Descending into Dystopia?
Dr Manzoor Ahmed
"Dystopia” is the opposite of utopia, the vision of an ideal world presented by Thomas More in his book of that title in 1516. John Stuart Mill coined the word dystopia in speaking before the British Parliament in 1868 to denounce the British government's Irish land policy: “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians --- . What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.”
Since then the term dystopia has entered into literature and art as a metaphor for an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be. Dystopia in fictional and artistic works represents the dream of building the utopian world overshadowed by fatal flaws arising from the very actions and words in the name of utopia as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
As Bangladesh enters the fifth decade of independence, is the nation descending into a mood of dystopia, as some would like to proclaim?
A scene from 1984, The movie.
The beginning of 2009 saw the grand alliance taking charge of government, swept into power with an overwhelming parliamentary majority. The electorate bestowed its confidence on the coalition led by Sheikh Hasina, persuaded by its promise of change – din bodoler shopno, the vision of real progress towards a more prosperous and just society by the time the nation turns 50 in 2021.
The citizenry is not so naïve as to believe in utopia by 2021. It put its trust in a genuine and good-faith effort towards the goal, beginning of a change in political culture and practice, and in the way government leaders and people's representatives conduct themselves.
The new nation forged out of the anvil of the liberation war did not have a chance to nurture the democratic polity. The fledgling democracy was struck a near-fatal blow in August 1975. Two-bit military officers, with megalomaniac pretensions, held sway for the next 15 years and derailed democratic development.
The resumption of parliamentary democracy in 1991 bore the marks of distortion and damage imposed on the political culture and behavior pattern. Politicians of all stripes who aided and abetted the military rulers and those who failed to take a principled position in uniting citizens for progress towards democracy cannot escape their share of responsibility in this perfidy.
The 2008 victory of the grand coalition, after the limbo of the military-led “caretaker” rule for two years and the “democratic” misrule for the previous five years, raised the hope of putting the train of democratic development back on rail. The pledge of change – din bodol – signalled this optimism.
I shudder to think of the consequences if the machination including the massive fraud in preparing the voter rolls, packing the Election Commission with pliant members, and usurpation of the office of the caretaker government head by a partisan president had succeeded in putting the Hawa Bhavan clique and the anti-liberation perpetrators of war crimes back in office in 2006. One-eleven rescued the country from this hijacking of the state, for which the nation owes a debt to leaders of the armed forces of the time, however much we deplore many of their missteps.
No one should minimise the odds the new government faced – starting with the mutiny and carnage of the paramilitary force Bangladesh Rifles. This was followed by natural calamities affecting large populations, world food supply crunch and shooting prices, major power shortages caused by a long history of neglect, and an inherited government machinery riddled with ineptitude, corruption and political partisanism.
These challenges called for a higher measure of prudence and wisdom than ever in leadership, a high level of efficiency and steadfastness of purpose among Cabinet members, demonstration of exemplary honesty and shunning partisanship in all decisions, and a generosity in spirit that set new standards in political culture.
It is beyond me why the card-carrying politicians do not take account of a simple political calculation. Election results and voting pattern analysis have shown that roughly one-third of people are loyal to the Awami League and its allies, another third is sympathetic to BNP and its allies, and the remaining third is willing to throw its support behind either depending on its judgment of actual and potential performance of either.
The regime can generally count on the support of the loyal partisans. It perhaps cannot change the mind of most of those who are loyal to the opposition. It is the neutral third whose support must be secured to keep or win political power. These citizens in the middle are watching the government closely, and given the opportunity through a half-way decent election process, will make their voices heard, as they always have.
Successes must be counted and the government should take credit for these. But it is not enough to dwell on them and blame the opposition for every wrong. The neutral third is not satisfied with mere propaganda of success or blame-game; they demand good-faith and determined effort in key areas of national concern, especially those on which promises have been made to people.
Amazingly, the regime has managed to upset the whole international community, whose goodwill and support we need and should be able to count on, by creating a “ Yunus Affair” out of nothing that concerns the vital interest of the country, by mistreating seriously the sole Nobel Laureate of Bangladesh. At the same time, it has alienated or at least causes great angst among 8 million clients of Grameen Bank and their families. Now a real problem with grave consequences has indeed arisen.
The election manifesto and Vision 21 pledged to make local government at the union, upazila and district level the pivot of development activities and public services with control and accountability vested at these levels. In fact, nothing less is required by Article 11 of the Constitution, which is being flouted at least in spirit continuously. The pressure and vested interests of parliament members, overwhelmingly dominated by businessmen, and the entrenched bureaucracy have successfully obstructed the devolution of authority and resources to the local government bodies and the process of strengthening the local government system.
Election results and voting pattern analysis have shown that roughly one-third of people
are loyal to the Awami League and its allies, another third is sympathetic to BNP.
The crusade against pervasive corruption is a key election pledge. But the government has just sent a bill to the parliament to tie the hands and feet of the Anti-Corruption Commission by requiring it to seek prior government approval before investigating any official and public representative. It also proposes heavy punishment for whistle-blowers if the complaint is not later sustained legally. Government lack of enthusiasm and foot-dragging can be seen in offering necessary support for all public accountability and statutory bodies such as the Human Rights Commission and the Right to Information Commission.
The nation welcomed the promise to put on trial those responsible for crimes against humanity in 1971. A delayed start in this regard has been followed by slow and lackadaisical progress. People like historian Muntasir Mamun, Shariar Kabir of Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, Dr. M. A. Hasan of Bangladesh Genocide Archive as well as Sector Commanders' Forum have expressed their frustration and dismay about the professionalism, leadership and resources for this vital endeavour.
There appears to be an effort to push into an adversarial position those such as development NGOs and civil society bodies who are natural allies of secular, progressive and democratic political forces. The age-old collusion of political power based on patronage and the bureaucracy keen to maintain its control remains alive and well. This collusion of vested interests militates against the ascendance of the common citizen, community organizations, development NGOs, civil society bodies and strong local government. This unholy alliance cannot be in favour of the vision of change .
As the midpoint of the five-year current term of the government approaches, is it too much to expect a make-over of the leadership mode and conduct of the regime?
For a starter, let there be a hard-headed review of progress on the key pledges and promises that thrust the large majority on the coalition in the parliament. Assessing what can be and must be done to keep these promises in the remaining time of this term should be the task of this review. Let the elders of the party, those who are not members of the government, be given this task to undertake an unflinching assessment and recommend remedial actions.
A sense of urgency and purpose must be imbued at all levels of the political hierarchy and the administration from the union to the national capital, making all citizens, not just the party loyalists, partners in this effort.
The veterans of the Awami league and the coalition partners also can be given the task of devising ways and overseeing the reigning in of the uncontrolled and unacceptable conduct and abuse of power and extortion, actual and perceived, by members and supporters of the party and the subsidiary student, youth and labour organs.
Members of the Cabinet, once they take the responsibility of the respective department of the government, are no longer just party members, but the servants of the republic. Their obligation is to serve all the people and behave and speak accordingly. Citizens have the right to expect the Home Minister and the law Minster, for example, to stand up for all of them, not be partisan in their conduct and words. These functionaries must be ready to apply the full force of law even against Members of Parliament and the Ministers, should the occasion arise. If they cannot live up to this obligation, the Prime Minster should find others in their place who can.
It must be obvious to readers where my sympathies lie. Neither utopia nor dystopia, by definition, are real. Let there not be a repeat of 2001 in 2013. The discerning and observant middle third must not be given the reasons to say - “ Throw out this bunch of rascals who have not delivered on their promise; try out the other bunch, since there is little to choose from.”