M. Adil Khan
According to the Italian Social Scientist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) changes of regimes and revolutions occur not when rulers are overthrown from below but when one group of elite replaces another. The role of ordinary people in such transformations is not that of initiators or principal actors but followers, sometime blindly, helping one elite group take over the other.
Many dispute this theory but judging the way ordinary people including the so-called civil society has been behaving in Bangladesh in condoning, supporting and electing one predatory government after another in a cyclic order, one is compelled to believe that may indeed be the case. It seems that regardless of how they behave and what they do, most people in Bangladesh stick to their chosen political leaders like a herd of sheep. Late Poet Shamsur Rahman epitomizes this culture of blind loyalty and mindless obeisance aptly in one of his famous poems where he says, “Ye the flock of sheep how unthinking you all are; when they ask you to go to the right you march to the right; and when shoved to the left you move to the left; Oh the mindless, the clueless flock of sheep!”
History records that people of Bangladesh have not only been tolerating and condoning the predatory behaviour of almost all of the governments that they have had they even glossed over or openly cheered some of the gross misconducts of their respective leaders, as legitimate steps. For example, the people of Bangladesh fought and gave their lives for a free and democratic Bangladesh. But when their much cherished idea of democracy was quashed at a very early stage of the country’s independence they either buckled or tolerated or condoned or even eulogised the arrogant and colonizing behaviour of their leader.
In January 1975, supported by a bunch of cowed down sycophants in the Parliament the early political leadership transformed the country from a democratic polity into a one-party system in a span of fifteen minutes, with no debate. This happened at a time when the parliament was neither mandated to nor did its elected representatives contested election on a manifesto of one party rule. After getting elected the ruling party simply took advantage of their massive majority in the parliament and changed the constitution with callous arrogance. People accepted and in some cases even celebrated this tragic changeover with either with vulgar euphoria or pathetic silence.
What followed since – again not without the show of partisan public support- was much worse: murderous regime change and this was followed by brushes with managed multi-party democracy; then another murderous changeover; then a period of dictatorial democracy; and since 1991, a multiparty democratic system that in the face of weak rule of law and suspect civil liberties, a situation of what Farid Zackaria, the international editor of Newsweek would prefer to call, “rotating plundering governments” – all with familiar and enthusiastic support of their respective followers who not only gleefully endorse all acts, good and bad, of their preferred party, they even sanctify them with obscene intellectualism.
There is, however one concern, corruption, that seems to unite the nation! But such concerns seem to work on the theory that every government was bad and is good. The result being that the country has had no government that can claim to be corruption free.
In Bangladesh, there were three governments – that of Shiekh Mujub’s, Ziaur Rahman’s and Ershad’s – that had had very distinct governance styles. Every other government that followed since has been legacies of these three early governments. Now looking at these three governments through the window of corruption one can safely say that Shiekh Mujib tolerated corruption, Ziaur Rahman institutionalized it and Ershad gave it respectability.
The quagmire of corruption that Bangladesh is currently caught in combines these three characteristics – it is tolerated; its institutionalization process has been deepened such that a distinction between legitimate payment and bribe is difficult to make; and indeed, corruption seems to have also become a highly valued and sought after pursuit of life these days. Furthermore, in recent times, corruption seems to have also reached another new height.
If allegations of corruption that have been labeled against the immediate past elected government (the one before the immediate past “Care-Taker” government) have any validity then one has to agree that during that period corruption was carried out with vengeance, with an attitude of entitlement.
Sadly, even though the current government has been elected on the promise of controlling corruption, it has done precious little to diminish it. On the contrary, many fear that things may have gone worse (lately, on allegations of corruption World Bank has cancelled a billion dollar loan to Bangladesh), the only difference, however, is that you see it; you even hear about it but you dare not talk about it and if you do you might end up in a jail or face something so bad that you do not even want to picture it. These days level of intolerance to inquisitiveness into government financial affairs has reached such levels that you choose to go counter current you face “encounter” – a euphemism for extra-judicial killing of adversaries by the law-enforcement agencies.
