Ensuring the Presidential Debate Lives up to its Potential

The Student Bar Council Constitution of 2017 entitled, for the first time in NALSAR’s history, the student body to a Presidential Debate. Earlier, campaigning occurred behind closed doors with no institutional open forum for candidates to explain their manifestos, which were restricted by diminutive word limits. The introduction of the Presidential Debate is aimed towards empowering the student body to make an informed choice. Thus, the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Debates that preceded the SBC 2017-18 elections attempted to level the playing field and offered the student body a chance to understand their leaders’ stands on important issues.

While this was a milestone in NALSAR’s electoral history, there is much that needs to be reformed in the conduct of the debates. We lay out a few proposals to help ensure that the text of the SBC Constitution achieves its purpose of addressing information asymmetries during the election cycle.

I. Time constraints on speeches

The Presidential Debate is a platform for each candidate to explain their vision for the SBC and make the case for why they are a suitable candidate in whom the student body should trust. Apart from outlining their vision, speeches should also include lessons from past experiences in the SBC (if any), reflections on the failings and shortcomings of the SBC and proposed plans of action. Given the breadth and gravity of issues that need to be covered, the paucity of time with respect to the speech should be among the last concerns for a candidate. First, each candidate should be given adequate time to share their vision and make their case. Perhaps, a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes could be allotted to each candidate. Second, candidates ought to be given prior information of the time limit for their speech, so that they may prepare accordingly. It would also be beneficial in the long run for the University to draft a set of rules that govern the format of the Debate. This would ensure that there is uniformity in the conduct of the Debate over the years and that time limits on speeches are not left to administrative discretion.

II. Outlining of manifestos by candidates

Although the student body has witnessed only one Debate and it is presumptuous to assume trends at this point, it is unfortunate to note that candidates contesting in the 2017-18 cycle used the platform to merely read through their manifestos and failed to make full use of the opportunity to explicate their ideas. Manifestos are circulated among the entire student body and there is no need for rehashing them in the speeches during the Debate. In their defence, the candidates contesting in the 2017-18 cycle were restricted by a short time limit. Given more time, the platform of the Debate would be better utilised if it were used to clarify candidates’ plan of action and set realistic expectations for achieving these goals. We hope that for the sake of a more constructive dialogue, contesting candidates in the future will use the platform of the Debate to offer explanations and critically engage with differing viewpoints or valid concerns.

III. Calling for an Unrestricted Question-and-Answer Session

Interference by the administration in the process of the Debate is an impediment to the very premise of it being an open forum for candidates to explain their visions to the student body. The administration’s imposition of a time constraint on the question-and-answer session after the Debate significantly hampers the free exchange of ideas and resolution of the student body’s doubts and apprehensions. It is worrisome that the time constraint may result in certain fundamental concerns being sidelined. Further, the time constraint may be strategically used by candidates to evade certain questions which might be difficult to answer. It may also be used by candidates to avoid taking stands on polarising issues.

Candidates also employ the tactic of planting questions. This may be done for the purpose of either highlighting certain latent credentials which might not be incorporated in the candidate’s speech or it may be used in conjunction with time constraints to eliminate certain questions by simply monopolizing the available time. However, this is easy for students to identify (thanks to multiple experiences with project presentations). Moreover, acknowledging this practice and negating its impact by doing away with time constraints would be a viable tradeoff for a more productive debate.

A possible way to go about the question-and-answer session would be to make it open to the entire student body and do away with time constraints entirely. This can be achieved by having the Electoral Officer put out an online open call for questions from the student body prior to and during the Debate. Questions may be  filtered for redundancy, ad hominem attacks or unparliamentary language and common concerns can be combined into single questions. An open call for questions before the Debate would ensure that even those who are unable to attend the Debate may send their questions in and seek answers.

A transcript of the entire debate, including the question-and-answer session, can be circulated to the student body subsequently to inform students not present at the Debate. Further, a transcript would ensure that the Debate is on record and that every question has been tended to.

IV. Regulation by the administration

While a case for moderation, to an extent, in the Debate can be made; inarguably, the presence and interference of the administration is a hindrance to a candid discussion on issues. This leads to a tendency towards self-censorship by both the candidates as well as the student body, which in turn may lead to the sidelining of relevant issues. There is also a strong likelihood that the administration might underestimate the gravity of certain issues that the student body faces, owing to them not having lived those experiences. Consequently, these issues might not get adequate attention if there is interference by the administration by way of their discretionary regulation of the Debate and continuous presence. Therefore, we suggest that even the moderator of the Debate be bound by a set of uniform rules on conducting the Debate and the question-and-answer session.

V. Outlining the Language problem

The privilege of familiarity with the English language is still restricted to the domain of a student who comes from a specific class, caste and geographical background. The very fact that the Debate is required to be held in English may impede interested candidates from putting their names in the ring. Additionally, even among speakers of the English language, there is a higher value attached by the student body to a specific diction and style of oration, with some candidates possibly not being seriously considered for lacking  class-determined ‘sophistication’. In doing so, the student body may possibly overlook substance for style. If candidates prefer speaking in the vernacular language, they ought to be given the opportunity to do so and translators can fill in the role of communicating candidates’ ideas and answers to questions from the student body.

VI. Conclusion

The Presidential Debate plays an important role in informing the student body about candidates’ policies and stands on important issues. It offers a formal means of communication in a campaign framework largely built on informal whisper networks and covert dialogues by contesting candidates with reputation and regional affiliation often being deciding factors. It has a secondary influence on SBC agenda setting, insofar as the reception to certain ideas and models during the Debate helps elected candidates gauge and prioritise the most important concerns for the student body. However, in order to draw the benefits of the Debate, reforms in the conduct of the Debate need to be instituted. These reforms would include doing away with time constraints on speeches and the question-and-answer session, establishing uniform rules for the Debate, allowing for translators and having an open call for questions. Just as important is the willingness of the student body to participate in the Debate as active listeners and prompters of dialogue.

Srujana Bej (Batch of 2019) and Ayush Verma (Batch of 2022).

The authors would like to thank Amani Ponnaganti (Batch of 2019) for her comments on the piece.

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