Vote or no vote, democracy cannot be taken for granted

Ballot Box
Ballot BoxProthom Alo illustration

Whether people could cast vote en masse, as was the case with the US presidential elections of 2020, or whether they could not exercise their franchise, as the media reports say about recent elections in Bangladesh, one thing has become clear – there is no way we could take democracy for granted. We could not hope that the political system, known to us as Democracy, is a so well-greased machine that it would run forever without any hitch if a country could achieve it once by any means. Just to be clear, not any political system is actually a so well-greased machine. Some of the people act from behind, as is the case with civic bodies, and some vociferously, like the political leaders and activists, to keep the system running, at least, and for its betterment to renew it as ever more inclusive.

But sometimes the opposite also could happen. Space shrinks, rights to expression gets truncated because of someone’s or a group of people’s vested interests. That person or the group erect a demon and present him or them to the people as the sole messiah. Sometimes, he or they bring forth an alternative, presenting that as if an object, rather lucrative and highly aspired.

In the first part of his book on the emergence of middle class in Bengal, Kamruddin Ahmed mentioned an incident: though the Nawab family of Dhaka would lead the Muslims of Dhaka in the British period, they did not take initiative to educate the people then. The reason was known when Abul Hussein published in 1921-22 a letter written by Khawaza Abdul Ghani to his son Khawaza Ahsanullah. Abdul Ghani advised his son to always remember that though the Dhakaites are not their subjects, they must treat them like so, for the sake of establishing the family’s leadership. If the people become educated and come to know the actual situation, the Nawab family would have to give up its dream of leadership.That’s why the father advised his son that he could help people with money every now and then but he must not establish schools to make the progenies of ‘their subjects’ educated. In short, Abdul Ghani advised his son Khawaza Ahsanullah to help people with material amenities but do not do something that would make them ‘equal’.

Schools are being set up, electricity is also being provided but what about this right of the people to choose their representatives? Regression is at work here

The right to vote is not the only thing to ensure democracy but it is an important aspect, even it could be said to be that the first step to democracy. But we’ve got stuck at the first step, now even regressing from that too, as so many media reports say so starkly. Recently, ruling Awami League’s general secretary’s younger brother also acknowledged that the incumbent government could ensure food, i.e., material amenities but not the people’s right to vote.

Schools are being set up, electricity is also being provided but what about this right of the people to choose their representatives? Regression is at work here. It seems the principle of Nawab Abdul Ghani is at work here, just a bit differently.

Still in the case of the US, Trump’s tirade is not the complete picture as several of his cabinet members resigned from the administration. Something like that, even with reticence we could say, is unimaginable in Bangladesh right now. Trump’s health secretary Alex Azar wrote a letter confirming that he would step down calling the Trump-supporters’ violence at Capitol Building “an assault on our democracy and on the tradition of peaceful transition of power.” Would any leader, of any party, in Bangladesh do so? No political leader in the US thinks this reasoning, as did Alex Azar, an assault on their party. Maybe, the leaders in Bangladesh think so and that’s why they talk loudly in favour of retaining the Section 70 of the Constitution. The section says the seat of MP will be vacated if he votes in parliament against the party that gave him nomination in the elections.

What are the MPs in Bangladesh and parliament doing? Are they doing what they could have done to protect the rights to choose people’s representatives, their rights in the broadest possible sense?

Why this diatribe in defence of democracy? Is this the best of the systems? Reductionism of democracy into casting votes only is of course not so. But it would be hard to answer in so simple terms if we consider many other aspects of this political system that,if practiced to its fullest potential, aspires to tap into the potential of every individual, irrespective of gender, class and education, and to ensure rights of people in the widest possible sense.

A British professor once said revolution is not required in the UK as its MPs and parliament try to address all the problems of their citizens. Maybe, he was a bit biased in assessing his country’s democracy, especially because it’s the UK that has exported the idea of modern democracy to the world. But what are the MPs in Bangladesh and parliament doing? Are they doing what they could have done to protect the rights to choose people’s representatives, their rights in the broadest possible sense? Even with reticence, it would be very hard to say that anything like that is happening in Bangladesh.

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