Dialogue on 10 years of democracy: Lessons and way ahead
Why the dialogue

DEMOCRACY was reborn in Bangladesh with the fall of Gen. Ershad's autocratic rule in December, 1990. From 1991 to 2001 we have had ten years of uninterrupted democracy. During this time we held three free and fair elections and saw the peaceful change of power from BNP to AL and again to BNP. The most regrettable aspect of our democracy has been the virtual non-functioning of the parliament. Both the AL and the BNP boycotted it while being in the opposition and preferred the streets to the floor of the parliament to settle national issues.

Hartal continued to plague our democracy and confrontation between our two major parties remained the order of the day. Because of constant rivalry and lack of minimum co-operation between mainstream political parties none of our priority social and economic issues ever got discussed in any serious manner. What we saw in terms of dialogue between the AL and BNP was mutual accusations and name calling with neither party willing or able to engage themselves in any substantive talks on any national or international issue.


Another sad experience of our decade of democracy was that both our major parties promised one thing while in the opposition but did the exact opposite while in power. Both parties promised big role for the opposition while out of power but reneged on it after winning the elections.

Criminalisation of politics remained the saddest chapter in the history of our nascent democracy. In a mindless struggle for power both sides patronised criminal elements that, in time, rose to become important members of the high command. As time passed the ordinary citizens got more and more disillusioned with the political parties

However, we will have to hold on to democracy because that's what is best for the country. We have to take all sorts of initiative to bring up before the public how democracy is our only way to move forward regardless of challenges. It is with such a purpose in mind that we in The Daily Star decided to organise this dialogue. We are confident that with your thoughtful and thought provoking deliberations we are likely to find ways to further strengthen democracy.

Mahfuz Anam: Thank you all for responding to our invitation to attend this important roundtable. We have decided to take a look back over the last ten years of our democracy and see what lessons we can learn from it. During this period we have been able to hold three elections, see the peaceful transfer of power, and the formation of three new elected governments. However serious questions remain in the public mind as to how effectively our democracy was able to address the fundamental issues that confront our people. What we have seen is mere changing of power from BNP to AL and then again to BNP, but did we see any change in the lot of our people? This is what we want to assess today. We hope that through your discussion we will be able to get a clear picture on the health of our democracy and how we can forge forward to make it more meaningful for our people at large.

Hafiz Siddiqui: Mere holding of free and fair elections is not sufficient for adherence to democracy. The political parties should change the 'if I win, the polls were fair but if I lose, the polls were rigged' attitude. And once elected, a government should be allowed to run its full term.

Political parties must learn to respect each other's views and develop the culture of tolerance in relation to each other. We talk about participatory democracy but it has to be effectively so. Only the opportunity to vote does not guarantee the opportunity to participate in the socio-economic decision-making process.

Monowarul Islam: Any citizen who dares to go against the policy of the state may find himself ensnared in many bureaucratic controls. What does this mean for the future if our lofty social ideals of the fifties or sixties cannot be achieved within the current state machinery? Particularly in the area of services, the private sector has been given prominence. I am aware of the role of the private sector and that the government cannot take it all on. But there has been a solution in development countries in the form of regulatory commissions.

I believe that, in the area of democracy and politics, the short-term problems are well known. But we should think of some long-term options. I mean, perhaps, the study of democracy, democratic principles, democratic values should be introduced in our schools, colleges and universities. Our educational institutions should start practicing democracy. The institutions should be freed from political activism. Then we can build up generations who at least would be aware of policies and practices so that democratic spirit can grow.

Shamsul Bari: Democracy is a constantly evolving system: It is not static. There is not just one standard of democracy. While there are universal principles of democratic systems, their manifestations can be varied.

