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Introduction to a global conversation

There is no ‘finished product democracy’. How should democracy or self-rule be explained and evaluated today? It requires respect for the democracy of knowledge. Introducing a global conversation into the public domain
Bishnu N. Mohapatra
11 May 2011

The Democracy Manifesto represents a significant moment as far as the global conversation on democracy is concerned. It is also a moment of new beginnings.  A good conversation is one that produces more of it. I hope this one snowballs into more debates and dialogues. Democracy is worldly, primarily an artifact. Like other human artifacts, it too needs care, continuous attention, ingenuity and passion. The ongoing conversation on democracy, as I can recall from my own experiences, never suffered from dearth of ambition. Yet it has always been an exercise in humility and deep engagement.

Imagine that you go into a ‘sleep mode’ today and are revived after a gap of several decades. What do think will have been the history of democracy while you slept? What narratives will emerge? Will experiences in different parts of the world, particularly in the global south, be a part of the larger story of democracy?

You only need to ask the question to sense the importance of an affirmative answer. If currently existing democracy in India has merely overcome corruption and ensured the rule of law, if China has moved towards democracy, if Brazil continues to have popular government and there are elections in South Africa that change the ruling party, if there is democracy in Egypt (who would have thought of writing that three months ago?) and Palestine… or if there are not any of these things…

It is clear that the dominant ways of thinking of democracy are and continue to be narrow. They tend to make the political clamour, experiments and mobilizations in different parts of the world invisible. But it is surely the case as our experiment shows that if we think of democracy and look forward then the still dominant view is quite inadequate. The future of democracy will be shaped and even decided in countries that are more experimental than its traditional homelands. The ‘frontier’ of democracy to borrow an image, is no longer found in the ‘west’ or the global north.

This is the starting point of our global conversation. It questions the dominant view, and shows that other ways of engaging with democratic experiences are possible. Not only possible but also necessary and now in the public domain. 

First, a bit of history. 

A few years ago a group of scholars and activists from South Asia wanted to reflect on democratic experiences in their countries in the region. They all agreed that knowledge about democracy must be produced in a democratic fashion and that this demands a methodology that does not devalue specificities of experiences. They initiated a conversation within the region and finally produced a report - State of Democracy in South Asia.  The impetus for a further, global conversation on democracy emerged from several regional conversations that followed especially this South Asian one. No doubt, in the past there were discussions on democracy. But this time round, the conversation delves deeply into the fundamental questions regarding the ways in which democracy has to be explained and evaluated.  It attempts to re-define what it means to be democratic.

The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), in Delhi, coordinated the initiative, and thanks to the intellectual energy of Professors Rajeev Bhargava and Yogendra Yadav, and a grant from the Ford Foundation, the global conversation took off to a good start three years ago.   During this period, three major international meetings, involving participants from Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America, were held (two in India and one in South Africa). Besides academics, a good number of participants came from the world of civil society and social movements.  The conversations thus far have been focused and productive.  

As I write this, activists and ordinary citizens have gathered in different parts of India to raise the issue of corruption in politics and public life. To them, fighting against corruption is a struggle for democracy. Like the continuing upsurge in the Arab World, the mobilization in India reflects the local concerns, dreams and aspirations. In some of these cases, practices on the ground seem to run way ahead of the dominant democratic thinking. However there are occasions when these events fall far short of the high normative standards of democracy. The lack of fit between theory and practice, in the above sense, is what grounds the substance of the ongoing conversation on democracy.

Being conversationalists we decided that we would produce only a draft of a Democracy Manifesto and ask for further thoughts, comments and even asides. Here it is. Let’s see what happens. We already have responses from Anthony Barnett, Laurence Whitehead, Jorge Heine and Melissa Williams. Hope more will join in. 

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