January 26, 2007

Truth be told

A friend was telling me the other day how everything was looking up in Bangladesh now ever since the postponement of the elections. His source, reliably enough, was his mother back home, who had called to check up on her son, as mothers do. I really have no reason to disbelieve her, Bangali ghorer bou that she is. Her optimism certainly matches that of the stock market, almost always such a good indicator of a country’s state of political health. The streets are less violent these days, most people have run out of excuses to not show up at work or school, and probably less important but no less indicative, the newspapers are managing to save up on their red ink. We may indeed be on a break from democracy(and as The Economist has dubbed it, in the midst of ‘The coup that dare not speak its name’), but fewer points in our history have given this feeling that we are all bound together as a nation under what Rousseau would have called ‘the general will’.

The thing about democracy that has always troubled politicios is whether it should be an end in itself or the means to a greater end. Too often, and especially in the aftermath of the third wave of worldwide democratization that started in the 1970s, it has been concocted as the former. Consequently, many countries have jumped on the bandwagon with little regard for the hard part, which is staying on it, or staying on it with any degree of comfort anyway. Stanford’s Larry Diamond, in a paper studying the obstacles to democracy functioning properly in these third wave countries, has identified three key obstacles that are preventing many countries from being truly liberal democracies as opposed to the merely ‘electoral’ democracies that are prevalent in many parts of the world today. Broadly, these can be outlined as:

i)Political Corruption
ii)Rent-seeking behaviour
iii)Weak judicial systems

Where the prevalence of all three of these phenomena are high, it can be said that democracy is merely a smokescreen for a political system that has grown rotten to the core. In such a situation, democracy is rendered pointless since it nurtures a society where the vast majority of the population is denied equal opportunity. Even economic benefits which may or may not be forthcoming begin to lose their utility as the benefits accrue to only a select group of individuals who have their hegemony entrenched in the society. Although a democracy by name, the dynamics of such a society are antithetical to its very principles. The conversation will never die at a lunch between Mr. Diamond and anybody who has lived in Bangladesh over the last two decades.

There is no doubt that the limits on freedom imposed by General Ershad’s regime called for change, and democracy was the only viable alternative. But as time has gone on, we have shown ourselves quite incapable of dealing with it, at-least as long as the political scenario consisted in the main part of two parties whose differences lie not in the realms of ideology, social policy or a national vision, but almost exclusively personal issues. This is quite natural when party hierarchies are built along nepotistic lines, and we in Bangladesh have been unfortunate enough to be cursed with not just one such party, but two. Even as great an advocate of justice as Albert Camus once stated that though he believed in justice, he would defend his mother above justice. Similarly, whatever the merits or intentions of the respective families in the seats of power in the Awami League and the BNP might be, as good family men and women ourselves, we cannot expect them to ever conduct their politics in such a way as to compromise their own families’ positions. Especially when in the zero-sum game that is power (read=politics), any compromise on their part will lead directly to a benefit on their rival family’s part, and vice versa. It is not enough to vilify the two parties on grounds of their failures. Their failures have to be understood in order to be rectified, and what we need to grasp is that as long as our political consciousness consists almost exclusively of a family feud, there will be no place for national interest. Our salvation never lay in their hands.

This is of-course in reference to noises coming out of ‘Desh that whisper the current administration may be considering sending the current leadership in both parties to exile. This is admittedly far-fetched, but the collapse of democracy in neighbouring Pakistan did eventually result in similar consequences. Were it not for the additional problems brought on by 9/11, Pakistan could have been in a much better position now than it is already, which in itself is a significant improvement on where Bhutto and Sharif were leading them. I feel a kind of guilty pleasure at the prospect of this playground scuffle amongst dysfunctional grown-ups being taken elsewhere. We are an essentially political people, us Bangladeshis, and there will be no dearth of people to take their place, that is for certain. Politics will return to Bangladesh. It may take a while, but it will. That the current state of affairs is largely the result of a distinctly international recipe is also no secret, and thus we can carry on this period of rehabilitation with less regard to threats of sanctions, etc. It is important however, that before we reinstall democracy in our nation, we go through all the steps that constitute democratization. That we leave no stone unturned this time. So that we don’t handle ourselves quite as atrociously as we did the last time. The seperation of the judiciary from the executive, so long yearned for yet so long denied, and now finally delivered, is confirmation that our optimism is not misplaced.

It is rare to speak in favour of anything resembling a coup. But let not the need for political correctness prevent the truth being told. We, and we only if you are like me, are at our most optimistic since that other night sixteen winters ago.

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