Since democracy is evolving, it is important to see its changes. The first transformation took place when we moved from rule of king to rule of man. Previously there was oligarchy, tyranny, etc. then with the Greeks and then the Romans, it moved to the city-state type of democracy where many could participate. This rule of many then transformed and this is what I call the second transformation. City-state changed to the nation state. The structures changed. I mention this because it may be important for us to see whether or not we have come to a time when perhaps we are on the threshold of a third transformation. That is important to remember. If we are on the threshold of a third transformation which is from the nation state to the supra nation forces, players and politics and it is happening.

I would like to look at some indicators of a democratic system. If we look at the conditionalities and then look at Bangladesh and see if the conditionalities exist, that may be a good starting point for discussion. One of the first indicators to see whether democracy has been in place is whether control of government decision about policy is constitutionally vested. In Bangladesh it is constitutionally vested, but the test will be whether it is really an effective system. Yes, it is vested, but is it being practiced?

The second indicator would be, elected officials are chosen and peacefully removed in fair elections. We have this in Bangladesh, but can discuss how free and fair these are. Practically all adults have the right to vote in the election. I am saying practically all adults, because in some countries, not all adults have the right. In Bangladesh there is the right.

Citizens have freedom of expression, including criticism of officials, the conduct of the government, the prevailing social and economic system, the dominant theology. Most of these are in place, but I question whether the dominant theology aspect enjoys the kind of freedom that one would expect in a good, well-working democracy. We need to see whether that indicator is present in Bangladesh in order to decide the level of democracy in Bangladesh.

The next indicator is that they have access to alternative sources of information that does not monopolise. I think here Bangladesh has made good progress. We do have alternative sources of information. It's not controlled as it used to be in the past. The media is not controlled as it used to be in the past.

And finally, most importantly, the people have the right to form and join associations including political associations such as political parties, etc. Here also, I think we can say Bangladesh has made good progress in the last 10 years. So if you look at democracy in this perspective and you look at Bangladesh, you will see many of the systems are in place, excepting some key aspects where we pay attention. This is particularly governmental control over decision making about policy. That is an aspect that needs attention. And freedom to discuss, criticise dominant theology and there I think if we are talking about democracy being the rule of the people, then how free are some of our people to criticise this dominant theology which is becoming more and more predominant.

Let's come to favourable conditions that must exist for a good working democracy. One is that leaders do not employ instruments for violent activities, the police, etc. We have to see whether this exists in Bangladesh. A modern dynamic pluralistic society. This I emphasise for the success of democracy. If we look at the working democracies in the world where it has worked well, we will find this. More important than this is if it is a pluralistic society then the conflicting sub-cultural aspects of pluralism are maintained at tolerable levels. In Bangladesh we have many sub-cultures. It is not only ethnic, religious sub-cultures, but is becoming more and more political. Is there any effective way of dealing with these sub-cultures? This can be a good message for discussion. Another condition is among the people of the country, particularly the politically active strata, the political culture in a system that is favourable to the idea of democracy and the institution of democracy. Do we have that culture? If not what is the role for anyone in the country to play? The fifth conditionality is influence of foreign countries, negatively or positively. I would think from my experience in Bangladesh over the last 10 years, this is an area where I believe we have been able to move away from influence. The conditionalities that make a viable democracy is for us to see. It is important that we recognise the third transformation that we were talking about. What are the conditions that are required?

Ibrahim Khaled: Let me argue that elections and democracy are closely related, but these are quite different issues. Election is a process of coming to parliament. Democracy, on the other hand, is a culture. So unless you have a culture of democracy, elections will not help. It really did not help here. I am really investigating this issue of the culture of democracy. We have not arrived there. Of course we are a new state. But we are a nation. Whether a Bangladeshi or Bengali nation, we are a nation. It appears to me that we are still striving with two strong tribes -- an Awami tribe and an anti-Awami tribe. So from tribehood we have to transcend to nationhood. We are in the process. That is the positive side. But it is also a fact that we have not achieved democracy. We achieved freedom, but the political freedom of the state did not provide freedom to the citizens.

