Masters of Our Own Fate
Shayan Khan writes on playing our part in the political system
The chief adviser's latest, and by far most assured, address to the nation so far heralded, or so one has to hope, the beginning of a beginning for the Bangladeshi people.
At whose behest he speaks is a poor man's guess, but here, finally, he has given us something concrete on which to contemplate the next phase. The trudge back to democracy has begun. The third week of December is specific enough for an election date, speaking in the second week of May. The ban on indoor politics is gone (a hurrah, for what its worth) so now we can all go electioneering, or start preparations for it at least. And invitations to dialogue from the May 22 to all the political parties have already started finding their destinations. This last one inspires the most faith, though some cynics are not yet convinced they'll be visiting their local polling booths come December. But let us not talk that pessimistically of our fate.
Photo: Azizur Rahim Peu / DrikNEws
Everything runs it course, and the same can be said for the caretaker government. One may argue their true test lies ahead, in what can be termed the "reverse transition" phase. I would also argue that, so far, they have made a good fist of it. You can only play the hand you are given, and Bangladeshi politics is as treacherous as it gets. Especially when the men in the barracks have come out as well.
Given all this, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed and his team will have done well to even last till the end. They will most likely be forgotten figures in our history, for any changes they have brought about have hardly been salient, and, of course, their by and large ameliorative role in this period will always be in the quite formidable shadow of the powers that be.
They are too boring for us; too passé to stoke our passion for politics, too erudite to feed our hunger for entertainment in politics. They have certainly been no worse than previous governments. But it doesn't matter, their sell-by date had always been the end of this year.
General Moeen may go less swiftly, indeed he will most likely have to stay on in a position that is sufficient to fend off any backlash against the initiative he took on 1/11, for there is no dearth of enemies he has made over the last sixteen months. The National Security Council, bubbling beneath the surface of the current political discourse, is probably his safest bet.
Thus we can envision, as at least a hypothetical scenario in a year's time, the 9th Jatiya Sangshad in session. A coalition government will most likely be in power, built around one large party that in spite of winning the most seats in Parliament fell significantly short of a majority. So will anything be different from last time?
We hope it will. First of all, we hope both sides of the aisle will be filled. None of the boycotts and slack from the past that were an affront to the very sanctity of the hallowed institution that is our Parliament. Then we hope that M.Ps will devote the lion's share of their time to issues that affect their constituents and not to bickering with each other. That they will be engaged in sensible legislation, policy and lawmaking aimed at positioning the country to deal with the new challenges (climate change, the global credit crunch) an ever-changing world imposes on us even before we have faced down our old foes (poverty, natural disaster).
But is this realistic? Is there anything that has happened over the last year and this that suggests a political culture more resonant with our collective hopes and aspirations in the future? Certainly, where we were headed before 1/11 was only a perpetuation of the dysfunctional democratic system that was becoming a sort of comfort zone for us over the years. We had come to accept that if we were at least given free and fair elections, there would be change of government every five years, and our fortunes would shift with the political tide such that on the constituency level, five years of good if our MP was part of the government would be followed by five years of bad if he or she was part of the opposition.
On the personal level, the waters are even murkier, for merit and hard work would count for little in front of solid "contacts" in the right circles. And in general, we had learned or were learning to function within this abomination of a system. And then came the shock without which we would still surely be trapped within it. Now, at least, there is a possibility to set the wheels of change in motion.
To that end, the events of 1/11 were necessary. But have subsequent events been sufficient to bury the past? Is a mere two years enough for the detoxification we sought? To expect any drastic improvement in the way things are run immediately would leave our naivety exposed like sparrows in the dead of winter. For detox might help, but beating the addiction takes much more, it takes a fundamental change in perception, in attitude. Similarly, we need a holistic overhaul in our political culture before we can reap the benefits of a truly democratic system. And this is a change that incorporates all levels of society.
The political culture of a country is borne out of the political orientation of its citizens and their unique collective perception of political legitimacy and the "traditions of political practice," as Almond and Verba termed it. It is influenced by each country's set of values and belief systems, and sets the parameters for political behaviour. The political culture of a country is important because it sets the tone for the zeitgeist in the political arena. Within it are embroidered the unwritten rules that govern politicking in a country.
As might be guessed, it is the sum of many factors and is constructed over many years. So changes to it also must be affected over a number of years.
Shocks to the system such as military coups can expedite these shifts but it remains the prerogative of every citizen to see them through to the end. The state of emergency that we have been under for the last sixteen months has been one such shock. Now it is our responsibility to carry it through to the end. And this will take a solid, long-term commitment where first we must decide what sort of a society we want to evolve into.
One may postulate that the single most important point we must realise is that in a democracy, the citizens are the masters of politicians. It is the latter who must conform to a mandate set by the citizens. As such, we must subject them to the scrutiny of masters. For socio-economic reasons that have left some segments of the population still mired in the throes of a feudalistic society, we have almost always allowed our politicians in the past to get away with negligence. The class system prevalent in our society had rendered the ruling class above the law and accordingly, they took advantage of that. They were the boroloks, against whom the commoner who raised his voice would not be lauded for his courage, but rather ridiculed for being foolish. Our forgiving nature meant that accountability has only recently penetrated our political consciousness.
We can hope that the spate of sentences that have been handed out to corrupt politicians under the state of emergency will serve to show our citizens that politicians are subject to justice as well, that they are not as invulnerable as their posse of cadres and their masses of wealth may paint them. But to make them truly accountable will take many more years of sustained scrutiny that can only come about through the empowerment of different segments of society. A strong, confident civil society is the best of checks against political impropriety.
Empowerment in some segments, such as women, has certainly been improving in recent years, although much remains yet to be done. But other segments such as our working class still remain stuck in the wrong end of a master-slave relationship. To empower them will mean the granting of more rights, as well as providing them with the necessary education for them to realise these rights.
That puts the onus on effective legislation and educational reform. The changes themselves will take time to manifest themselves. But eventually we can look forward to a day where no group is privy to the whims of another, or at-least come close to it. Prior to 1/11, there was only one right being exercised and that, too, one that did not exist: of the ruling class to plunder and ravage the country at the expense of the masses.
There also has to be a change in our perception of public service that marks it differently from self-service. With corruption endemic, political office had become the dream job for all the wrong reasons. The wages were low, but as far as perks went, the sky was the limit. Some of the reports over the last sixteen months on the alleged Wealth of these public servants have truly boggled the mind.
Political office had also come to represent a kind of career move for successful businessmen in Bangladesh. Their concentration in politics became especially acute during the last BNP administration. This was a consequence of the perception that had built up over the years that only the wealthy could be lawmakers. And thus was established a trend whereby once you had reached a certain level with your business, the next step for you was to seek political office.
Now there is nothing wrong in itself for businessmen to enter politics, but here it happened not out of any sense of duty towards the nation, but rather for the businessmen to serve their own ends. A seat in Parliament provided them with an ideal position of influence from which they could supplement their incomes exponentially, while also guarding themselves and their businesses from competitors.
All this rendered an entire generation of politicians, with a few exceptions, completely useless for governing the nation. To reverse this trend, we have to set our stall out from the very beginning when we get our next crack at democracy. The current administration has a very important role to play in laying down the rules as to who can run for office in the December elections, and seeing to it that these rules are enforced. If the first batch of MPs represents a wide cross-section of society, hopefully it will set the tone for a more complete experience with democracy this time around.
In conversation with a friend recently, we both expressed our belief that we are still some distance from the day we can have confidence in our politicians. It is hoped that the ill-fate that has befallen some of the present generation will serve to show coming generations the pitfalls of letting down your nation when you could have done so much better. He also opined that before we get the kind of leaders we want, we have to change ourselves, deriving from the old saying "every society gets the leader it deserves."
Without a shadow of a doubt, we the citizens have a role to play as well in the rehabilitation of our politics, but changing ourselves is quite a tall order and not entirely necessary. What is needed is a change in our consciousness through awareness, knowledge and confidence which can be all be reinforced through both traditional and non-traditional forms of education.
A citizen who is aware of his rights, knowledgeable on affairs of state, and confident of his role in society is not one to be hoodwinked. He can be said to be politically conscious. And he is fit to assume the citizen's role of master in a democracy.
Shayan Khan is a Forum contributor.