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Dialogue on Democracy – making it practical

Monday, 4. February 2013
Dialogue on Democracy

Making it practical

Freedom Square

Democracy in practice was a major theme of Day 2 of the Dialogue on Democracy – Making Democracy Work. Since we are India it was natural to start with a look at the sub-continent. Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, a distinguished political scientist and author from Sweden of Pakistani origin, gave a masterly account of why democracy had somehow survived in India while it had not thrived in Pakistan.

India, from its beginnings, had made efforts to be an inclusive democracy. The 1928 ‘Nehru’ report, which paved the way for India’s first constitution, had spelled out that there should be no state religion and that men and women should have equal rights. This was a revolutionary concept for the time. The 1932 Poona Pact between Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar was also a landmark step forward in enshrining the rights and full participation of the Dalits (untouchables) in Indian democracy through affirmative action.

Prof. Ishtiaq Ahmed Pakistan, on the other hand, was founded as a ‘Muslim Democracy’ and this inevitably meant some form of exclusion of non-Muslims. And there had never been full agreement on what form the state should take. The core of Ahmed’s message was that whenever a democracy is qualified in any way it becomes a diminished democracy.

From the other side of the globe, Cricket White, Director of Education and Training for Initiatives of Change US, spoke about the remarkable transformations in Richmond, which had once been ‘ground zero’ for the Slave Trade in the US. Many had believed that ‘honest conversation’ between the races about that shameful and painful part of history was impossible. And yet beneath the superficial politeness and ‘going along to get along’ there was a hunger in people to talk honestly. IofC developed various dialogue tools, including a physical ‘walk through history’ and facilitated ‘honest conversations’ (always facilitated jointly by black and white facilitators). ‘The energy for fundamental change requires a moral and spiritual transformation,’ concluded White. She observed that having worked in politics as the Mayor’s Chief of Staff and also in civil society through IofC’s Hope in the Cities programme, it was important that everyone feels responsible for change. ‘It is us who must remain vigilant’, she said.


Mahesh Kapoor‘Corruption has no borders’ said Mahesh Kapoor, introducing a plenary session on the challenge that corruption poses to good governance. And while it affects both rich and poor, it hurts the poor most of all. Prabhat Kumar, who as India’s Cabinet Secretary helped draft the Right to Information act, compared corruption to a computer virus. The hardware looks the same, and the system still works – albeit a bit more sluggishly – however it poses a great danger because at any moment the system risks collapse.

The problem, he said, was that, like an Agatha Christie novel, there were multiple suspects: politicians, the civil service, the police and judiciary, the mafia … even the anti-corruption bodies themselves faced allegations of political interference. So the responsibility fell to civil society as a sector that was still uncorrupted to call the shots and tackle this issue. Over the last two years, hundreds of thousands of people had attended rallies around India demanding new and effective institutions to deal with corruption.

For the last 44 years, he said, attempts had been made to get an anti-corruption bill before parliament and now a bill is about to be tabled in the next weeks. The IC Centre for Governance had looked at the draft bill and concluded that it was full of loopholes. They had made various suggestions after looking at effective measures that other countries had taken, including Hong Kong, which had introduced an independent commission on corruption in 1974 which had led to a complete sea-change and almost eradicated corruption.

Joseph KaranjaFrom Kenya, Joseph Karanja gave an inspiring account of what a few committed people can do to bring change. For two years leading up to the 1997 elections he gave up his work as a lawyer in order to work full time on a Clean Election Campaign (CEC), encouraging voters to choose on the basis of character and to neither give nor take bribes. The campaign had gained support from the Catholic Church (the largest religious denomination in Kenya) as well as other religious bodies and had been a great success. From this he had drawn a few lessons:

  1. You have to be absolutely convinced that you are meant to do this, because corruption fights back.
  2. While knowledge is important, it is more important to seek a deeper wisdom. The CEC did not have any financial resources, but through listening in silence Karanja had been led to people who were able to help – journalists who wrote articles, businessmen who printed leaflets etc.
  3. Money is not the only resource needed. Personality and charisma are important as well.

The violence following the 2007 election had been a great wake-up call for Kenya, he said, and had led to a new constitution of 2010 which was one of the best in the world. Chapter 6 of the constitution specifically talks about integrity. To run for office, candidates must be vetted by an Ethics Commission. There is a new independent electoral commission and a new Chief Justice. A new judiciary is in place; three quarters of the old judges have been replaced and 400 magistrates are in the process of being vetted against corruption.

Meanwhile, in the run up to the March 4 elections, the IofC team in Kenya is running an intensive Clean Elections Campaign along with three or four other organization. Airtime has been bought for the campaign – about 30 slots on TV and Radio which will reach the whole country. And for the first time, IofC will be an officially monitor the elections.

Inner governance

Underpinning the whole Dialogue on Democracy is the concept of ‘inner governance’, and each day starts at 7am with a session before breakfast focussing on this. Ravindra Rao spoke about the role of listening to the inner voice in silence for ‘connection, correction and direction’ as an essential tool to bridge the gap between our ideals and our actions.

In the afternoon, participants could choose from three learning tracks. One looked at ‘The responsibility of business and corporations in community engagement’. A session on ‘Hearing Emerging Voices’ welcomed Bo Bo Oo, a politician from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in Myanmar/Burma who had spent 20 years as a political prisoner and had never before left his country of birth. Others joined a three-day learning track on ‘Deep Democracy’ with Myrna Lewis, co- founder of the Lewis Method of Deep Democracy.

The day was rounded off by an ‘Audience with Ishtiaq Ahmed’ in which the distinguished thinker and academic was interviewed by Professor Rajmohan Gandhi particularly on his book on the Punjab during the killings at the time of partition. Through extensive research and interviews with survivors, Ahmed had got beyond the stark facts and statistics to write the very human story of this tragedy. By allowing these authentic human voices to be truly heard, the possibility of healing was created.

Click here to see all the latest at the Dialogue on Democracy conference page.