We have three parties over the recent past. One party got two chances and one party got one during this period. No party could repeat its coming back to power in the next election. This is a good sign, changing after a term. But if we go a little deep into it, I find that the first three years of the governments, there was more tolerance, even towards the opposition. But the last two years of both the governments were not as tolerant as the first three years. I had thought that this time the third year period would be extended to four years at least. But from the first day it has not been so. That is why I say Bangladesh is not progressing well.

Friends of the government party say that we'll do these unpleasant things in the first two years, then we will be good. But they will forget. Why are these things happening? There are two reasons: One, for a parliamentary democracy there are three organs. Administration, judiciary and the legislature. All three should be equally strong, robust. Legislature, they do make laws, but they are not quite apparent. The judiciary we do not believe it is as strong as it should be. So unless we make these two organs robust and healthy, the administration will overpower them, which is happening here. That is why democracy weakens. This is the framework side.

About the cultural side, people are not conscious, at least reasonably they are not conscious, they don't resist. They do at times. But if the country belongs to the people and there is something wrong, then the people should really resist hard as we did in 1971. But now each time a government comes to power, there is so much of a tribal attitude. Those in favour of the government will never resist. They are never going to say, this is wrong.

So there are two aspects. One is the framework and the other is changing the culture, transcending to nationhood. On the framework side, we must see the priority. Initially we will not be successful in strengthening the legislature because of the inherent effect of lack of education and other things. The quality of people elected to parliament at this point is not quite good enough to strengthen the legislative.

Initially, though, we will be able to reform the judiciary to make it more vibrant, make it more active, make it more acceptable. That will make it easier in changing the framework. All the political parties agree, announce, that they will provide judicial freedom. When they come to power, they just leave it like that. It doesn't happen, because they don't believe it. They say it just to satisfy the voters. They don't really believe it. So I want to suggest a few steps. If it happens, we can create an opinion, force the political parties to work for it.

The judiciary will be free only if the judiciary is administered by the judiciary. Appointment of judges is very important. Now this is done by the Prime Minister who is the executive head. I want to take the Prime Minister or any other Minister away from the process. Let there be such a national, supreme searching council, or search council, of the judiciary for appointments. It should be constituted with the Chairmanship of the Chief Justice with two more members, I mean senior-most members from the Supreme Court. These three will form the Supreme Search Committee for appointment of judges. They will search out the right kind of people from the Bar as well as from the judicial services. This might eliminate, or at least reduce the possibility of, political involvement, political appointments within the judiciary.

Then there is the cultural side. The nominative side can be changed through the law, but the culture cannot be developed through law.

Mahfuz Anam: What I don't understand is saying one thing and doing the exact opposite. For example, the statements made by Khaleda Zia while in opposition. Or the statements made by Hasina while in opposition. The moment they go to power, they do exactly the opposite. How do you handle that? If today Khaleda Zia does what she asked of the Awami League government when she was in the opposition, that the government must do a, b, c, d, if she does that now, I think half of her problems are solved. Why does this happen? I understand that people say hartal is bad when they are in power. When they go to opposition, they call hartal. They say parliament boycott is bad when they are in power. But they walk out when out of power. Hasina use to say that the parliament is the heart of all activities. Now she is boycotting parliament. How do you handle this?

Dilara Chowdhury: This is a hard question you have raised. This is a culture of lies.

We have allegations against the army for certain behaviour, but I would put the blame on civil leadership. They are happy where they are until their very existence is threatened.

Actually there is a struggle between two sets which a previous speaker called 'tribes'. Money plays a role. Awami League didn't lose its electorate. It won 40 per cent or so. BNP won because of the alliance. Money plays a role in nomination. Look at the representatives in our parliament.

In Bangladesh the struggle of democracy has been between the government class and the subordinate class. But the subordinate class did not get the power or the privilege. That has not happened in Bangladesh. Our representatives in parliament, look at their socio-economic background. They represent the interest of the business class, the bureaucracy. The peasants, the women, the downtrodden are not represented. Until and unless that happens, it is just a scramble to get power.

