28 March 2014
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German President's long journey to India

The German President's recent visit to the chaotic democracy of India is the culmination of a long journey from his birth in the highly organized, former communist state of East Germany.

The February 2014 visit of German President Joachim Gauck to the chaotic democracy of India was the culmination of a long journey from his birth in Rostock, in the highly organised, former communist state of East Germany.

Gauck was involved in the East German opposition at an early age, and was among the initiators of the resistance to the communist regime. Later, as the first federal commissioner for the Stasi Archives, he earned recognition for exposing the Stasi's crimes.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described President Gauck as a "true teacher of democracy" and a "tireless advocate of freedom, democracy, and justice".

During his visit to India, President Gauck had a heavy official programme. Political talks with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj, and leader of the Congress Party Sonia Gandhi. Both Germany and India are vying for permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, along with Brazil and Japan, making up the "G-4 grouping".

With Germany being India's largest European trading partner, the President's 80-member strong delegation included representatives from German business who keenly explored market opportunities in this emerging economic giant, with its rapidly growing middle class. The President’s visit also included a folkloric twist, with a detour to the village of Muddapur to watch cows being milked and coconuts husked.

As a former political activist, President Joachim Gauck reserved his greatest attention for observing Indian politics and society. I saw this first hand, as I had the honour of moderating a “skills summit”, to which he delivered the keynote address. And when speaking to Indian students, Gauck captured the spirit of his visit when he said "I have brought with me to India … curiosity and respect”.

Gauck told an audience at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, that he spent "many decades longing for democracy" when he was living under the East German regime that denied its citizens democratic rights and freedoms. He said "I intentionally chose India as the destination of my first longer trip to Asia: because a democracy should receive the first presidential visit". In this context, it is significant that Gauck chose to visit India instead of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

It is also significant that when he visited the New Delhi site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, Gauck wrote in the commemorative book that "Gandhi's path of nonviolent resistance against injustice was, is and will in the future motivate people in the entire world and give them inspiration and hope".

At a state banquet, Gauck expressed his admiration for "the path to modernity pursued by India in the 21st century". He continued that "A successful India, which offers its citizens the chance to live their lives in peace and freedom sends an important message to Asia and indeed to the whole world".

However, while lauding India's democracy, Gauck did not steer clear of difficult issues, as he also raised the question of capital punishment at the same state banquet.

He met with representatives of Indian civil society where they discussed the situation of women in India, and other challenges such as child labor, freedom of religion, and protection of minorities, including sexual minorities. Gauck remarked that "this discussion showed us clearly just how difficult the real-life implementation of the rights guaranteed to all citizens can be in the face of widespread traditional mind-sets". But he also did say, "Here in India, ... I have got the impression that just about any criticism that a foreign visitor might voice has already been expressed frankly and openly by Indians themselves."

Gauck addressed another human right, the right to education, at the Indo-German skills summit, organised by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and Infosys. As he said, "a society can only be fit for the future if it invests in the education and training of its young people". With half of its population being functionally illiterate, India is way behind on this score.

Gauck explained the merits of Germany's dual-track system for vocational education and training, where both business and government play major roles. He stressed that "Germany’s industrial economy and its success rest on the skills not only of its engineers but also of its trade workers". And that this is one of the reasons why youth unemployment is lower in Germany than in most other European countries.

The President noted that in Germany "skilled and technical trades enjoy a high level of respect even without any university degrees". And what's more, vocational education and training in Germany "stands at the start of a career trajectory that can lead all the way to the top of a large company". In other words, Germany offers its citizens much greater opportunity for social advancement than does class-bound India.

The great challenge of training India's working population was clear in Gauck’s remarks. But the enthusiasm expressed at this conference by German and Indian business representatives for tackling India's skills challenge is a source of great hope. The Indian Government's very ambitious target, of enabling 500 million people to attain professional qualifications within eight years, might even be possible.

And Gauck’s optimism for India was clear when he said: "The openness that I have experienced today is not common in all my visits abroad. India should be proud of its spirit of openness and optimism. It allows you to address grievances and to make changes peacefully. Dissent and open public debates belong to democracy."


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: india, democracy, human rights, German President Joachim Gauck, skills development, VET, Infosys, Bertelsmann Stiftung

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