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Volume 6 | Issue 05 | May 2012


Original Forum

Media Governance in Bangladesh:
Rhetoric and Reality of Broadcasting Policy
-- S M Shameem Reza
Social Media:
The debate of freedom and responsibility
-- Fahmidul Haq
The Healthy Effect of New Media--Naimul Karim
Freedom on Screen:
The long route of short films

-- Zakir Hossain Raju
Come Freedom, Come Responsibility-- Interview with Professor Dr. Gitiara Nasreen
Television Journalism as a Field
--- AJM Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan

Rabindranath and the Translation of Gitanjali
--Rifat Munim


Photo Feature
Live True Life or Die Trying

International Crimes and the Tribunal in Bangladesh

-- Mubashar Hasan

Politics for Quality of Life: A new perspective for Bangladesh politics
-- Syed Fattahul Alim

Education for Regional
Connectivity in South Asia

--Shakil Ahmed
If you can't grab a bull by its horns,
grab its tail

--Nofel Wahid
The Fall of Dictators
-- Syed Badrul Ahsan


Forum Home

Politics for Quality of Life:
A new perspective for Bangladesh politics

MUBASHAR HASAN proposes a new focus of politics for actually making people's lives better

There is little doubt that Bangladeshi politics is about achieving power. Perhaps, in the sense of classic liberal theory, there is nothing wrong in this paradigm since Bangladesh constitutes some sort of functional democracy. However, considering Bangladesh's extraordinary political culture, increasing disparity among people in terms of quality of life, failure of efficient service delivery by major state agencies, in this article I argue that the time has come to revisit our concept of politics. The concept of our politics should be people as an end, not the means to achieve power as an end. Therefore, in this article, I shall argue that our concept of politics must focus on the quality of life, thus increasing human capabilities; in other words, the main goal of our politics must be human development.

To approach my central proposition, I divide my article into three major sections. Firstly, I shall demonstrate how people, by this I mean, the masses, are relegated into secondary aspect of our politics; secondly, I shall explain the concept of quality of life briefly; and finally, I shall propose how media and civil society as influential opinion makers in our society can promote the concept of quality of life as an essential aspect of our politics. I argue that media already addresses many issues related to quality of life but the time has come for them to use this concept as a buzz word to shape the political skeleton for the greater good.

AM Ahad/drik

The forgotten masses
Politicians in our country quite often use the phrase 'people are the source of all power'. Our Constitution, too, in Article 7(1) states that 'all powers in the Republic belong to the people.' However, the reality is somewhat different. While, in theory, the Constitution is right to the extent that people are the source of power, in reality we see all powers in the Republic belong to a 'group of elite people'.

History says, since the inception of the country we, the masses, are caught between politics and conflict of interest between civil and military elites who develop, shape and use mass sentiment to legitimise their own purposes. Masses here became a tool to gain the power of elites. In order to know historical detail of how elites develop political identity and agenda in our country, one needs to look into a series of studies conducted and published in international academic journals since the 1970's. Ironically, most of these studies were conducted by Bangladeshi academics who do not live in Bangladesh anymore due to a deteriorating quality of life.

I define mass as a category of people who are not involved in any active politics in terms of receiving undue support or engaging in political activities such as rally, campaign of any parties. People who constitute this category of mass, in my view, hail from all classes except the upper spectrum of society.

We know that the conflict and politics among elites in Bangladesh revolve around religion, secularism and national identity. In my view, all these are important for a nation which is supposed to share a common value. However, after 40 years of independence and 40 years of ideological warfare, we require evaluating what have we, the masses, achieved today. In my view, we achieved regular events such as load shedding for longer hours, road mishaps, hartals, arson on public transport, water shortage, rising food prices, enforced deletion from society, deteriorating law and order situation and horrendous traffic congestion in the capital city, etc. Above all, the lives of people and human dignity have become a forgotten word for us.

I might sound silly since it seems to me that to us, the 'ideological distinctions' such as defining our anthropological root as Bangladeshi or Bangalee is more important than being stuck in a traffic jam or suffering in load shedding for hours. Every day, we are frustrated by socio-political circumstances when we go out on the street, in the market or when we return home. Our homes are becoming less safe due to the ripple effect of a system built by the elites and politicians belonging to this elite club. Ideology is a state of mind, which could drive us to take physical action in the material world built around us. Especially, most of our political ideological distinctions, which divide the two big parties in relation to their constitutional stance, do not have significant impact in our physical world. For example, it really has no impact whatsoever, on our law and order situation, road safety or corruption in State agencies whether we are Bangladeshi or Bangalee or what the name of our airport is.

