Flawed Politics, Progressive Economics
Hossain Zillur Rahman
Photo: zahedul i khan
Hossain Zillur Rahman, former adviser to the caretaker government, is an eminent economist and political analyst of the country. His indefatigable spirit in advancing research work, an area where Bangladesh substantially lags behind, has opened up newer possibilities for the country's development by shedding light on many yet-to-be-explored areas and by pointing out the true potentials of the country. Deeply engrossed in economics, his area of interest also covers development and good governance. Having finished his honours and masters in Economics from Dhaka University, he joined the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) in 1977 and worked there till 2000. He initiated and led the internationally renowned Analysis of Poverty Trends Project at the Institute and is the author of 'Rethinking Rural Poverty'. In 1996 he founded the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC). Here he initiated major new research programmes on governance and education. For his contribution to research and policymaking, the Institute for Global Leadership, Tufts University, conferred the Dr Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award on him. At present, he is working as the executive chairman of PPRC. He is also a leading consultant to many national and international organisations. Dr Rahman tells RIFAT MUNIM about the prevalent trends in the political culture, the present law and order situation and where our country is heading in terms of development.
As we stepped into a new year with much enthusiasm about positive changes in many sectors, news of murders in the city has been rife in media indicating a downslide in the present law and order situation. Do you think that the beginning of the new year is showing a downward trend in law and order?
Law and order situation involves various acts of crime. In one of our ongoing researches, we are finding that not all types of crime are recorded, and even fewer are reported. For example, murder is a crime which has to be recorded, and documents of which are at least retrievable from the concerned police station. But then there are a variety of other crimes recording of which are very poor, reporting of which even poorer.
So there are statistics, of crime based on the recorded documents that at best, gives you a list of capital offences, the impact of which, if brought properly under the legal framework, is confined to the victims and perpetrators. Apart from this, there are a host of other small crimes including mugging, intimidation, politically motivated threats, and illegal grabbing of land and other possessions. What is interesting about these smaller crimes is that they are never included in the statistics of crimes since they are neither recorded nor reported. So these two--capital crime and other smaller crimes-- need to be distinguished. The impact of the latter is as important as the former since it forms people's perceptions about law and order, especially about how secure or insecure they feel. Think of Myanmar where the crime statistics does not seem to be intimidating at all, but where a sense of insecurity is all-pervasive because of political dictatorship.
Seen from this perspective, I would certainly say that law and order situation has certainly deteriorated both in terms of crime statistics and people's sense of security. The atmosphere of insecurity aggravates when people think that there is no redress; people make complaints, but they find that things are not put right by the concerned executive or judiciary bodies. So considering all these I think that the law and order situation has now become a big concern for the middle class, especially for the lower-middle class in urban areas where you have but a few acquaintances. We have often found that the sense of insecurity is higher among the lower middle class who for their poor social networking and social as well as economic status do not seek redress from the government. In the rural areas there is also a sense of insecurity but strong familial and social networking makes villagers organise themselves in vigilante groups when they think they cannot rely on the formal structure of redress. But in urban areas you cannot expect that.
In line with what you said, a recent TIB survey says that the judiciary is the most corrupt service sector in the country. Judges and lawyers of the apex court have rejected the survey and termed it 'naked interference'. What is your take on this?
Those who are criticising the TIB survey are looking for statistics. They are also saying that the statistics the report is based on is not correct. But I would say that this type of survey involves people's perceptions which tell you about their sense of redress or insecurity, which cannot be inferred from statistics. The sense of insecurity about the judiciary does not only emerge from an actual incident of bribe, but also from the knowledge that things are not done in the right way. In sociology it is called 'implicit knowledge', which can never be inferred from statistics yet which has a social reality to comprehend which, one needs a systematic attention to the whole system. When you are told that your case will not be dealt with properly in a court of law if you do not bribe, do you think that this act of corruption will be documented? But the knowledge that you cannot do without bribe will be shared and thus will become a social reality.
With regard to corruption in the judiciary and the law enforcing agencies, I would also like to say that actual bribe is just a tip of the iceberg. But there are also other types of experiences which people consider as corruption. May be one of your cases will unduly be deferred for weeks; may be police will show reluctance to take one of your cases or may be they will behave badly with you assaulting your dignity. These may not require any extra money, but these are undoubtedly acts of harassment. In another research on various irregularities of the judiciary, we found that harassment is also felt by people as corruption, and it creates a sense of helplessness among them. In some cases, even when a corrupt official is caught red-handed, s/he does not face the music.
