India needs a Debating Culture (Part 1)

Among Friends

“We seldom learn much from someone with whom we agree.” – Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Four of us friends talk every Saturday night on Skype for an hour. We used to do this in 2018-19, primarily discussing how to transform India. We re-started our conversations in April as the coronavirus spread. We shared inputs each of us got and the impact on the economy. As time passed, the virus discussion receded into the background and the chats moved back to the topic of what we can do to make India free and prosperous. The discussions were free flowing – as was to be expected among friends who have known each other for many years. We even started a book club for a month.

The book club format turned out to be an interesting change. In regular conversation, we have the habit of interrupting other people or deviating from the thread to bring up an idea of our own. The book discussion kept us all on-point, and gave the person speaking an uninterrupted 30-minute window. The conversations started to have much more depth. A person could take an idea and explain it in detail without worrying about someone else breaking the flow of thought. For the listener, it gave a much better insight into the speaker’s mind.

In one of our conversations, a contentious topic came up in the flow. The interruptions grew as each one of us had strong opinions to air. I realised I was more keen to speak rather than listen. It was then that I decided we needed a new format for structuring our talks.

My mind went back to IIT-Bombay 1984. It was my first month. As a freshie, there were many competitions that were held to get the new batch to know each other. One of them was a debate. In  typical irreverent style, the topic was – “Should rubber slippers be made the cultural symbol of IIT?” I prepared my short talk – and won the debate! As I realised later, debates were a very popular format as part of the cultural scene at IIT.

In recent years, we have seen the raucous TV debates which have now become more about the anchors ranting rather than giving participants time and space to rationally put forward their reasoned views. On social media too, trolling takes away from sensible discussion. And we as a people have retreated into the safe space of not listening or wanting to be persuaded by the other side – we prefer the comfort of the echo chamber.

My mind also went back to the days of watching Vajpayee debate in Parliament. The words came out like poetry in his mellifluous office – cajoling, mesmerising, convincing, winning.

And that set me thinking: could a debate format work in our group to better structure our conversations so that each of us got the time to make our points, and then also rebut others? That set me off on a journey to understand the world of debating.

Tomorrow: Part 2

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.