U.S. President Donald Trump (R) greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their joint news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House did not receive a large amount of press coverage in the United States. The most notable quote came during a press conference in the White House Rose Garden when President Trump proclaimed: “I am proud to announce to the media, to the American people, that Prime Minister Modi and I are world leaders in social media.”

Trump’s comment missed the real significance of his meeting with Modi. It was important not because of the pair’s leadership in social media but because the Prime Minister and the President are leaders of the two largest democracies in the world.

The United States was established as a democratic republic over 240 years ago. For the past 100 years or so, it has been the standard bearer for democracy globally.

By contrast, the Indian democratic republic just turned 70. For many years, India has looked to the United States for its examples of exemplary democratic behaviour.

Because of changing circumstances in the US and around the world, we are at a pivotal point. India has the chance to become a leader and example setter and to be, as President Barack Obama labelled it, an “indispensable” partner with the United States on the global stage to demonstrate the full potential of democracies and democratic values.

India’s most recent national election with its 70 per cent-plus participation — a higher rate than has ever been achieved in the United States, I might add — showed that India is poised to assume that leadership mantle. The next step required for India to achieve that status must come through the collective participation and contribution of citizens concerned through civic engagement.

The reason that the need for civic engagement is critical at this point in time is that the support for and approval of democratic political systems among youth in democracies around the world is in dramatic decline.

That’s what a researcher from Harvard and a researcher from the University of Melbourne reported in an article in the January edition of the Journal of Democracy. They found that the attitudes among millennials in “stable liberal democracies” such as the United States, Great Britain, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand were becoming increasingly negative.

The researchers did not look at India. But, I believe, in my motherland, the opposite could be true. Democracy in India is still in its infancy.

While there have been bad patches and trouble spots over the years, solid progress has been made and India is now positioned for making a stronger connection as a democratic system. And as concerned citizens get more engaged in shaping its course and direction, India will cast the light of its democracy worldwide.

Sometimes when I say civic engagement, people mistakenly think I mean political engagement. I do not. Political engagement is just one form of civic engagement that we should invest ourselves in order to make our society and India a better place.

Civic engagement takes five primary forms: Individual Engagement, Organisational Engagement, Political Engagement, Community Engagement and Social Engagement.

Let me define each of those forms briefly.

Individual Engagement is being the best one can be and personally responsible for one’s actions.

Organisational Engagement is contributing to the success of the groups to which one belongs such as the place where one works, the place where one worships, and the places of affiliation.

Political Engagement is participating in those processes that shape the structure and nature of government.

Community Engagement is collaborating to make the locale and the world in which we live a better place.

Social Engagement is advocating for justice and equality of treatment and opportunity for all.

After President Trump stated that he and Prime Minister Modi were world leaders in social media he went on to add that this gave “the citizens of our countries the opportunity to hear directly from their elected officials and for us to hear directly from them”.

The heads of the world’s two largest democracies have a far greater responsibility than to be leaders in social media. They have the responsibility to be leaders in making their homelands models of civic engagement with full and equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, religion, background and belief.

President Trump with his thoughtless and self-centred tweets does not seem to grasp this leadership role. By contrast, Prime Minister Modi has used social media to promote public welfare, good deeds and to be gracious in defeat.

This is the stuff that is required to promote meaningful civic engagement. It is one of the reasons that I see such promise for Indian democracy. The other, and more important reason, is that the people of India have the potential to deliver on that promise in this 21st century.

Frank F. Islamis an Indian-American entrepreneur, philanthropist and thought leader. He is on the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center.

2 Responses to “Making Indian democracy a world leader — through civic engagement”

  1. golam arshad

    Frank: Very True! India should demonstrate that she is the proven leader in South Asia. Is she fair to Bangladesh as far as Water Sharing? The answer is a big negative! India has to prove that she is fair and nonintrusive to her neighbours. Her support to the creation of Bangladesh has turned to be a political ploy for ulterior motives. The ulterior and ill motive manifestation even rattled our Cricket engagement. India plays her political card to distance Bangladesh for her other South Asian neighbours, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and of course Pakistan. India has created an artificial political umbrella of deep-set aberration for Bangladesh to progress and prosper in economic sector. The Fear Card she plays for Bangladesh with help from Mossad and RAW. Bangladesh leaders remain mum and refrain from legitimate criticism to their BIG BROTHER. My advise to South Block, be fair to your neighbours, and we will lobby for you for a Permanent Member of the Security Council.
    Give us access to your mainland, easy on migration, we will form A South Asia Union, like EU. Bangladesh is a sovereign nation, and remain so…

    Reply
    • Sumit Mazumdar

      Golam Arshad: How can India “give access to your mainland” and be “easy on migration” with people who wanted to separate from India based on religion? If they wanted to migrate they should not have separated. How do Indians know that once they migrate and have Muslim majority in pockets they will not want yet another separation of those pockets? As Bangladesh is a sovereign nation, it should prevent illegal migration of its citizens.

      Reply

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