Therefore, I wonder what is the point of ideological warfare when we the masses, to many extents, do not have the basic services delivered by the state. For example, our roads are unsafe as people die while travelling everyday. We see deaths in waterways in regular intervals, we suffer immeasurable heat due to unjustified length of load shedding in our homes, we have little confidence in our law enforcers, we swear out of frustration while stuck in traffic for hours every day. On the other hand, we do not see most politicians (by this, I mean the top decision makers in a political party) suffering at all. Isn't it ironic? Lavish lifestyle is now synonymous with our politicians whereas people suffer everyday. It is not only unjustified; it is, to some extent, extremely vulgar from the view of a just society. There is little doubt that the State is controlled by the elite society where politicians ride the latest model high-tech cars and have enormous access to power and wealth while we struggle to have a 'good life'.

A recent news report states that the number of businessmen entering into politics is increasing. A study conducted by a Professor of Political Science of Pennsylvania University finds that the major reason behind businessmen entering politics in Bangladesh is to receive and use unjustifiable state patronage, influence permits, license and foreign policy to some extent. The list is quite long and this will deviate me from my main point of argument. In short, the study indicates that 'people' are the capital for politicians to make money here in the sense that they vote for them and in turn give them access to power and resources.

Wahid Adnan/drik

In a normal situation, one should not see any conflict of interest in politicians hailing from the elite class and development of people in a highly political context. For example, British Prime Minister Cameron comes from a very rich family. However, when the point of politics becomes more about economic profit and less about human dignity or securing human life, difficulty for masses arises.

One could argue that these parties have huge followers as they demonstrate large gatherings of people at every rally, therefore I lose validity of my point that says our politics is not about the people. However, I argue that majority of these people participate in politics little out of ideological commitment but rather because they receive slices of power in smaller contexts such as trade unions, teachers' unions, doctors' unions, journalists' unions, student wings, administration and so forth, through the party patronage system. The important point to note about these associations or unions is that most of the members here come from not so economically solvent families. Party patronage in the name of foreign trips, media license, jobs, work orders, political postings, etc., keeps these associations alive. In other words, these people who are otherwise with limited access to resources are simply being exploited by powerful elites and as a result, we see a vicious circle legitimising a corrupt system through many phases. I call this human-circle patronised by elites as the champions of public discourse in the sense that they are active everywhere, i.e., media, business, law-enforcing agencies, military, civil servants, academics and so forth. As I have said before, the legacy of producing champions of public discourse begun 40 years ago, now it is part of our system. Therefore, we see anti-system within the system. Thus, whenever BNP or AL come to power, we see a certain group of champions of public discourse defend party decisions while being in the government or state agencies while in theory, they have the mandate to serve the citizens and State. Similarly, we see civil society members from media and academia purposefully overlook bad decisions of the government in public forums. This process works vice-versa.

The morale seems to be lost here. The concept of honesty and human dignity seems unfit in our politics. Therefore, ideological distinction between two parties simply seems a facade. In support of my argument I raise the point that between 1990 until now, one could find no fundamental distinction between the two parties in terms of service delivery for human development, some of which include: human rights, political and civil liberty, corruption, and above all increasing the quality of life. One should read Facebook status posts, newspaper columns or reader's comments under online news reports of newspapers to grasp the growing frustration among people. In my analysis, stressing on ideological distinctions with the help of the champions of public discourse, our elite groups camouflage their failure to manage the State effectively and rid the nation of corruption where I believe corruption (financial and moral) is responsible for everything related to quality of life.

Therefore, I opine that the time has come to rethink the theory of politics in our country. The point of politics should no more be power where people are being used as a means to reach power. Rather, the point of politics must be people as an end to all political activities because I believe in the Aristotelian term which says people are the wealth of a nation. By that, I mean increasing the quality of life for the masses should be the top priority for politics here. Otherwise, what we know as our country will soon become a dangerous place to live (if it is not becoming one already), in the sense of growing lawlessness, inequality and fragile democracy.

Politics for quality of life
This idea of quality of life in the form of capability approach was first coined by Amartya Sen who criticised traditional totalitarian approach of measuring lives of people by economic value. The main concept of his idea says a person's well-being does not depend on economic value only. There are other factors related here apart from money, for example, a person's happiness, sorrow, friendship, security, mobility, etc. In his view, a person's being and functioning are important to consider as their capability. The State is supposed to ensure citizens' capabilities. In our context, being a passenger on a bus reflects one's capability to have the economic means to pay for travel; whether one can reach the destination, or get injured or burnt alive in a road accident in the middle of the journey, reflects one's failure to function. Here, the state requires ensuring smooth functioning of that imagined bus passenger. Similarly, Sen is a critic of traditional GDP measurement that fails to reflect people's actual capability as it is being measured in a system, which fails to depict deficiencies in the quality of life among people in a country. To put it simply, whether one has the money to buy basics and pay rent are not the real indicators of quality of life, rather, whether one has the money to buy the basics, pay rent and also enjoys a secure life should be the major point of politics.

