I want to reflect on the crisis of democracy, especially in a large country like India. My reflection is driven by my concern over what kind of state and society are we are leaving for our children.
Two days ago, the world celebrated Father’s Day. I know that I miss my father very much. He passed away, oh many summers back, in his mid-seventies.
I think he was quite sure in his twilight years that the India that he and his generation were bequeathing to us was much better than the country he had inherited, then struggled to improve with all his heart and soul.
My father was born in 1924 a small coastal village on the border of what today are the two states of Maharashtra and Gujarat.
India was still a British colony, although the freedom movement was by now foregrounded in the national consciousness and very much a part of the daily life of nearly every household.
Life in the village in the twilight of empire, with its shrinking opportunities, whether for a good education or gainful employment, forced my father to follow his elder brother to Baroda (now Vadodara), a princely state ruled by the enlightened and progressive Gaekwars.
After the legendary Sayajirao Gaekwad III, who reigned from 1875-1939, it was Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad who was the Maharaja of Baroda from 1939 to 1968.
Father enrolled in an engineering course at the Kala Bhavan Technical Institute, now Faculty of Technology and Engineering, at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Formerly Baroda College, founded in 1881, MSU became a full-fledged university in 1949, two years after independence.
Soon after he graduated, father joined a Baroda-based company along with some of his college-mates. He retired from the same company after serving it for over thirty-five years.
A changed India
India changed so much during these three decades. All his junior engineers, whom he had personally hand-picked and trained, went abroad, mostly to the Gulf, after the oil boom and price hikes of the 1970s.
Dad remained behind because the company depended on him to keep it going, especially after he helped set up another plant in Bengaluru in South India.
But both his sons, whom he took the trouble to educate well, went to the United States to study, living outside India for years. But we never forget what he taught us: treat everyone with respect; accept differences and don’t try to impose your views on others.
Speaking of the US, it was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who famously said in a 2016 interview that “Democracy is messy, and it’s hard. It’s never easy.” I feel these words even truer of India.
My dad didn’t have much time for us because he was so busy working, but his presence was very much a steadying and guiding influence in our lives. As far as I am concerned, I began to appreciate him more and more only after his retirement. But he was quite confident that India would do very well in the years to come.
He’d lived through three major wars, plus the dark days of the Emergency (1957-1977), when India was more or less a dictatorship under then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Looking back, I think what gave him the confidence was his basic faith in the people of India as well as the political system.
The latter, despite all its defects, had managed to keep the country afloat. I suppose it was the social concord above and beyond the political system that made him so sure of the country’s future.
But, today, especially after the trauma and isolation of the Covid19 pandemic, I am worried. It seems as if democracies around the world have never been more beleaguered, more under threat — not from external forces but from their own internal conflicts.
The fault lines of free societies, it would seem, have only been exacerbated by mainstream and social media. We are more fractured and divided than ever before, with the slightest provocations leading to conflagrations and flare-ups. Where is the mutual respect and acceptance of difference that we grew up taking for granted?
Let us make yoga not only about physical fitness but about cosmic unity, a union of hearts and minds across the world, but especially in our own country — India
Everywhere, we see a negative and disruptive politics at play rather than conciliation and consensus. This does not augur well for the next generation.
As a dad myself, I worry about the world we are going to leave behind for our children. Will they be engaged and caring citizens, feeling a part of a larger society and nation, or will they want to disconnect from the discord that surrounds them?
One way forward to reduce the apathy, especially among the educated, is to follow the example of Australia. Make voting not only a fundamental right, but also a mandatory responsibility.
Democracy can be strengthened by allowing people to cast digital ballots, with due security and identity checks, from the safety, security, and convenience of their homes. This will disincentivise the malpractices of excessive populism as well as the culture of vote-banks and identity politics, which have proved so acrimonious.
Democracies thrive on discussion, debate, even dissent. That is why too much discord and disharmony are to be avoided. Else, the daily cacophony of violent disputes and protests destroy the culture of peace and tranquillity, which are so essential for social cohesion and daily ease of living.
As responsible fathers, we have to inculcate in our kids a sense of openness to views contrary to our own as well as sympathy for all members of the community.
In fact, daily kindness, politeness, and compassion should extend to all members of the human family and the animal kingdom too. Despite our daily individual struggles, our children should grow up to love the planet and have a sense of respect for all life.
In this process, democracies need to be less fractured or less contentious and more much caring and convivial. As a nation, let us invest in fraternity, not only in liberty and equality.
Today is the International Yoga Day. Let us make yoga not only about physical fitness but about cosmic unity, a union of hearts and minds across the world, but especially in our own country — India.