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Wednesday, July 14, 2004


Democracy goes back to sleep?

Today democracy comes to "life" during the election season. Every 4 or 5 years people's issues get packaged in slogans and emotive speeches fill the air waves. If you love democracy then you can REALLY feel it. Everyone is taking stock of the nation. I am quite assured in my belief that this is a global phenomena. India just went through that and now the United States is going through that ritual with all the theatrical fervor that modern PR firms can muster.

This overt display of democratic activism that surrounds an election disappears once the votes have been counted, the winners have celebrated, the losers concede, new cabinet positions been announced and to stretch it... the first 100 days in office are over. In some ways its like the birth of a child in a dysfunctional home. The coming of the child is always a celebration. But after the first few months the child is barely cared for, his/her future consumed by the present struggles and unlike democracy it rarely gets a second look. Well, such an attitude towards democracy affects more than one child. It affects millions of them.

Modern politics has been reduced to winning elections. Policy-making is secondary. Policy-implementation is tertiary. Citizen's participation = opinion polls. Are you kidding me?? Nope. This is what our foreparents fought for - the "sport" of democracy. I say sports within quotes because the usual sportsmanship often seen in the athletic realm is missing. Democracy is being reduced to a spectator sports. And that is a shame.

A change of guard at the political helm is always a time for optimism, hope and for the losers... reflection. But that optimism rarely translates into policies that change the lives of millions upon millions who carry democracy on their backs day in and day out. If one talks about their concerns, the struggles one is termed a "populist" or a "liberal" or an "idealist" !! But such name-calling should not desist us from dealing with substantive issues that affect us - the reason for democracy. Election enthusiasm cannot be the total life-cycle of the democratic process because it is too short to address the issues that people deal with for their entire leaves... generations sometimes.

The challenge is to sustain this drive. And the most energetic part of every democratic society must take the lead in doing so. That must be the mission of our generation - not to quit after the first mile but to finish the race. The race will never end as we will only pass on the baton to the next generation but while we run we will feel the pain of the journey, the camaraderie of the run, the satisfaction of helping others to run with us and above all making the story of our journey the story of our generation. These columns cannot and will not provide specific solutions to specific problems. They can't. We must believe in the strength of communities, in their wisdom to know best. We must devolve our democratic faith to the level where people affect their own destinies.

Initiatives like Panchayati Raj (village self-governance) need to become the basis of democracy as we move forward. Supporters of democracy should be alarmed at the dropping rates of electoral participation, pathetically the only barometer available. In the end communities MUST take things into their own hands and dictate the political process that so profoundly affects them.

Whenever you think that you are too small to make a difference one figure that can always inspire you is Mahatma Gandhi. He once said, "Strength in numbers is the delight of the timid. The valiant in spirit glory in fighting alone." Even if we are a minority of ONE we must persevere through strategic nonviolence. I close with these memorable words from Jawahar Lal Nehru's first speech to independent India:

The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us but as long as there are tears our job is not done.

And I add that the tears may have dried up but the pain persists and if we can every so slightly reduce it we have served our purpose on Earth.


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