The root of all evil
Taj Hashmi examines how the societal tensions inherent to Bangladeshi society have created an unforgiving environment for democracy to take root
Winston Churchill, known for his arrogance and colonial hangover, once observed that there could be no democracy east of Suez. However, there is nothing axiomatic about Churchill's aphorism that no democracy could flourish in the Orient.
He did not blame geography, but held the "enduring" political culture of the orient responsible for the promotion of "oriental despotism," in the Hegelian-Marxian sense of the expression. However, there is nothing permanent about any culture. As democracy does not sustain itself only in the Occident, so is there nothing so typical about "Oriental despotism" either.
The raison d'etre for Bangladesh lay in the Bengali assertion for their democratic rights in erstwhile united Pakistan. One wonders why the country has turned into a dysfunctional democracy. It has also been the most corrupt country consecutively for the last five years. It has virtually become an arena of political rivalry between the successors of two dead patriarchs, Mujib and Zia. They are competing against each other to run their own versions of "democracy," or dynastic oligarchy. Meanwhile, analysts debate whether the country has already turned into a "failed state," or is on the verge of becoming one.
General strikes, road blocking, setting fire to public transport, rioting, and police brutality are common. Boycott of the parliament by opposition members, and the demand for the resignation of the elected government are frequent occurrences. The declaring of people, including the prime minister, as persona non grata, or "undesirable," by political stalwarts in their localities is not uncommon. The lack of respect for democracy is so pervasive that even elected vice-chancellors or deans of public universities frequently face demands for resignation, sometimes within days after their election.
Democracy is a modern concept developed in the West following the Renaissance, geographical discoveries, the Reformation, industrial revolution, and political revolutions in Europe and America. It is a post-feudal capitalist institution. Pre-modern Bangladesh, with a strong feudal/colonial hangover, cannot fully adapt itself to any of the above ideologies.
"Then what about India, Sri Lanka, or the Philippines?" one may interject. The answer is simple: ongoing socio-economic and political process under the right leadership may perform miracles. One should not forget about the positive impact of the Meiji Restoration in Japan which delivered modernism, and eventually democracy, to the people. Unfortunately, Bangladesh did not get visionary leaders who had respect for democracy and who could totally disengage themselves from the civil or military vested interest groups. A functional democracy also requires a strong middle class, urbanization, and mass literacy.
Ever since the restoration of democracy in 1991, in the wake of the overthrow of Ershad who ran one of the most corrupt military regimes, a la Marcos, four rounds of parliamentary elections have failed to legitimize the elected governments in the eyes of the opposition. The irony is that, for the sake of fairness, "caretaker governments" conducted these polls. The main opposition parties since 1991 have not only been rejecting the polls as "rigged," hence unacceptable, but they have also been portraying the people associated with the caretaker government, the majority party, and its leaders, as conspirators, liars, murderers, and foreign agents.
Of late, the BNP-led coalition and the erstwhile opposition are at loggerheads over the modus operandi for "fair and neutral" elections due in January 2007. The 14-party alliance demands, among other things, reconstitution of the Election Commission and a fresh voter-list because of alleged anomalies in the present one. The coalition is not agreeable to these demands. The upshot is total uncertainty about the elections.
Why is democracy faltering in the country which is no stranger to the institution? One may cite the absence of good leadership and the degenerating political culture as being responsible for the problem. It is indeed quite puzzling that Bengalis held smooth elections in the past without having a "caretaker" government. The elections of 1937, 1946, 1954, and 1970 played historic roles in the formation of Bangladesh. Since the overthrow of Ershad in 1990, it seems that nothing can guarantee polls acceptable to all, and a government legitimate to everyone.
The institution of democracy in Bangladesh, paradoxically, is a creation of British colonial rule. The British wanted the transformation of the restive and violent "pre-political" masses into a civil, orderly, and "political" population through democracy. And the first step in this regard was holding elections at the local levels. The colonial government wanted the masses to consider the elected legislators, not government officials, as their representatives. This is reflected in a government report (1918): "Eventually it will dawn upon him [Indian] … that because he has a vote he has the means of protecting himself … He has at his command a better weapon than the lathi or the hatchet with which to redress his wrongs [Report on Indian Constitutional Reforms, pp.120-21]."
Subsequently, people in colonial and post-colonial Bengal gradually turned "political" by shunning "pre-political" or violent methods of redressing their grievances against their local exploiters. Their adoption of program-oriented methods for changing the exploitative system signaled the beginning of democracy. So, democracy is not only all about holding free and fair elections, but it is also a process of empowerment of the grassroots. However, as civil and military autocracy shattered people's faith in "political" methods and democracy, one may find the British colonial rule (during the 1930s and 1940s) more benign and democratic than what prevails in Bangladesh today.