Mohd. Farashuddin: I would start by saying that one decade for a democracy is too little a time. It needs decades, if not centuries. Having said that, I must say that in one decade, some of the elements of democracy had been demonstrated in Bangladesh.

The sense of democracy at this stage in Bangladesh is in the attitude. Democracy does give freedom, but is freedom a licence? Doesn't freedom also give a lot of responsibility? Have all the segments, including ourselves, demonstrated responsible behaviour as warranted by democracy? I think one of the failures in our mental framework, mindset, is that democracy requires tolerance, ability to listen and a mental makeup to respect others' views. These are some of the things almost totally absent in our democratic disposition so far. The other thing that bothers me is the 'I' factor. I think it is in the Bengali psyche that what 'I' think is the best. Others are ignorant or they just don't say the right thing. So this is the acknowledgement of the others' abilities and contributions.

I must say that the economic growth of Bangladesh in the nineties has been much more significant, not enough, but much more significant than the political one. But the economic growth did not turn into the social development we expected. I did not say socio-economic development, I just said economic growth.

One of the pitfalls of democracy in this country has been indebtedness, too much eagerness to retain the debt. I will give you a very concrete example. In the last election the central bank identified 118 defaulters. Some of them were big fish, very big fish. And by the time the election came, between the returning officer, the Election Commission and, I don't know whether I should say this, the judiciary, almost all of them got away. I think it was 25 or 26 people who have been made the victims. All the others got away. I personally spoke to some returning officers, certainly the Election Commission, and I spoke to a high judiciary official. The people who run the institution, don't they have a social responsibility? Should they look at the loopholes of the law and let loose these thugs who were patronized by the political parties of all dispensations?

I said economic growth has been fast. Press freedom. That has not been controlled by the government. It has been controlled by the owners. I think the press has been fairly free. I would say that press from all segments have played a significant role in awakening the conscience of the society. I think it is the social movement, it is the social awareness, it is the moulding of the public opinion which would, if strong enough, force the leaders to behave. They would practice what they preach while in opposition. I think it is the force of public opinion that has been very strong, as it had been in the nineties. I speak of the press, but I am not so hopeful about the civil society as it is today. There is a certain amount of opportunism there. It is the press which has awakened the conscience of the society.

Judiciary has been spoken about. How many times did the Supreme Judicial Council sit in the decade of the nineties? It is a very powerful body. It can really put a notice on the rulers of any party, but it doesn't sit. There is no political will. There is no national will to have the judiciary functioning.

Now looking ahead, I think the conscious section of the society should be enthused by the opinion-makers. It is a pressure on the politicians to behave as they should.

We have done excellent in agriculture because that is in our culture. We understand agriculture much better. We should go to a totally agro-based growth process. The technology is simple. It is participatory and generates income. It is the best way to alleviate poverty and to ensure social justice. And it has tremendous market at home and abroad. I would say that in the democratic process in future we must convince the politicians that politics and economics cannot be separated. Politicians should understand this.

Atiur Rahman: The last speaker elaborated on the economic aspects of democracy. Indeed we did much better during the democratic phase. All kinds of economic parameters are better in the democratic phase. But the problem is, we are democratic by processes. But are we democratic by conscience? Do we go by the norms of the civil rights or by the liberalism embedded in democracy? Some people say we are in liberal democracy by default. The economic pressure is such that the ruling class, even if they like, they cannot afford democracy. I believe many are illiberal. Just to hang onto power could be one dimension.

It is hard to see the rightness or wrongness in this regard. The credibility of the system has been questioned. The referee has been questioned. There have been questions whether we will have a referee in the next round. This is a short-term problem. In the long-term Bangladesh's democracy is such, that we are questioning history. A fortunate country has a history that introduces the identity of the country. It does not allow the nation to be divided. But in our country, the opposite has happened. Our history is our biggest enemy. We went to war in 1971. To whose call were we responding? We all know. But today history is being distorted.

