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How to Make or Break a Democracy

Dhruba Basu, Program Officer, PRIA attended the Asian Youth Leadership Forum for Democracy in Korea. About 60 youth, from 23 different Asian countries, mostly aged 20-30 years and involved in some combination of research, activism or mobilisation, descended in South Korea to discuss democracy in Asia and the scope for the youth to play a role in shaping it. In a three-part series based on his experiences and conversations at the Forum, Dhruba reflects on what it means to create and sustain #DemocracyInEverydayLife.

On 16 May 2016, at Gwangju, Korea’s 6-th largest city, my morning was spent ‘Learning from the Past'. Three generations of activists shared their memories of the struggle for democracy and democratic governance in Philippines, Myanmar, Nepal and Indonesia. Details, insights, anecdotes from those who were directly engaged in democracy movements across Asia, such as 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the 1988 8888 Uprising in Myannmar, the struggle for democracy under the monarchy in Nepal in the 1970s and 1980s, and the impact of election monitoring mechanisms like NAMFREL (National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections) and ANFREL (Asian Network For Free Elections), was enlightening, to say the least. Definitely, thought provoking.

The session plays out like the passing on of tradition from one generation to another, informed by the wisdom and encouragement of elders and inflamed by the doubts and righteous impatience of the youth. It places our various beliefs, hopes, campaigns and movements on a historical continuum, collectivising, on the basis of a common vision of humanity, experiences that are widely divergent. This is empowering and humbling. Those hailing from war-torn regions or countries under siege from autocratic governments hear a comforting note: ‘you are not alone.’ All of us learn certain realities of mass movements in the struggle for democracy:

• Any movement must begin with a holistic analysis of the problems and opportunities within the concerned political situation to arrive at a list of specific objectives. If this is not abundantly clear before the movement begins, it can and will derail.
• Many movements, although successful in building momentum that ultimately catalyse democratic transition, fail in bringing perpetrators of human rights violations to justice. This is problematic from the point of view of principles and pragmatism, because victims of repression who see their abusers go scot-free may lose faith in democracy.
• What often results is a democracy of the elite, because movements are so focused on institutionalising democracy that important measures like agrarian reforms, without which a change in the type of government means little to a vast majority of the population, take a back seat and then disappear from the agenda completely.
• Unless the values and lessons of democracy movements are educationally institutionalised as part of school curricula, future generations do not remain vigilant about their rights and duties.
• It is important to build support systems as individuals within the movement, because movements demand personal sacrifices. Those who fail to take care of their emotional health are likely to look back on their struggles with regret. In the words of a senior activist from the Philippines, ‘We must fight for our rights, but we must also know how to laugh, dance and enjoy a glass of wine.’
• It is always unwise to rest all hopes on one leader. That leader will not only become susceptible to compromise, but also a prime target for those who stand to lose power. Solution: build collective leadership. Movements should have more than one recognisable face. This is possible only if they reach out to the largest possible number of stakeholders, including religious institutions and those who can contribute to building an international solidarity network. Developments in one country can spark repercussions in others; learning from and being inspired by other movements can thus be integral to momentum-building.

Myanmar is one example of a country where the near-complete reliance on one face, that of Aung San Suu Kyi, has compromised the movement and left the fledgling democratic system much weaker than it should ideally have been. The military leadership that still controls 25% of the seats in Parliament can link all complaints about the functioning of the recently-elected government to Suu Kyi while doing everything possible to make the transition from military rule to a democratic one more difficult – a state of affairs that is unlikely to strengthen the support for democracy in Myanmar.

The negative impact of personality-cult politics on the democratic well-being of a country is implicit in the very definition of ‘democracy’: it is the rule of the people, not of one person. This is as relevant for politics as for mass movements – both, after all, are ways of bringing people together for social change.

Going by this parameter, the Indian polity appears to be at a worrisome juncture today. The credibility of the Centre seems to hinge on the popularity of Narendra Modi, the Opposition remains unwilling to project any faces save that of dynastic scion Rahul Gandhi, the actual work of the Delhi and West Bengal governments is generally drowned out by the shrill debates that surround Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee, and Tamil Nadu has been caught up in a political meltdown ever since Jayalalithaa passed away.

Worshipping politicians as if they are incarnations of the divine, or even expecting them to miraculously address all our problems, is a road to disaster because it ignores the fact that real change emerges when large numbers of people come together for a cause and can only be sustained if the people continue to feel empowered and involved. It is natural to assume, based on history, that large numbers of people come together only when they have a charismatic leader to rally behind, to invest their faith in and to take inspiration from. However, while this is an enabling factor, it isn’t a necessary one. The South Korean democratisation movement of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, for instance, did not embody its values and objectives in any one leader. This has paved the way instead for the idolisation of ‘democracy’ as a concept, a form of government and a way of life.


Read all three blog posts:

Part 1: How to Make or Break a Democracy
Part 2: Out of the Frying Pan, Into Democracy
Part 3: Champions of Democracy

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