The way Bangladesh came into being has something to do with its problematic leadership quality, and the evaporation of democratic values and culture. The country came into being:
1. Almost without any plan or preparation on the part of the would-be founding fathers.
2. As a by-product of Pakistani intransigence and brutality rather than as an historical inevitability.
3. Through armed struggle, mainly by members of the lower middle classes, soldiers, peasants, working classes, and students.
4. By supplanting traditional upper and middle classes with petit-bourgeois, peasant, and lumpen-proletariat classes.
Consequently, post-Liberation Bangladesh witnessed the unceremonious demise of the not-so-well-entrenched middle classes and their values. After the first generation of petit-bourgeois and lumpen elements, who had already amassed huge wealth, property, political clout, and power soon after the Liberation, the second generation of their like is now vying for similar opportunities which are few and far between and only attainable through the right political connections, not through democracy.
The hyperbolic assertions at the dawn of independence went quite well with the people in the beginning. They believed that Bangladesh was going to be another Switzerland, a land of peace and prosperity. They welcomed the four-pronged state-ideology -- Nationalism, Democracy, Socialism, and Secularism -- sold as "Mujibism." As bad luck would have it, the people could not enjoy the fruits of "Mujibism."
Gross mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism soon demoralized the majority. While hyper-inflation and black-marketing of essentials wrecked the economy, well-connected vigilante groups and individuals plundered and occupied factories, shops, and houses declared "abandoned" by the state machinery. The government also nationalized the "abandoned" and locally-owned banks, industries, and financial companies in the name of socialism. Corruption and lack of managerial skill soon turned these organizations "sick," and into total liabilities for the state.
Soon the ruling party polarized the people between pro- and anti-Liberation. The Awami League disinherited its opponents from political favour and state patronage under the very nose of the weak visionary, the founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Not only did those Islamists who collaborated with the Pakistani occupation army feel discriminated against, but pro-Liberation left-oriented people also felt the same.
The upshot was the Left-Islamist understanding. Both were opposed to "Mujibism," although for different reasons. Unlike the pro-Moscow left, the pro-Chinese left did not believe in a united front with the nationalist Awami League. It also had strong reservations about glorifying state acquisition of industries and financial institutions as socialism.
After the military takeover of 1975, pro-Chinese leftists and Islamists lent support to the civil-military oligarchy under General Zia. And none of them had any commitment to democracy. Although patriotic and visionary, but having no political experience or constituency, Zia surrounded himself with people with dubious track records; people having strong revulsion to democracy, secularism, and socialism. And having lost faith in all these lofty principles, the people started relying on Zia to get the promised self-sufficient, or "Swanirbhar," Bangladesh. People's survival instinct, and disillusionment with democracy or any ideology other than religion, played an important role in this regard.
With the abrupt killing of Zia in a military putsch, and the subsequent takeover by General Ershad in March 1982, whatever semblance of democracy that had existed under Zia disappeared. From the failures of Mujib and Zia, Ershad learnt quite well how to maintain the precarious balance between the military and civil, Islamist and secular oligarchs. He has been the most skilled political acrobat that Bangladesh has ever seen. Having no qualms about ethics and morality, his promotion of hedonism and rampant corruption infested the whole polity. He inducted "ultra-left" Kazi Zafar to "ultra-right" Maulana Mannan, and, among others, Ataur Rahman Khan, the president of the "Democracy Revival Committee" as his cabinet members. These leaders legitimized dictatorship at the cost of democracy.
The widening gap between the rich and the poor, due to the institutionalized corruption through state enterprises, banks, NGO-business, garment factories, bribery, tax evasion, and extortion has adversely affected the polity. On the one hand, people have become apathetic to politics, and on the other, have accepted corruption as a way of life. Bare survival of the fixed income groups, with no illegal means to make a living, has become the main priority for the masses.
Since both the nouveau riche and the lower classes have petit bourgeois and/or rural/peasant backgrounds, they are nurturing rural and peasant culture. The unprecedented rural-to-urban migration in recent years has implanted the rural patron-client relationship in the urban areas in the domains of politics, trade, industry, education, sports, culture, and even the underworld of criminals. Thus, Dhaka has become the largest "rural city" in the world.
