historian | journalist | peacebuilder

Dialogue on 'Making Democracy Real'

Rajmohan Gandhi took part in a Dialogue on 'Making Democracy Real' at Asia Plateau, Panchgani, India, January, 2012. Full details of the conference may be found at http://makingdemocracyreal.org/

He gave the opening remarks, reproduced below, and also available as a video here.

Text of his opening remarks:

Except for a 19-month period in the 1970s, India has remained a democracy from the time of its independence in August 1947.

This makes Indian democracy quite wonderful. More than wonderful, India democracy is mysterious or miraculous. Look at any Indian currency note and you will get a sample of our numerous languages written in numerous scripts. We are a diverse people and also a talking people. Each of us has a solution for India’s problems, but those who should be listening to my solution are instead voicing their own solutions.

You have seen our traffic, and you will also notice the shortage of electricity and water. With our diversity, our love of our own speech, and our infrastructure we should not have survived as a democracy. But we have. We are a functioning anarchy, an enduring chaos that almost miraculously possesses a shape called democracy.

So your encounter with India can only give you hope about your countries. Above all we are lucky – that is the biggest secret of Indian democracy. Apart from luck, the largest credit for democracy’s survival and deepening in India belongs to the Indian people. The egos and ambitions of politicians, their love of the chair and of the money that power can bring, has often paralyzed governance.

Yet our people have tolerated and understood challenges of governance when tolerance and understanding were needed, and in 1977 our people defeated an authoritarian interlude when they had the electoral chance to do so.

Yes, we have been helped by history too. The gun or the sword played only a small part in our independence movement. Because of this history, the gun has not been part of power struggles after independence. The army has stayed out. We shout and bellow at one another, but it is the ballot, not the bullet, that decides who rules India, and we have been lucky enough to have a record on the whole of free and fair elections.

Our record has been better on liberty than on equality and fraternity, or on dignity. If we learn to respect one another’s dignity, and in particular the dignity of the weak or vulnerable person, we will make more of an impact on the world.

Also, India has witnessed great individual achievements but fewer common successes. Becoming a millionaire has proved easier than freeing a locality of garbage, or potholes, or unscheduled power cuts. Working with one another has proved harder than working for oneself.

But there have been notable exceptions. For instance, in the water-short Maharashtra village of Hivre Bazar, all the villagers, led by Shri Popatrao Pawar, have joined hands and solved the problems of their village by their own strength.

I pray that India and Indians will remain engaged with the countries represented here. Who can forget the inspiration offered and being offered by the courageous fighters for democracy in the Arab world? Who can be blind to the enormity of the challenge now faced by the Arab world? Who is not moved by the long, patient and painstaking struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people?
India’s future is completely connected to the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the rest of the world, but we do not know many vital countries as well as we should. We do not know what makes them tick or what makes them tense.

This dialogue will help. We gather in order to know one another – listen to one another. To promote the listening habit, so critical to democracy. We are here not primarily to speak but to listen – and to reflect.

Let’s of course share our struggles; our hard-won victories (it is so easy, when tough challenges face us, to forget these); our anxieties; our hopes. We will draw strength from one another. At the end we want if possible to return to our places with greater faith – faith that situations can be changed where necessary, and gains consolidated where that is necessary.

Let us go back with a strategy: of what we will do in order to make democracy more real in our country than it is. Let the strategy be modest or bold, but it should be a clear one, with clarity about the people we would enlist, and the team we would work with. If possible let us go back with freer and lighter minds, freed of the weight of anger or resentment that prevents the teamwork that can assist our nation.

So let us listen with open minds to one another. May this dialogue produce useful and interesting ideas, hope-giving and healing ideas, in the plenaries and the workshops, at the freedom square occasions, in our conversations with one another, and in times of silent reflection that we can snatch while we are here.