Watch Nidhi Razdan: Starner vs Sunak debate in the UK Video Credit: Gulf News

Last week, Britain witnessed the first television debate between the two front runners of the upcoming general election — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Kier Starmer. The debate saw many angry exchanges between the two, where they often didn’t let the other finish speaking before butting in.

For 18 months, Sunak’s Conservative Party has been trailing in opinion polls and appears set for a massive defeat in the elections on July 4. But in the TV debate, it was Rishi Sunak who came out on top. Commentators had said before the debate that Starmer was not keen to take on Sunak on television.

Sunak is a good speaker, combative and articulate. And at a time when Labour was on top in the polls, a wrong step, however small, is the last thing they need. In other words, Starmer had more to lose. One snap poll done right after the debate showed Sunak on top.

But the chances of this having a positive impact on his party in the elections are frankly very slim. However politics is also very much a battle of perception, which is why the Conservatives needed a good performance by Sunak to change the conversation and boost their morale.

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Tradition of TV debates

It’s also why candidates who are often in the leading position are reluctant for televised contests. The UK doesn’t have a long tradition of TV debates during elections the way America does. It is a relatively new phenomenon. The first one took place only in 2010.

In the United States, the first televised debate between presidential candidates was the famous one between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Watched by 70 million people, it changed the way politics was done in the country forever.

Before the debate, Nixon was widely expected to win. But he was up against a youthful and photogenic Kennedy. The story is that while Kennedy had stage make-up done to appear before the cameras, Nixon did not want to. He was unwell and looked tired and unshaven on air while Kennedy looked fabulous. This debate put Kennedy in the lead. The rest is history.

In India, we have a parliamentary system of democracy like the UK. But here, there is no tradition of televised debates. In the just concluded general election campaign, the Congress did challenge Prime Minister Modi to a debate with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.

But not surprisingly, the BJP dismissed it. It would actually be good to see the top contenders debate on TV in India. It may be more chaotic since there are so many parties but it would make the process even more interesting and transparent where the candidates can be questioned on issues.

But most Indian politicians are reluctant to debate each other and take unfiltered questions. With some exceptions.

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Ultimately the question is whether TV debates make a big difference to the election outcome.

In the UK, a study done in 2017 showed that one third of viewers said the TV debates on the BBC helped them make their choice when they went out to vote. This was especially true for young people.

In an age of hyper media, getting candidates on television gives people a chance to directly question them. It truly represents the power of democracy. So even if the impact is minimal, it makes an election far more democratic and that is the only way to go.