Mahfuz Anam: All sides are distorting history. Why?

Atiur Rahman: This is increasing the division. If both Zia's and Bangabandhu's role was acknowledged, then these questions wouldn't arise. I am not blaming any one particular party. But history is being taken to such a length of distortion that there had been no non-cooperation movement in history. Nothing happened in our country, it seems, before 25th March. Let us put history in the right perspective. Even if it goes against me, let's put it correct. We must know the truths of history or the nation will remain tribal, not a nation.

One option is to go back to the 1972 Constitution as it was, where human rights was clearly mentioned. Let us go into the spirit of the 1972 Constitution. That could be one way out. That is something we should do.

Secondly, when we come to power, that is when democracy gets into a problem. Before coming to power, everyone is for democracy. But once coming to power, we can't remain democratic. That is one problem. We can't use our power lawfully. We just want to take everything. I am not talking about any particular regime. I am talking about all regimes. We just want to take everything and that is where our democracy faces its largest problem.

The fact that we can't behave lawfully is proven. Can Ekushey Television play the role that it had played during the rule of the caretaker government? Don't you feel that they feel threatened? Why do they feel threatened? Why can't they play their role normally? I think this too is a problem of democracy. Authority is not being used properly, lawfully.

If the Supreme Court says that Shahariar Kabir's arrest was illegal, is the three months of suffering he faced lawful? Was this a lawful implementation of authority? Who will ask this question? Will anyone answer? Will anyone apologise to the nation? I don't think so.

I think the biggest aspect of democracy is not to use the huge amount of power I have whenever I want against the opposition. We lack this. A man may be lying helpless in front of me, I won't beat him up. That day Motia Chowdhury was helpless, but she was beaten up.

Mahfuz Anam: Similarly Khoka's head was hit ...

Atiur Rahman: Yes, that too. That too was unlawful. I just gave one example. This is the crisis of democracy.

Then there is the issue of hartal. I think that the question raised by Deputy Leader of Parliament Mr. Hamid day before yesterday demands an answer. He said, fine, you all are condemning hartal. But when BNP was in opposition for the last five years, they carried out so many hartals in so many ways. But when the election came around, it looked like the people rewarded them for doing the hartal. So, he questioned, if the people are right, was the election wrong? You may say that the people did not like hartal. Then, he asked, was the election not credible? Are we correct? We have to find out the answer for that question. How to make a credible election? I don't know if there will be a caretaker government in future or not, we must prepare from now. There can be electronic voting and other innovations. Can't we use these to increase the quality of the elections? Can't we make this more acceptable? In 1991 and 1996 we had elections, but not like this. Such questions did not arise. How to bring in more transparency in public life? The opposition is not going to parliament. It didn't go during the previous government either.

Mahfuz Anam: Is this election really being questioned? Or is the defeated party only questioning it? Or is this a question in your mind?

Atiur Rahman: The question is very much in my mind. If the Election Commission gave me a credible answer, if it posted centre-by-centre results, if I could see the results of each centre, if they could say they followed every stage, the results were sent in time, the results were countersigned, then I wouldn't have questioned them. That credibility has not been established.

Hossain Zillur Rahman: Tribal orientation in politics is a big problem. One problem I see for democratic transition, the discourse that we run, should it reflect on that? Does it further fuel the tribal orientation or does it create rational spaces. I am afraid that the way arguments were issued, this is part of the problem perhaps, that with merit to the specific points that he has made, the method of discourse had become itself very important. If tribal orientation becomes a factor willingly, then the purpose is defeated. Let's take the example of Shahariar Kabir's issue. I would be aghast at the idea of individual rights being trampled and all, but the way politics draws lessons from this is to be seen.

