India’s ‘presidential’ elections Print
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The general elections to be held in India in just a few weeks, when about 750 million eligible voters will decide which of the two major coalitions will form the government, promise to be vastly different from previous such exercises. Though India is a parliamentary democracy, where political parties (or so-called high commands) decide on the new prime minister after the elections, this time the race is beginning to look like the run-up to the American presidential election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under pressure from its restless cadres, was forced to declare the name of its prime ministerial candidate months before the elections. Narendra Modi, the Gujarat Chief Minister, is a highly-polarising figure in Indian politics and is still being seen by a vast section of the electorate as being morally  if not legally  responsible for the communal riots in his state in 2002. After the BJP declared Modi’s name, the Congress too has been under pressure to announce its prime ministerial candidate. While Manmohan Singh, the incumbent premier, ruled himself out of the race, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is now the undeclared candidate of the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance. News television is also having a significant impact in these elections and political parties have started splurging money on advertisements. The electronic media would love to put the two candidates on a common platform, where they could debate their policies and programmes, just as American presidential candidates engage in a series of debates before elections.Of course, both parties are unsure whether to allow their prospective prime ministerial candidates to slug it out in television studios, fearing the consequences of an embarrassing slip or being outwitted by the rival. India is a nation of more than 250 million households (with an average of five members in each), of which more than 150 million households own TV sets. Such debates can make or mar a politician’s career. Gandhi, who has avoided serious interactions of more than five minutes with the media all these years, decided to take the plunge a few days ago and allowed himself to be ‘cross-examined’ by Arnab Goswami of Times Now, one of the most incisive and aggressive interrogators on the small screen. Sadly for the heir to the Congress throne, his maiden foray was a virtual disaster, with his wooden countenance and tautological replies projecting him in poor light. But Modi too has major problems with the electronic and print media and refuses to be probed on the Gujarat riots, preferring only to harp on his government’s ‘achievements.’ India’s ambitious politicians should learn to take such questions on the chin, instead of avoiding the media.

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