By Frank Islam
Thank you, Dr. Banik, for that kind introduction. Thank you for our firm friendship. Let me begin by saying it is truly an honor to be here with all of you NCAIA members and guests to celebrate India’s Independence Day. I am sure that you feel as I do that this is the next best place to be- outside of India – on this very special day for each and every one of us.
As many of you know, I have had the distinct privilege to speak to NCAIA audiences on numerous Republic and Independence Days. In my speeches in the past, I have addressed topics such as the women’s empowerment in; the evolving and dynamic relationship between India and the United States, and, the accomplishments and emerging leadership roles that we Indian Americans are playing here in the United States.
I am here tonight to speak about quite a different topic. That topic is democracy – around the world and in India. I have titled my talk “Make India a Global Beacon of Hope for Democracy.”
In my humble opinion, India has the opportunity, the responsibility and the capacity to become that Global Beacon.
In my remarks, I will highlight:
- Why it is important for India to assume a leadership role in this regard
- Look at where India stands today in terms of its own democracy
- Identify the three critical improvement areas in which India must take action to become an exemplar for democracy; and finally,
- Discuss what we as India-Americans can do to help make India that Global Beacon
Democracy in Decline
It is important for India to become a Global Beacon because in this 21st-century democracy is in decline. The decline may be an understatement.
Freedom House, the organization that looks at the quality of freedom in countries around the world, titled its 2018 Annual Report, Democracy in Crisis. The opening sentence of the Report reads as follows:
Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.
Freedom House is not alone in its assessment. In the May/June edition of Foreign Arrairs, scholars Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefano, take it one step further in their article titled “The End of the Democratic Century.” They argue that autocracy is on the rise throughout the globe and the institutional decay and the rise of populism in the U.S., the democratic “superpower” could sound the death knell for democracy as we have known it.
Let me put this into context for you. For much of the twentieth century, the United States of America was the absolute leader in promoting and promulgating democracy and democratic values internationally.
With the Trump presidency, that leadership has eroded and virtually disappeared. Trump’s obsessive emphasis on America First; the withdrawal from involvement with traditional allies and international agreements; the confounding relationship with Russia compounded by the sickening sideshow with Putin in Helsinki; combined with the instigation of trade wars will lead to the inevitable conclusion of America not being first – but America being alone and last. A nation cannot lead from that position.
Democracy in India
There is a significant vacuum that must be filled if democracy and the search for it is to be a defining characteristic of this century. India is by far the largest democracy in the world. In the upcoming national election to be held sometime in 2019, over 900 million Indian citizens will be eligible to vote. This compares to a mere 245 million+ eligible voters the next largest democracy – the USA.
The question becomes can India step forward and begin to fill that vacuum by leading by example and speaking out on issues central to democratic values and practices. There are some indicators that suggest that India may not be up to this task.
For example, a Pew Research Center survey of citizens in 38 nations, conducted in 2017 found that “support for a strong leader who is unchecked by the judiciary or parliament is highest in India.” 55 percent of those surveyed saw “rule by a strong leader as a good way to govern”. That same survey disclosed that only 8 percent of the respondents were fully committed to a representative democracy, 67 percent were less committed, 9 percent preferred a non-democratic option, and the remainder were uncertain.
Mounk and Foa in their article did not see India playing a more active role in the democratic arena. They cited a number of reasons including defending liberal democracy has not been a significant component of India’s foreign policy; India’s abstaining from voting on the U.N resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea; and India’s siding with autocratic regimes in seeking a greater role for the state in regulating the internet.
That’s the bad news for India’s potential future role as a champion of democracy. The good news is there are some strong counter-indicators. Two that standouts are the manner in which the Indian democracy was founded and the nature of and participation in the 2014 national election.
Ornit Shani, a scholar at the University of Haifa, has written a new book, How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and Making the Universal Franchise detailing how India was established at the outset as a country empowering its diverse population as voters. In her review of the book for The Hindu, Mini Kapoor notes that because the draft electoral roll was established after Independence but before there was a Constitution, Shani makes the “grand claim that ‘Indians became voters before they were citizens.’” Given the differing opinions and conditions at the time of the country’s founding, this expansive democratic action could almost be characterized as miraculous.
While the nature of and participation in the 2014 national elections was not miraculous, it can definitely be labeled a big deal – a very big deal.
Consider the following: The registration for this election was more than 100 million voters higher than the 2009 election – an increase of almost 15 percent. The elections were held over nine days. The election process required approximately 1.1 million government workers to help voters at 1.4 million voting machines in 930,00 polling stations. The voter turnout of over 66 percent was the highest in the history of India’s national elections.