Everyday rights are not guaranteed. The poor villager, he may for some reason get involved in a police case. His whole family goes down the poverty straits. He has loss of income, loss of earning, of power. He uses all he has to deal with the courts, etc. So that is a vital point. Can we develop more spaces for discussion from which we can seek rational answers, not fuel this strife? The elite domination of the discourse is a problem, this tribal orientation.

Let's take a record of the achievements. I think there are three major ones if we look at the nineties. One is regular elections, ideal or flawed, whatever it is. The withdrawal of military from politics. Compared to third world countries, this is a major achievement. Third is the economic achievement. Famine has become a distant reality in Bangladesh. It will not happen very easily. Then there is the achievement of democracy.

Mr. Farashuddin was saying that economic growth may be more prominent than political growth in Bangladesh. The lesson I have learnt there is that we are reading the records only through the lenses of the elite. I agree with that, but there are other lessons to learn. For example, an important achievement of democracy is that throughout the three decades of nationhood, local government elections has never faltered. There has not been a single case where the schedule of local government elections have been forfeited. A quiet nurturing of democracy has been going on even though at the macro level it was all blood and gore. These things aren't caught in the radar of the elite. It is not important enough. The discourse has also tended to ignore this.

When we talk of democracy and freedom, interesting levels of freedom have come which are not recorded. We can look at the economics of it. Monopolistic tendencies in the market as such have tended to recede. Look at the rice market. One of the reasons why famines would occur in the past is that Badamtali would control the market. If Badamtali faltered there would be famine. Now a young trader in Chittagong can link up with Dinajpur directly. Markets have become much more decentralized. We have not recorded those features. We don't tend to take them on board as important evidence of the way society is progressing.

About hartal, yes, it is true. BNP did lots of hartals. They won. Awami League is doing it now. They may win. What is the message there? Does it mean that people condone hartal? They don't. I think that there is a two-step message here. At one level people are trying to impress upon the full range of political parties, please get away from this, from this instrument. Even if Awami League wants to do a hartal now, they have to go through a lot of motions of explaining to people, why it is necessary. You can't do it so easily as before, as if it is your God-given right. At the same time, hartal is not the only instrument by which people are assessing political records. In that sense, this winner takes all philosophy is also changing. I see an interesting transition in Bangladesh with its British colonial history. In Britain bureaucracy is a permanent feature of democracy. It is much more independent, away from the party system. We have that tradition. But in this one decade of democracy, I feel we have moved somewhat to the American system. This is more like a system where, if I win, I have the right to appoint. In America this is not a problem because America is a functioning democracy. Even here in terms of drawing appropriate political lessons, the move towards this system is, I feel, more like a political transition. The important point is to find this transition in notions of standards and merits. Because in USA also you have this system, but there are processes through which we go. This system is unlikely to be reversed easily. We need to bring in notions of standards. I think this is the other issue. When we discuss freedom, the notion of standards is a vital issue. In media, for example, press freedom is a vital issue. But as for standards, journalistic standards, these must be there.

In general, standards as particular aspect, as a particular quality, that needs to be seen as the core of the whole democratic system. There has to be check and balance. We have seen terrible examples where the inclusion of the elected personality has produced negative results. I would even question the idea of how the judiciary is to be. The idea is of check and balance. We inculcate a sense of the autocrat in this elected personality. The idea of check and balance is vital, a key feature.

Salehuddin Ahmed: I have learnt a lot from the last election. I visited the grassroots people. I sometimes feel these grassroots people are way ahead than the leaders. I may be wrong, but that is the feeling I get. The people speak, perhaps not of democracy, but of their problems and of the solutions. If everyone would listen carefully and take steps accordingly, then democracy would be there. There is a great gap between the elite and the people. When the people of the slum talk, they are talking from the experience of their lives, from reality. They are identifying their problems. They are also giving solutions. As you said, there is a lack of listening culture.

Sometimes it is frustrating as to whether the problems will ever be solved. If we study the composition of the parliament, you will see that most of these people have been the same people for years. They have changed parties, changed allegiance, so what kind of balance can you expect?