Thus Bangladesh society, having more in common with Ferdinand Tonnies's gemeinschaft [rural community] rather than with the gesellschaft [urban society], is promoting the politics of faction-ridden, quasi-tribal, village or pre-modern peasant community. Here nothing is free from the gemeinschaft culture which is "pre-political," violent and fatalist at the same time. Villagers hardly expect much from their super-ordinates, let alone trust or respect them. Lack of trust and mutual respect for each other are normal in the village community. Peasants in general fight each other, especially their neighbours, over disputed properties, more so in deltaic Bangladesh.
Mostly criminal elements, people with no known source of income, are the new patrons in the arena of politics. And since winning elections at any level -- local municipalities or the parliament -- pays rich dividends, elections have replaced the share market for investment. The apathetic and marginalized middle classes hardly take part in elections, either as voters or as candidates. Thus, half-educated people with dubious character get elected through manipulation and, literally, buying of votes of urban squatters, lumpen elements, and rural hoi polloi. Mass fear of local "election-mongers," who, in the event of loss in an election, can resort to violence, has turned democracy farcical.
In retrospect, we find the following factors responsible for the retrogression of governance, civility, and well-being of the people in Bangladesh:
* Endemic corruption.
* Systematic degeneration of the education system.
* Opportunism of the elite -- failure of the welfare state.
A comparative appraisal of the price (of consumer goods) and income (of salaried or wage-earning people) indices of Bangladesh in 2006 with those of 1971 reveals that what one could buy in 1971 with one taka is roughly seventy to one hundred times more expensive in 2006 (the inflation rate being 7,000 to 10,000 per cent).
The corresponding incomes of the salaried and wage-earning groups have gone up by ten to fifteen times only, or a rise of 100 to 150 percent only. The prices of residential blocks of property in prime urban areas since 1971 have gone up by 1,000 to 2,000 times, or by an astounding 100,000 to 200,000 percent.
This means that government and private sector employees have to resort to pilfering for bare survival, and "robbery" for comfortable living.
According to Samuel Johnson, "patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel." Bangladesh is infested with such scoundrels. These "patriots," for promoting their vested class interests and cheap popularity among the masses, resort to ultra-nationalism or Islamic fanaticism. In the name of promoting Bengali or Bangladeshi nationalism, the government in 1972 not only abruptly introduced Bengali as the official language, without considering its pros and cons, it also allowed Bengali as a medium of instruction at every level. Consequently, half-baked university graduates, having incomplete access to modern knowledge in any discipline not available through Bengali, swarmed the job market. They either end up getting low-paid jobs at home, or the "fortunate ones" work as menials, mainly in the Middle East.
Paradoxically, the government has allowed the mushroom growth of private English-medium schools and universities. Mostly rich children have access to these exorbitantly expensive institutions of learning, and they are cut out to be executives in the small private sector, mainly in financial institutions, NGOs, and multi-national companies. What is not so surprising is that the elite -- political, professional, and business -- mostly send their children to English-medium schools at home or abroad.
Besides the English and Bengali-medium schools and colleges, and thanks to the philanthropy of local and foreign donors, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, there has been a phenomenal growth in the number of private madrassas or Islamic seminaries -- thousands of them by now. These seminaries, following thousand-year-old curricula, produce unemployable/under-employable, alienated, and angry graduates; often readily available for terrorist activities in the name of Islam. These angry men, who hate modernism and secularism, are big threats to liberal democracy. The unsettling education system is producing employable, under-employable, and unemployable graduates, which does not bode well for democracy. Democracy is a strange bed-fellow with poor, backward people.
In short, elite opportunism, dishonesty, and inefficiency are the root of all evils in the country. Peasantization of the polity, evident from the predominance of patron-client relationship and the associated violence, is the main hindrance to the growth of democracy in Bangladesh. The failure of democracy is a by-product of the failure of the welfare state, the promised Sonar Bangla, or Golden Bengal. The leaders are collectively responsible for its fading away from people's consciousness.
In sum, it is easier to locate factors retarding the growth of democracy in the country than it is to find the solutions. Nevertheless, tracking the main causes of the retardation process is a positive step towards solving the problem. Since the problem did not crop up in a year or two, there is no quick solution. Bangladesh will have to go through this trial-and-error transition before the people can get rid of dynastic or guided democracy.
Democracy is not an end but a means towards progress and development. The intelligentsia must realize that the country will not become democratic only through ensuring free and fair elections. An independent judiciary, modern, uniform, secular education, and, above all, people's willingness to challenge corrupt leaders at every level can guarantee democracy. Only the young and educated can ensure all these pre-conditions, while Bangladesh goes through the transition and hopes for the best.
Taj Hashmi is an author and historian.