Furthermore and this is quite worrying – even the judiciary the ultimate custodian of peoples’ rights and dignity has been politicized so much that in the name of curbing what they interpret as undue speculations and public incitements has gone into the act of bringing in rulings that stymie legitimate public debate into public affairs, a normal practice in any free democratic society. In Bangladesh’s political culture “normal” is abnormal and “abnormal” is normal.
So who is to be blamed for this sorry state – the condescending people of Bangladesh that vote these predatory politicians time and again or the self-serving and feuding politicians that have destroyed all aspects of decency and morality of the society?
The sad thing about democracy is that every time you vote a politician wins. Bangladesh’s trysts with its politicians have been anything but happy. Most Bangladeshi politicians especially their leaderships have betrayed their people repeatedly – they have replaced multi-party democracy with one-party dictatorship; indulged in mass killings of suspected opponents/”mutineers” without recourse to fair and open trial; engaged in wanton pillage and plunder of national coffer on a rotational basis; made Luichchami (in the absence of proper English that can adequately express this behavior, this local term that refers to a unique form of human character that mixes pornography and pilfering with lying has been used – sorry!) a state art; although the current ruling political party has taken this to a new height (recent thuggish application of coercive instruments to scuttle legitimate opposition rally), both mainstream political parties have taken turns to apply violence and vindictiveness as tools of opposition management; and oh yes not to forget, humiliate the national asset, one and only Nobel Laureate, someone who has made the nation proud and respectable worldwide, in the most indecent of manners.
It is understood that the absolute minimum requirement for becoming a member of parliament should be a willingness to put the interests of the nation ahead of self. And on that basis, members of most political parties that have been or are gracing those comfortable seats of National Assembly, are anything but examples of selfless crusaders of public welfare. On the contrary, over the years the nexus of extorting political elites that have ruled the country by turn seem to have done one thing quite successfully – they have used their parliamentary privileges to make themselves and their cronies obscenely rich and poor, pitifully poorer.
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So where do all these things lead us to. Is there a way out?
The intention of this article is by no means to portray Bangladesh as a no-hope doomed society. Indeed, the gloomy political scene portrayed above should not deflect us from acknowledging tremendous economic and social progress that Bangladesh has made since. In spite of many challenges Bangladesh has done well to improve food security, reduce poverty, educate and empower women (better than India, for example), improve nutrition, expand manufacturing etc. etc. There no denying the fact that every government has had their two penny in these accomplishments though many argue that these have occurred despite the governments – reportedly, it is the creative and enterprising men and women of business and NGO sectors that have made these happen, largely.
Therefore, economic and social progress notwithstanding, the moot question is what can be done to save the ordinary Bangladeshis from the morass of political abyss that they have been thrown in. What also should be done to bring semblance of decency and decorum in the political culture of the country and most importantly, elect a government that can assure citizens the protection of lives in their “bed rooms”.
In a recent article in BdNews24.com Adnan Morshed, a freelance columnist talks of coming across in his recent trip to Dhaka “a new type of patriotism, if fuzzy, among the urban young generation that takes pride in red and green without any fixed allegiance to a particular party or a figure”. He also senses rise of a slow but steady transition to “post-partisan politics” among some of the politicians who happen to be aligned with one or the other political party but reject bad politics and focus single minded on welfare of ordinary people, sometime in clash with their predatory and non-performing party colleagues. This is encouraging news. But the challenge is how you harness these well-meaning, rightly focused but somewhat scattered and disconnected energies into a formidable collective – to form a so-called “third force” that can take on the existing mafia like political organizations and their deity like political dons?
Perhaps results of several recent local government elections where people basically shied away from known political rogues and instead voted into power honest and committed independent or nominally aligned party candidates into victory are indications that at long last people are showing signs that they are fed up and are ready for change; and that given an opportunity they will prove it. The issue is how you connect the dots and mobilize the so-called third force.
Indeed, this is not going to be easy. There will be challenges; in fact very serious challenges both from within and outside. But a beginning, even if it is modest and no more than a murmur, has to be made and one day, perhaps sooner than later, victory will come and evil will be defeated, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
The writer is a retired senior UN official
Source: Originally published in Holiday, Bangladesh
Republished with illustrations by Bangladesh Chronicle: www.bdchronicle.net