Another salient feature of harassment is unreasonable cost, caused mostly by the lawyers so that they can charge more money from the plaintiffs or defendants. And you will be surprised to know that in the entire judicial process unreasonable cost is the biggest burden, even more than bribery. All these contribute to heightening the sense of insecurity among common people.
Even though the rampant acts of extra-judicial killings are well documented in many government and non-government organisations, do you think that it has something to do with heightening the sense of insecurity?
Firstly, I would see it as an assault on human rights. Extra-judicial killing does not necessarily expand 'implicit knowledge' in the way smaller crimes or corruption does, although it certainly promotes a sense of helplessness among the victims. But then it injects a strong sense of impunity into the law enforcing agencies, which I think is dangerous enough to heighten a sense of insecurity amongst the masses.
Allegation of violence and vote rigging by the ruling party men in several municipalities in Chittagong and Sylhet marred the four-day municipality election from being a peaceful poll. It also showed that politics plays an active role in deteriorating law and order situation. What do you think about this?
Well, while I agree that politics, and law and order situation are interlinked, I don't think that violence and vote rigging in the municipality election are related with law and order issues. Rather it is related with the credibility of the electoral process. If the election was not staggered, perhaps it would not have happened. When the result of the first two or three days had showed that the ruling party men were losing more, their political aspiration turned into desperation. May be that's why they decided to take things into their own hands.
I think a strong election commission can ensure accountability of a poll. A strong election commission does not necessarily mean enactment as well as enforcement of more laws; it rather means committed officials who are assertive on whatever laws or rights they have. So there is no way of hiding behind excuses by saying that fairness depends on the presiding officer, not on the election commissioner.
When the first two days' results were coming in and a trend as to which party took the lead emerged, a desperation set in. Then the election commission should have asserted its right in a much stronger and clearer fashion.
So much for local government. National politics, which shows many points of similarity with local politics, seems to be marked by violence, favouritism, reluctance to national development and an apparently never-ending antagonism between the two main political parties. Meanwhile, the main opposition has vowed not to come to the parliament. How far do you think such a political culture can lead us to?
It's now about two decades of parliamentary democracy since 1991. Over this time Bangladesh has assumed a model essentially marked by 'flawed politics, progressive economy.' Even though politics was always overburdened with corruption and antagonism, it somehow allowed some space for economic progress. Despite all odds, there has been some sort of progress in economic growth. But ever since the beginning of the democratic system, it has been underpinned by a two-party system wherein the nature of the competition is zero-sum, that is, a situation in which a gain is offset by an equal loss: if one wins, the other has to lose meaning that the losing party has to go to the jail or go through many forms of intimidation and torture. So it is not a positive sum favouring progress.
So since its beginning, there has not been much of a change, rather the spirit of partisanship and other unhealthy practices have progressively expanded putting the existing 'flawed politics, progressive economy' model under serious threat. There is an investment crisis; severe power crisis, and our remittance is declining. But our commitment as well as capacity of managing these issues has exacerbated.
In this regard, I would also say that the non-political forces are also partly to blame here because no corrective initiative whatsoever has come from them; rather the partisan spirit has seeped into them. Look at all the professionals working in different sectors. Why, let's talk about the highest educational institution, Dhaka University. Instead of building the Oxford of East, the teachers of DU are far more concerned with partisanship. It's like all these non-political forces are creating new support bases for the zero-sum competition. So we are now in an uneasy stalemate.
Besides, most of the current drivers of national politics come from the richest upper classes who are the beneficiary of this system, having almost nothing to do with farmers, workers, and the middle classes.
Given such a flawed, political background, where do you think our politics should be directed to ensure progress and development?
At present, what we are faced with is called 'miss the bus syndrome'. We have overcome the natural and man-made calamities like cyclone and famine. As we have overcome those, our aspiration has gone up. Added to this are our natural and human resources which can truly transform Bangladesh into a middle income country. Now our challenge is not a steady growth, but an accelerated growth. But for that to happen, private entrepreneurships have to be coordinated with the strong government initiatives.
By miss the bus I mean the accelerated bus is waving its hand towards us, if we fail to grab the opportunity, the bus will leave us behind, pushing us further back to the zero-sum political reality.
Do you think that rise of an alternative political party is necessary to alter the zero-sum practice?
I wouldn't put it that way. I would rather say that we need a renewal of the political culture. It can be done through the major parties; it can be through other forces. It is up to the society to adjust its own way of renewal. But whatever the way is, we have to ensure adherence to norms and professionalism. So the political parties have to realise that without such a renewal we will have to miss the bus, pushing the country onto the edge of unredeemable fall.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010