By S Y Quraishi
Let me start by congratulating the debating societies of India and Pakistan for organising this event on a subject* that is very complex and has a chequered history. Speaking about India-Pakistan relations, the focus more often than not is on the differences. That’s a pity! Because, the commonality between us is endless — be it geography, history, food, dress, language and customs, family system, or our love for cricket. Worldwide, we are seen to be similar; unless we proactively mention that we are from different countries. Sadly, this commonality has not been celebrated enough. Hostilities between the two countries, in various forms, and in various degrees, are a reality we cannot ignore. At the same time, the need for peace and friendly relations between us cannot be overstated. That is why the two countries are again and again pushed back to the negotiating table. Political leaders have met, diplomats have negotiated, and media has raised the issue. Yet the story remains the same. One step forward, two steps backwards. That’s the sad reality.
Having tried all, let’s now give a chance to civil society. Civil society, in many ways, represents the people more directly... But, for the civil society to succeed, a free democratic environment is the key. It is the beauty of democracy that it ensures that common man has a say; that civil society is heard. Democracy is the best guarantee for peace. People want peace to go about their ordinary lives, and democracy is an expression of the people’s intent. It’s a matter of pride that our subcontinent, with one billion voters, is the hub of world democracy, holding 40 per cent of the planet’s voters. This magnitude would look much majestic when affairs are run based on the will of the people. While democracy, fortunately, has developed deep roots in India, our neighbours are working hard to find ways to strengthen democracy.
In reality, democracy and civil society are two sides of the same coin. They cannot function without each other. However, it’s noticed that the civil society is often antagonistic to politicians. That, in my view, is not a healthy situation. As I have often said, you can’t love democracy and hate politicians. There can be no democracy without politicians. There are, of course, aberrations that we need to deal with. The foremost imperative is to elect our representatives carefully. Free and fair elections reinforce democracy. There must be active participation of the people, and a proactive role of the civil society in democratic elections. We have often seen that those who demonise politicians the most loudly – in their drawing rooms, in seminars and conferences, and on TV channels – are guilty of the worst offence — not turning up on the poll day.
“I have never voted in my life”, is their proud statement. That must change. Non-voting should be changed from a fashion statement to an expression of shame and embarrassment. In the Election Commission (EC) of India, we launched a revolutionary intervention called systematic voters’ education and electoral participation (SVEEP) towards this end. The result is for everyone to see in the general elections of the last two years. Many have called it a participation revolution of sorts.
I’m happy to inform you all that the EC of the SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] countries, in general, and those of India and Pakistan, in particular, have been actively engaged in dialogue and experience-sharing, for holding free and fair elections. Personally, too, I have had a series of discussions with my Pakistan counterpart – present and former (Justice Mirza and Justice Ebrahim) – where we shared every big and small detail of how we conduct credible elections, including a discourse on how to deal with deviant politicians during elections.
I visited Pakistan in September 2011 to attend the SAARC conference of election management bodies. I also presented a paper on the Indian experience — how we fill the gaps in electoral roll and how we celebrate our National Voters Day. The Pakistan chief election commissioner shared with us their Five-Year Strategic Plan, which was an eye-opener in many ways. In our meetings, the Pakistan commission appreciated our electoral and election management practices. They wanted to hear us on a wide range of issues, including the constitutional arrangement, electoral rolls, electronic voting machine, SVEEP, election expenditure, among others. We agreed to share our experience, promote exchange of resource persons and trainers. The Pakistani delegation played a constructive role in establishment of Forum of Heads of Election Management Bodies of South Asian Countries in New Delhi last year, of which India is the chair of the forum for the first year. Such interaction at the EC level makes us learn from one another... This is how common threads of cooperation are developed and participatory democracy is promoted, for common benefit. This is not qualitatively different from civil society engagement.
I would like to thank Vandrevala Foundation for supporting this event. Cyrus and Priya Vandrevala must be appreciated for realising their social obligation long before Government of India sought to make corporate social responsibility compulsory. For a start, they chose to focus on mental health of the individuals and families. Peace will prevail only when there is sanity of voices, for which nurturing healthy state of mind plays a crucial role. The symptoms of anxiety, depression, fear , isolation – caused by ugly warfare and enmity between both the countries – need to be eradicated through discussion, dialogue, exchange of ideas amongst common man, beyond the political class...
The collaboration of the debating societies of the two countries is itself a great first step in civil society engagement. Hope the voices from the venue do cause not just ripples but large waves of friendship between the two countries at various levels.
*“Engagement between members of civil society is the most important factor in promoting a lasting peace between India and Pakistan” Excerpts from Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi’s inaugural address at a joint India-Pakistan debate organised by the debating societies of India and Pakistan in New Delhi on January 11