Vol. 5 Num 1018 Thu. April 12, 2007  

Strategically Speaking
Things are getting curiouser and curiouser

Not only in wonderland, but also in our own land of Bangladesh, are things becoming curiouser and curiouser. Just cast your mind back to the happenings of the last few weeks and you will know what I mean.

First, there was a unique instance of our roads "delivering" costly cars. How else could one explain the phenomenon of not one or two, but four, very expensive cars being found abandoned on the road, with no one to claim ownership even after their photographs appeared in the media? This in a country where even an unattended jalopy would not be spared the unholy attention of the poachers, while cars worth crores of takas have to suffer the ignominy of being forsaken on the streets. And these were never seen gracing the streets of Dhaka before their unceremonious appearance in public.

And then there was the case of a sack-full of money left in the premises of a place of worship, a large quantity too, that was reportedly handed over to the authority. There was no claimant of the money, when there are so many eager and ready to lessen your burden of carrying a purse at the slightest opportunity.

There are some curious things happening in our politico-diplomatic front, too. For instance, we have the unique distinction, we are perhaps the only country, of being represented by an ambassador accredited to Bangladesh, when the ambassador in question demanded a definitive time-frame for election claiming that it was what the people of Bangladesh wanted to know.

Not only do ambassadors represent their countries and speak for them, we have a situation where ambassadors seem to have arrogated to themselves the responsibility of speaking on behalf of the people of the countries they are posted in. And there will be many in Bangladesh to rush to the defense of the ambassador and excoriate me for my views.

Many would perhaps validate the position of the ambassador on the ground that such an act helps to preserve the national security of the ambassador's country, and surely that is what the primary job of an ambassador is!

But no less important in evincing public curiosity were the recent comments of the CAS. By far the most important talk of the town has been his views on democracy in general and on our democracy in particular.

While many have queried the aptness of a serving soldier, not to speak of a CAS, ventilating his views on our polity in public, it would be worthwhile to dwell on the substance of the speech of the army chief.

Gen Moeen was offered a platform, and he gave his own insight on the current state of our politics. What, however, has raised our curiosity is the fact the he had not only expressed his disappointment on the state of our polity (a disappointment shared by most of us) but also suggested that we create our own hybrid variety of democracy that would be suitable to the genre and psyche of the people of Bangladesh.

What was left undefined was the model that he would like to see evolve in our country, which we might employ for the benefit of the people. And it was perhaps because he is one among the many of us who are as disillusioned with the way democracy has functioned in Bangladesh, and who would like to see the people being the focus of democracy and not, as one retired army chief called democracy "bye" the people, "far" the people, and "off" the people. But we are not certain whether democracy itself should be blamed for all our ills.

The CAS has focused on two very important points. He called for a new and "own brand of democracy," and spoke against dynastic rule in Bangladesh. Democracy, at least the way we have seen it applied, has bred corruption.

It has also given us a unique system that is hogged by dynastic control (not a new phenomenon in South Asia, but we have been very much the worse for it). Not many will contest the main thrust of his arguments. But let us critique his views objectively.

There are no two opinions as to the universality of the essence of democracy. However, it is not necessary that the Westminster brand has to be applied universally. But if democracy has not delivered for us, I submit it is not the fault, per se, of democracy but of those who had been entrusted to run the system for us.

Therefore, even if we have a new variety, unless we have a new brand of people to run it we will still have an ineffective system. It is not a new system, but new faces, that we need. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, but certainly need to determine its circumference and the number of spokes that would allow it to run smoothly.

I submit that what was relevant in ancient Greek city states is still relevant today in nation states; it's we who have discarded the essential criteria that make direct democracy, the only bad system amongst all the worst ones, prevalent in all countries but a few.

Interestingly, it was democracy that was blamed by the Athenians for their defeat at the hands of the Spartans (which was not a democracy) when, in fact, it was Athens's strategy against the Spartans that was to blame for their military disaster.

But they neither considered going for a new form of government nor changing the existing one. If merit and competence have not been recognised in Bangladesh as the main criteria for public service, the fault dose not lie with the politicians alone.

Dynastic politics in Bangladesh has a dynamics of its own. Lack of transparency and accountability, and endemic corruption, are closely linked with it. If dynastic politics has become an existing norm in our political system, part of the blame must also be taken by the institutions that have pandered to the political leaders' whims without remonstrating.

All the institutions have been so crudely politicised that one would not be wrong in suggesting that these have been made to look like extensions of the family businesses of those who controlled the government of the day. And it is just not one but all the parties that were democratically elected that indulged in the politicisation of the institutions in lesser or greater degree.

The fault is not with our democracy but with those that run the system. Not a new system, but a cleansed one with a good lot of people is what Bangladesh needs. The caretaker government has made this its priority task. All of us, and that includes the armed forces, must do everything to see that it is fulfilled.

The author is Editor, Defense & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.