-esque voice of Singh, the loud and macho Modi was sure to impress viewers who were looking for a superman as prime minister. The debate did not take place. But Modi’s campaign handlers managed to have Singh and Modi, displayed on a split TV screen giving the Independence Day address, on August 15, 2013.

Some TV anchors promptly concluded that Singh looked miserable and spoke horribly. Modi, on the other hand, appeared to be a brave, eloquent leader with ‘killer instinct’. The otherwise timid middle classes saw in Modi a saviour and in Singh a poor lamb! The corporate executive class saw in Modi a daredevil CEO, who would take the nation to American heights and thunder in the Security Council, giving India the superpower image!

These perceptions survived almost till last year. Had the film The Accidental Prime Minister released in 2014-15, it would have impressed this gullible middle class. But now, it has been unable to generate that frenzied following because this class has slowly begun to see the hollowness of Modi’s image-like the holograms he used to promote himself.

During the Vajpayee-Advani era, the former was a mukhota and the latter a face. In Modi’s case, it turned out to be the man and his hologram! Both illusions of laser-driven digital India!

Perhaps the realisation of that hollowness has dawned on Modi and his handlers. That is why he did not dare take the challenge thrown at him by Rahul Gandhi.

The media had reduced Rahul to the image of not only a ‘Pappu’, but also a joker-a helpless, hapless, pathetic Chaplin-like figure. Suddenly the little tramp has struck back and the seasoned wrestler does not know where to hide.

The idea of the Presidential-style debate was always absurd, actually even in the US. But it had caught the imagination of the philistines. However, with Rahul throwing the challenge at Modi, the whole Americanised middle class here as well as the NRIs in the US, have now gone quiet. What if Modi cannot reply to the charges made by Rahul?

What if Modi’s TRP ratings plunge? And what if Rahul’s ratings show a higher score? That would mean losing the election even before polling takes place.

Therefore, it is better to give interviews to private news agencies like the ANI, who are perceived to be willing to promote Modi and his government.

If indeed it is an independent news agency, why has it not interviewed Rahul? Or, Manmohan Singh? And how come all the leading channels pay huge fees to this private agency to televise those interviews? Where has the Press Trust of India gone?

Yet, the Presidential-style debate would be utterly meaningless. Modi can be accused-like he has been by many commentators-of running the government like US presidents do. However, he does not want to follow the same style and agree to a debate with Rahul. With so many languages, races, regions, religions, castes et al, it is truly impossible to reduce the choice of the prime minister to such vacuous debates and their TRPs.

What will happen in the 2019 election?

Will Modi again win majority-even if not the highest vote share-for the BJP? If not, will the Opposition come together, pre- or post-election? Will Modi be forced into a multi-party coalition and would he be able run it?

The BJP and RSS’s junior leaders and activists are wary of Modi. But will they actually vote the BJP out?

These are questions no one will respond to. Not opinion polls, but actual elections will show our leaders their place in the political universe. The embedded media, pollsters, pundits, commentators and journalists will then try to show how they were right or merely explain away the results.

Till then, the greatest show on earth will play out!