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In a world devoid of outstanding political leaders, Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) stood out as a strong voice for freedom and other democratic ideals. Much loved in his country where he was the first president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003), he was respected as a statesman internationally, honoured with many medals and prizes, including the Gandhi peace prize that was awarded him by India. He brought to his public life the sensibility of an accomplished playwright who showed in his plays the absurdity of the communist regime, making them a powerful instrument of dissent.

He was an essayist as well. His essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, written in 1978, became the manifesto of dissent in eastern Europe, suppressed and even so enabling. The events over the next decade were in an important sense the realization of this power. In this important essay, Havel draws a distinction between living with a lie and living in truth. Based on this distinction, he argues that in living with the hypocrisy and lies of the communist system even individuals who do not believe them confirm the system. The remedy is in breaking free from the system, its rules and rituals. Once this happens, even an ordinary individual can contribute towards freedom and there lies the power of the powerless.

Havel founded the Forum 2000 Foundation in 1996 as a joint initiative with Yohei Sasakawa and Elie Wiesel. Since 1997, Forum 2000 has regularly organized annual conferences in Prague on important themes. Havel’s idea was to bring together intelligent people from all over the world, cutting across different cultures, religions, disciplines and spheres of activity, for discussions carried out in a calm manner on important challenges facing humanity.

The conference this year was devoted to the theme of societies in transition. The idea was to explore the challenges, opportunities, and risks in transitional processes across the world. The goal was to deepen the understanding of transition from authoritarianism to democracy and the causes of the cessation or reversal of this transition. It was recognized that the form of this transition is not uniform and there are multiple processes at work.

About 4,000 persons attended the conference this year, addressed by more than 130 speakers across 56 panels in Prague and four more discussions in other cities. Among the speakers there were His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi; both of them were close to Havel. Their presence in the conference meant much.

Gareth Evans, the former Australian minister of foreign affairs and currently the chancellor, Australian National University, provides in his inimitable manner a broad overview of what can be learnt in these discussions. He highlights six points without meaning to be exhaustive.

A point that came up several times was the importance of taking note of the distinctive history and culture of a country or a group of countries, for they have an impact on what can or cannot be done easily with respect to both initiating and sustaining transitional processes leading to democracy. Second, it is important to be patient. There are no quick fixes available. Transitions required time, the most needed is for changing mindsets. Third, being patient is not the same as being inactive. Change requires practical engagement. Fourth, it is necessary to built democratic institutions. Of particular importance are those meant to advance the rule of law, especially an impartial judiciary. What appears good on paper in the form of a constitution or any other public document may not ensure the conformity of precept with practice. Fifth, leadership is of crucial importance. It is important for ensuring peaceful and sustainable transitions. This is well illustrated by the examples of Havel in eastern Europe, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk in South Africa, and Suu Kyi in Myanmar. The wisdom of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is instructive.

While it is important to note the importance of history and culture, patience, action, institutions, and leadership, it is also important to note the importance of ideas. We need common ideas and a common language to articulate the ideas that we share. What are these ideas? Under discussion were the ideas of common humanity, living with diversity, freedom and dignity, and as in the presentation of the Dalai Lama, compassion, altruism, and generosity.

These points, among others, need to be further considered. A Forum 2000 conference is not an official conference meant to produce a negotiated consensus. The purpose is to stimulate thought and take ideas forward beyond a conference. It will be wrong to assume that all the problems of the world were solved during these days of intense discussions. As Evans admits, for example, an outstanding problem that needs further consideration is what is to be done when the leadership of the kind that is needed is missing from the start or goes missing in the process. Are good leaders just born or made? Can, at the least, effective structures and processes be put in place to check and get rid of bad leaders?

These ideas have relevance for India. Indian society is passing through a massive transition. The attempt to create a democratic society has thrown up its own challenges. Can it be denied that the Constitution of India is one of the finest Constitutions in the world? Yet, can it be denied that it has not ensured best results? The issue is, as was discussed some time ago, whether the Constitution has failed the people or the people have failed it. My own belief is that the will of political leaders is generally wanting in ensuring full freedom, including freedom from hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy, to all the sections of society, including the poor and women in general, especially poor women.

More generally, we understand social ties, including ties of family and friendship. Do we understand equally the importance of institutions? A democratic society cannot function without democratic institutions. We have indeed built within our democracy the dynastic principle without realizing that this is contrary to the principle of building democratic institutions. It is assumed that the son or the daughter of a political leader should inherit the fiefdom expressed in the form of a constituency or a political position.

India provides the best and the worst case of democratic transition. While what we have achieved is to be cherished, especially as we consider the struggle for democracy in our neighbourhood and elsewhere, we need to consider as well the perversion of democracy that we have seen in the country. The price of this perversion, be it in the form of corruption, inefficiency, populism, or the lack of political will in achieving the common good, is considerable.

This calls for reflection. The idea should not be to reject democracy in favour of some form of authoritarianism nor to ignore the ills of democratic practice but to critically examine where we are going wrong so that we may follow the correct path. It is no longer enough to be satisfied with Winston Churchill’s witticism that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried out. The challenge for democracy today, in theory as well as in practice, is to retain what is positive about democracy and keep in check the perversion of democracy.

We need clear ideas and resolute action to move forward. There is something to be drawn in this respect from the recent Forum 2000 conference.