The democratic dream


Category : Nurul Islam Anu

Nurul Islam Anu
Recent events and the endless dialogue these generated have demonstrated the great interest of the nation for the realisation of an institutional democracy. This interest implied that the democratic system will be based on some of the fundamental ingredients that have characterised all successful experiments all over the world. It will reflect the will of the sovereign people expressed in a free exercise of adult franchise free from official intimidation or evil influences of money and brute force. The system is intended to be accountable — accountability ensured by constitutional limitations, accountability within the party framework, abuse and arbitrariness made accountable to the legal process and ultimately to the popular will. It means that the management of the nation’s wealth will be a sacred responsibility of the group of trustees mandated and elected by the people. It also implies that a decent independent judicial system will check abuse of power, be the defender of the right of the common man; it means that an anonymous impartial bureaucracy will serve the Republic and not any political party; where law enforcement agencies will be inspired by the noble goal of protecting the innocent and punishing the delinquent.

The nation expressed deep anguish over the regrettable failure to realise the dream after 35 years of experimentation. Acute distortions which have threatened to derail the dream have been identified and the cry for reform and correction has been universal. An intense sense of restlessness traumatised the nation.

Ironically the democratic traditions and its practices are old and Bangladesh can claim a historic root in the inculcation of democratic values. The Self-Government Act of 1885 was the first recognition by the colonial British Raj of the democratic inspirations of Bengalees. These ensured a decent growth of self-governing institutions and healthy participation in the process that this initiative generated. The growth of union and District Board provided an excellent opportunity for local leadership to participate in this process. Besides participating in development process at the grassroots level, these bodies also performed some elementary law and order functions. District Board road, District Board canal, District Board bridge continued to be common references testifying to the robust role that the local leadership played.

The institution of Dafadars and Choukidars, with the purple shirt and a sizeable belt on their waists, represented a symbolic authority of those self-governing bodies. None of the distortions that corrupt the healthy growth of a democratic dream was so apparent. Union and District Council elections were held free from the influence of the colonial masters; elections to the viceroy legislative councils or provincial assemblies were also free, money was hardly the criterion of candidacy; terror was never an ingredient vitiating the process.

Why did the process of evolution enriched by such tradition degenerated to the present level? It must remain a puzzling question to any student of political science. It calls for an explanation and an analysis.

Bengalee’s experience with Pakistanis’ democratic experiment was hardly productive. The Pakistani experiment fundamentally lacked the desired level of commitment to any democratic values. It was vitiated and haunted by the ghost of discrimination — a conspiratorial minority continuously suffering from their imaginative nightmare of a majority Bengalee rule. Such fear inevitably inspires absence of commitment and initiation of conspiratorial process.

The dynamics of such conspiratorial process inevitably leads to some form of exploitation sustained by a vicious circle of vested interest. The Pakistani experiment was no exception. Pursuit of illegitimate political authority by denying the majority its due share became a relentless exercise — economic exploitation adding an inevitable component. Religion, Islam, was invoked in an attempt to perpetuate the process, and the rest is history. The will of the majority registered a heroic triumph through a bloody war of liberation in 1971.

A new nation was born and realisation of the democratic dream and elimination of economic exploitation became the driving inspiration of the young nation. Seeing the danger of mixing religion with state-craft and the sinister Pakistani experiment still fresh in the memory, the founding fathers wisely opted for a secular democratic setup with overwhelming popular approval. The aspiration of the nation got embodied in the constitution of 1972 and a secular, democratic Bangladesh emerged.

The start, however, got stalled by the controversial political experiment — BAKSAL. Whether the authoritarian character of the experiment was unjustifiably magnified, never stood the test of a serious objective academic analysis and it remains debatable yet. What made the experiment widely unacceptable was the absence of a mandate to undertake it. Then a young democratic experiment received a setback — more significantly a constitutional process got overthrown through violence and political assassination. It introduced usurpation of the sovereign’s authority to effect political change through military adventurism. Such adventurism bears the dangerous potential of degenerating into expedient politics, inspired by an insatiable lust for power. It gets unprincipled and the sovereign’s sacred right of franchise becomes its first victim. The charade of so called referendums conducted under the joint supervision of the instruments of oppression and a tutored bureaucracy are perhaps still fresh in every body’s memory.

To attach a stamp of political legitimacy to the process the rulers inevitably manipulate the political process by introducing a new political party. Set to work against the established political order the new party officials are inspired through an injection of questionable monetary incentives and illegitimate opening of economic opportunity. Through deliberate state patronisation the process leads to birth of economic cronyism and the dangerous game of induced corruption. The ruler, in his relentless desire to perpetuate his political power through manipulation of the ballot, inevitably takes recourse to the introduction of a cadre of armed goons. The established political order reacts to this vicious initiative and conflict starts. It is in the inherent dynamics of such process that the armed goons do not limit their endeavour to the manipulation of the ballot box, but extends to other activities of terror which becomes an enormously remunerative exercise. The cadre conveniently shares it with the political overhead and the law enforcers — both becoming members of a vested interest selfishly committed to sustain the system.

Every successful democracies in the world has been led by people with genuine target for sovereign right to choose. This is an enormously important component of a commitment to democratic values. The slightest lapse from the commitment to serve expedient compulsion inevitably leads to the political establishment succumbing to the temptation of using terror, black money to manipulate electoral process. Additionally the attempt to use the bureaucracy to serve partisan interest results in its politicisation. The law enforcement agencies are used both as instruments of coercion and intimidation of political opponents; the institution of an anonymous impartial bureaucracy gets compromised.

The above was intended to help elicit insight into the process which generated distortions that derailed the nation from its goal. It signified a simple truth — the journey to the fulfilment of a democratic dream cannot be unprincipled or off to expediency. There must be revival of the spirit of commitment to the fundamentals of the democratic values. This is the challenge before the revived consciousness of the nation.

Bangladesh cannot be relegated to a dark corner of history for the lapses committed in patches. Let that be the resolution of the hour.

The author is a columnist and former civil servant

Post a comment