Similarly, Martha Nussbaum, a celebrated American philosopher who is considered as a disciple of Sen, further argues that a government must consider increasing capabilities of its citizens from the perspective of human rights including gender rights, civil and political rights, religious pluralism, etc. This approach of understanding human progress gained political momentum when the UNDP began to publish a list of human development reports based on the capability approach since the 1990's to indicate the quality of life of people. However, UN's capability approach is very basic in nature and covers few aspects of human lives as in general, the scope of measuring capabilities is vast. In our context, prioritising such a concept is now a necessity for our politicians to adopt in order to ensure dignity of our citizens. Our elite decision makers must understand ensuring the dignity of citizens ensures the dignity of the head of the state in the world forum.

In Bangladesh, ensuring citizen's dignity should be the core agenda of a governance system, whether it is pro-religious or pro-secular -- by this I mean the BNP-Jamaat or AL-leftist alliance. Unfortunately, we have not seen any big difference in relation to preserving human dignity of ordinary citizens by BNP-Jamaat or AL-leftist government yet. What we have seen is the rhetorical construction of mental state (ideology), which has little relevance in our physical world and well-being. I would have agreed to the significance of ideological warfare if we had achieved significant developments in improving quality of life in the past 40 years. In reality, whatever we have achieved did not reflect our actual capabilities. Due to partisan interests, our resources were exploited by corruption, our system became corrupt and growing unhappiness about the quality of life among increasing numbers of citizens reflect failure of the system. To put it simply, we have achieved a lot in the field of education, decreasing mortality rate, etc., but we could achieve a lot more if our elite politicians did not develope a sub-servant system where partisan identity becomes significant over citizenship.

If one does not have electricity and water in their house, if one is stuck in traffic for hours, if one dies on the road, if one spends their whole month's income on food and fails to lead a decent social life, we need to ask, what is the point of such a life? The spirit of the liberation war was about the improvement of quality of life against the backdrop of Pakistani oppression and economic discrimination. If one argues, these still exist to many extents and is actually being institutionalised, few will retaliate. After independence, we, the masses are caught between politics for power of elites and their sub-servant champions of public discourse. As a result, the development of human life is in jeopardy and our living place is becoming less secure and a dangerous place to live in day by day where unevenly balanced GDP indicators as an indicator for growth is being propagated by overlooking the factors re quality of life.

A proposition for media and civil society
It's not that our fragmented civil society and media do not address many aspects of quality of life in various capacities but I argue that to bring a change in the mindset of our politicians, they must be systematic. For example, our media is quite keen on publicising utilitarian approach of economic growth and GDP as an indicator of progress of our country. I mentioned earlier that Sen, who won a Nobel prize for his contributions, is a critic of such an approach. Sen's approach is attracting growing popularity among agencies and governments around the world. Therefore, while keeping this paradigm as a model, I opine that for the greater betterment of our society, our media should revisit their approach before sensitising GDP growth. Similarly, they could consider rethinking what it means if a numeric figure reflects x% of people are elevated beyond poverty line. As a passionate student of politics and government, I suggest our media should bring a human touch to reporting. For example, journalists could investigate further, what it really means for people, if our country's GDP rate increases a bit. Does it really matter for the vast number of the masses? Similarly, they should think to what extent it is a positive news if some people are elevated beyond the poverty line. Are they going to live a decent life or are they going to spend their whole lives struggling to buy essential food, clothing and shelter, and without enjoying a minimum level of social life. What is their point of life then?

Everything is connected to the quality of life, i.e., failure of State agencies in delivering services in a professional manner to citizens, partisan influence on state agencies, corruption, business interest in politics, alarming incidents re civil and political rights, risky highways and waterways, inflation, rising food prices, etc. If our media begins to assert a slogan such as 'politics for quality of life not power' to pressurise our politicians and influence our public discourse, I hope change can happen. In that regard, of course, our civil society members, mostly academics, experts and activists from relevant sectors must influence our politicians through writing, lobbying and changing the mindset of the society. Such intention should derive from the desire to protect human dignity and human respect of fellow citizens because our system and society is connected; it is only a matter of time when everyone, including the elites, will feel the consequences of the deteriorating quality of life if they do not take appropriate measures through effective State policies and management. The debate about ideology could stem after adopting the politics for quality of life.

Mubashar Hasan is a PhD student at the School of Government and International Relations, Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia.


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