By Frank F. Islam
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 Islam is a Washington-based Indian-American entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted through his website )
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