Given these and other factors such as its re-accelerating economic development, I believe India is poised to move center stage as an exemplar of and world-wide advocate for democracy. I say this recognizing that India as a nation and democracy is far from perfect. It has numerous problems that need to be addressed if it is to don the mantle of a democratic leader.
Key Improvement Action Areas for the Indian Democracy
In my opinion, there are three key improvement areas in which India needs to take action in order to assume that leadership role. Let me address each in turn
First: Pursue an intensified agenda of inclusiveness and economic equality and opportunity for all. The Pew Research Center study revealed that countries with more democratic systems and greater wealth showed more widespread commitment to representative democracy. India has begun to show some progress in this area but much remains to be done – especially for females and those in minorities and the weaker sections.
Second, Ensure effective civic education for students – especially in the younger years. In the U.S., in March of this year, the National Council of Social Studies issued a positioning statement recommending that effective civic education “should target the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary to ensure that young people are truly capable of becoming active and engaged participants in civic life.” One of the educational initiatives in India that has this targeted focus is the Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness (CMCA). Its programs are designed to “empower children and youth with knowledge, skills and competencies for active citizenship.” The youth of today are the citizens of tomorrow. India needs to provide the appropriate civic education in classrooms across the country to prepare all of its youth to fully discharge their responsibilities.
Third, Free the Free Press. The Free Press is the cornerstone of democracy. Freedom House, the organization I referred to earlier, evaluates countries rated India’s press status as only “partly free” in 2016 – the last full year for which ratings are available. The reasons for this rating included: the killing of two journalists in connection with their work; a Supreme Court ruling to retain criminal defamation for journalist’s writings; and, heavy-handed restrictions on what the press could cover and the shutting down of newspapers.
To become a world-leading democracy, India must free its free press and take all of the steps and actions necessary to enable the press to speak truth to power and to contribute to the telling of stories that will improve the government and democracy.
Indian Americans’Role in Making India a Global Beacon
Addressing those three areas: an inclusiveness agenda; effective civic education; and, a totally free press will require substantial work and resources. Fortunately, the leadership and people of India will not have to take on the daunting challenge and opportunity of becoming a global beacon by themselves.
They have strong allies. Those allies are you and me – all of us in this room, the NCAIA and the dozens of other Indian American associations and themembers of the Indian diaspora here in the United States who can make philanthropic contributions to each of those areas.
India is fortunate because we members of the Indian diaspora love our mother country. A 2014 paper from the Migration Policy Institute states, “The Indian diaspora community is noted for being very well organized and having a deep and multifaceted engagement with the homeland…Many consider giving back an obligation and a welcome responsibility”
I know that I feel that obligation and responsibility. Because of that here are some of the things that I have done recently in the three critical improvement areas that I have cited.
- For the inclusiveness area, last year my wife Debbie and I dedicated the Frank and Debbie Islam Management complex at my alma mater in India, Aligarh Muslim University. We have also pledged support for the development of a technical college for women.
- For the civic education area, in January of this year I established the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. The Institute will first make civic engagement champion awards to middle school teachers in disadvantaged communities across the United States. After that it will work in collaboration with other organizations in India to seek joint solutions for the civic education and engagement deficit there.
- For the free press area, we are supporting Alfred Friendly Press Partners Scholarships to bring experiencedjournalists from India here to work at a newspaper and study at the University of Missouri so they can return to India better equipped to perform their craft and effect change.
Let me emphasize that I am highlighting these actions for illustration purposes only. I know most of you feel the same obligation and responsibility to give back and support India as I do.
Each of us must choose the area or areas that matter for our philanthropic investments in India. The essential thing is to make that choice and to invest.
The size of investment isn’t what counts. The act of investment not only on money, but also of time and talent is what does.
In conclusion, let me leave you with this thought. The old saying goes, it is always darkest before the dawn. For the past several years, democracy in countries around the world has been slipping into darkness.
In recent months, as the President of the United States has stood shoulder to shoulder with dictatorial leaders from North Korea and Russia, things have continued to get darker for democracy. We are moving toward the darkest hour.
India has the potential to confront that hour by becoming a global beacon of hope for democracy. If it realizes that potential, it will bring about a new dawn for democracy in this 21st century.
Those of you in this room this evening have the capacity to help India achieve its potential. That is why I ask you to join me on this Independence Day in committing to that cause.
By seizing this moment, you will not only be celebrating India’s past you will be contributing to creating India’s future – to it being that global beacon of hope for democracy.
I say let that light shine. I say let that light shine. I say let that light shine.
Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you. God bless you. God bless India. And, God bless the United States.
The writer is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal