|Volume 6 | Issue 04 | April 2012|
Politics of Intolerance and Our Future
Our political culture will not change overnight, but we can work towards change, says ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY.
"The benefits of independence have reached only a few, thus creating islands of few ultra rich people surrounded by vast sea of utterly poor. The rich people in nexus with those in power are getting favorable laws enacted to suit their ends. Those in power are shamelessly enjoying luxuries at tax payer's expense, while millions are starving to death. Corruption has spread its tentacles everywhere; there is corruption from womb to tomb, from maternity hospital to grave yard. The injustices meted out, the atrocities perpetrated by public servants are worse than those by colonial rulers. The biggest confounding factor in the political environment of business is criminalization of politics."
The statement above is not on the current state of affairs in Bangladesh; it is an extract from a research paper on Criminalization of Politics in India (by Legal Service of India, a non-profit organisation) that came out a few years ago. But in terms of the development in our political arena that we have been witnessing in Bangladesh for the past several years, the statement could be applied verbatim to the state of our nation. Everyone in Bangladesh can relate to this statement. The benefits of our hard-earned freedom and democracy have yet to reach our people. Instead, these seem to have been usurped by those of who have muscle power, access to wealth and authority and their ability to manipulate the masses with their silver tongues.
It has been over 20 years since we returned to parliamentary democracy. Many of our present political leaders had a prominent role in bringing back a system that the country had fought for at its birth, a system that we all put our faith in. We all remember the sacrifices our common people made in this historic comeback. It was a people's victory. Unfortunately it was a short-lived euphoria because within a year of this happy return we would come up against a victor-take-all mentality from the ruling party that would lead to non-cooperation from the then opposition and the cycle of hartals and confrontational politics would begin all over. In that period we also saw for the first time the manipulative power of a ruling party to force down its own rules to retain authority. But we also saw people power subsequently to reject such an attempt. We had new elections and a new government.
In the interregnum we have had two cycles of elections, and two formally elected governments, but the governments in each term did not or could not govern effectively. The tables would turn in favour of the ruling party in each term, and the opposition would react to this turn of fortune not in the parliament but in the streets with work stoppage and violent demonstrations. Where in true democracies the political parties debate the unfair practices or laws in the parliament, our political parties would choose the streets and use their muscle power to frustrate their opponents.
This practice of taking law in their hands by the parties and solve political differences by violence, death and destruction would come to a head soon. The normal succession from the political government in 2007 to another through elections came to a serious roadblock due to intransigence of the two major parties to agree on a common approach for holding elections. Each suspected the other of hatching dire conspiracies to mar the elections so much so that an interim government had to step in to stop a bloodbath and nationwide chaos that was brought forth by the two feuding political parties. The feuding had gone to such a level that the interim government was welcomed at the time as a blessing by the people. There was widespread relief that a disaster had been averted as none of the parties would agree to settle their dispute through elections unless these were held in their own terms.
Now some five years later we seem to be in the cusp of another crisis. Why does it have to happen again and again?
A quick analysis of our political parties and the state of politics in our country would reveal the following. The hallmarks of our politics are gross disrespect to rule of law, intolerance of opposition, money power and patronage of venality in politics, reliance on muscle power for political influence, and open embrace of sycophancy. But the one characteristic that tops all of the above is hypocritical love for democracy. Our leaders vow for democracy, but do not like to practise it -- neither in their own party nor the institutions they profess to serve.
Let us analyse how these sinister practices have impacted our politics today and will likely endanger our future if these are allowed to grow unfettered.
Disregard for rule of law becomes a norm in a society that finds patronage from the top. When in power our parties become two-faced in application of law, one that suits its own followers and the other that persecutes those opposed to it. Time and again we have seen flouting of laws by people who receive patronage from those in authority, and thrive well. This is the inevitable result of people seeking protection of those who apparently are more powerful than the law itself. People thus help support development of syndicated crime, a Cosa Nostra, in their own back yard since the State fails to protect them.
We do not need to go very far to look for instances of intolerance, they are everywhere in the society now, starting from the top. Our leaders have no time to speak to one another in civil terms; they have little patience to listen. Their advisers, if they have any, are afraid to reach them or give them advice, let alone the rank and file of their parties. Criticism, constructive or negative, is frowned upon. Sometimes retaliatory actions await those who dare criticise. The result is that our leaders are surrounded by sycophants who will, as time has shown, abandon the leaders when the tides turn against them. " Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit," Gandhi once said. I do not think our leaders have patience to even read Gandhi.
Money power of politics and patronage of venality or corruption go hand in hand. In fact, money power begets venality and graft; it is an essential precondition for seeking elections, influencing votes, and assuring a place in the palace of power. The elections to Parliament are very expensive; a candidate has to spend in crores, first to get the party's nomination and then to get elected. The system requires that people with deep pockets, or those who have friends and benefactors with enormous means can only compete. This is an inbred system where the beneficiaries are both the elected and their benefactors. The benefactors are no altruistic nationalists who help their protégés to win. They expect paybacks in return, which the politician must make. This is why we see people thrive in places of authority despite accusations of graft, or outright incompetence, against them.
The next preponderant element that has characterised our political parties is reliance on muscle power, gangsterism in plain words, from voter persuasion to suppression of opposition, to outright resort to violent means for political vendetta. As local politicians need to develop their capacity to "get things done" for voters, they need both the "money power" and "muscle power" of goondas to settle local issues, enforce their authority and manipulate voting. This muscle power today dominates all segments of our society, from labour to student bodies, from business to academia. Gangsterism unfortunately does not believe in any particular creed, it tends to gravitate to those in authority since power and authority can protect it from application of law. Common people are well aware of the enormous reach of this "muscle power", with the result that this power thrives, and thrives well, in our political system.
Sycophancy is another major evil that plagues our political system, perhaps it has been so since the beginning of our country. No critic of any political party from within has survived, and it is not simply because of our political culture. Much of it is the result of not following the democratic principles of equal rights of all within a party, lack of transparency in its own processes for election within the party, and not adhering to the values of freedom of speech, tolerance and compromise. Our major political parties have yet to demonstrate to the country that they believe in these principles by a transparent process that starts from the bottom and ends at the top with periodic changes in leadership. To be credible in what our leaders say, our people expect to see that they practise these principles in their respective domains, too.
We have achieved so much in 40 years materially, yet our political maturity in all these years seems to be a mirage. Our leaders seem to be impervious to the concept that a mature political leadership that rises above partisan interest and shows statesmanship instead of party leadership is an indispensable condition for our future as a nation. Our leadership on both sides needs to understand that government bound by and ruled by law is a fundamental condition of democracy. This law requires equality before the law; the establishment of law and order; the efficient and predictable application of justice; and the protection of all under the law. Democracy is a set of principles and practices that all parties, whether they are in the government or in the opposition, need to adhere to. It rests upon the principles of majority rule, but it respects all individual and minority rights. All democracies, while respecting the will of the majority, zealously protect the fundamental rights of individuals and minority groups. Citizens in a democracy not only have rights, they have the responsibility to participate in the political system that, in turn, protects their rights and freedoms.
Unfortunately the current political environment is so submerged in partisan politics that -- some of us feel -- will lead the nation into a quagmire from which it may be difficult to rescue it unless the leaders agree on a common approach to save the country. This approach has to have the following directions:
* Rise above partisan interest and seek accommodation on an acceptable formula for holding the next elections either via an interim government or a caretaker government.
* Stop politics of vendetta and personal retribution.
* Seek an end to politics of money power and muscle power, and stop patronisation of criminal elements for political support.
* Hold dialogues instead of street demonstrations and violence for political protests.
It may be too early and too soon and our political culture will not change overnight, but it is not unreasonable to expect that if our leaders genuinely believe in democratic principles they will agree to a path to wean themselves away from this vicious culture.
We may not have an Arab Spring uprising looming in the immediate future, but we have an election season in not too distant a time. Our people may not turn out on the streets, but they will vote with their choice. That choice may not be for continuing with this Mafia politics. Our leaders need to realise that the hours are ticking away for a solution of the impending crisis, and they must act in the interest of the country. Nurturing of sinister politics may not end right away, but at least we will see the beginning of the end if they act now.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a former civil servant.
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