The problem lies in the fact that the next generation that will take over is also not being prepared. Or they are being wrongly prepared. We are all making an effort. When I visit the children's schools, the non-formal education schools, the values we are trying to create there, you see a girl of 10 to 15 years of age seeing eye to eye with us. It is a change of culture. This is a departure. This makes us have hope. Then we see frustration too on the other side, among the young who are resorting to hooliganism.

I believe that the majority of people in this country are very intelligent, very democratic and they want to do something good for the country. There is a big gap between the people who are running the country and the people at the grassroots. I sometimes feel that if we bifurcated the budget, then we could see what is actually happening to the poor people who make up 60 to 70 per cent of the population.

Mahfuz Anam: We need decentralization.

Salehuddin Ahmed: If we see the women we work with, they are so dynamic. The grassroots persons are so dynamic. It is amazing to see the way they manage their resources. Fifty per cent of the people are women. The men dominate over them and this must be changed.

I am very optimistic about this country because I feel a lot of things are happening at a grassroots level. When we go to the village, we speak face to face with the men and women. But when the policy makers go to the village, they are shielded.

Mahfuz Anam: Let us look at the immediate problems. Look at the political parties. Bangladesh is the only country in the world where the political parties do not have registration. Anyone can form a political party. Just issue a press statement, you don't need anything else. Where do these parties get money from, where do they spend the money? I have no scope to know. So you have non-legal entities having huge amount of resources. We are spending crores of taka on them, making all sorts of laws and having elections for them. We are like taking them and placing them on a pile of treasure, that too in a democratic way. Why don't we citizens decide to demand more transparency from the political parties? I want to know the number of your members. I want to know the source of your funds. The Election Commission wanted the registration of political parties, but everyone refused. They will refuse. BNP will refuse. Awami League will refuse. That is their freedom. They will never accept legislation for registration. But we have to come forward with this demand.

Can we define at least five or six issues which we can demand from the political parties?

Atiur Rahman: Let The Daily Star play a role by regularly publishing in your papers what the parties said in the past and what they are saying now. It should be issue-based. Just publish this regularly and I think that will create some awareness.

Monowarul Islam: Unfortunately I think that there is only one factor guiding democracy in this country. That factor is the ability to abuse and misuse power. The political parties are taking money from business people. They say unless you give the money, we will do this or that. This is not on the basis of culture. It is on the basis of economic interests. That is why they are investing so much money. They are expecting a return. There is no transparency or accountability. Let the function of the government be confined to policy making and facilitating. You will see that 80 per cent of them haven't come to serve the nation, but to make money.

Mahfuz Anam: It is very frustrating. We had an election, a new government came to power. But what we have been seeing over the past two months is frustrating. Where will I go with my dreams?

Imtiyaz Ahmed: At a universal level, there is a tendency of democracy being very militant. This is very structural. The structure that we have is near to neo-fascism. I am making a very intellectual use of the word fascism, not taking a distorted view.

The leaders take decisions in all the political parties. There are one or two political parties which are an exception, but even in left political parties, the leader takes the decisions. The second thing which we are not taking very seriously is the mastaan. Then the third thing is the street. The people think if we go to the streets, not the parliament, the media will cover it and people will see and it will have some reflection of what they are saying. The last one is government-centered. Once you are in government, you do things. Abroad, certain politicians not in the government play a role. They go and teach in universities, etc. In Bangladesh we don't have that. Enlightened politicians are not invited to the universities to teach. So what they do is they continue doing politics so that they can again capture the government. So that is the factual problems.

If you look at the bureaucracy, you will see that at one time the retirement of a bureaucrat was a very sad thing. When my father retired, it was not very glorious. Now retirement is lucrative. You retire a year early, have an NGO and so on. So the bureaucracy is no longer threatened by this concept of retirement. But what of politicians? They don't have that. They continue for 30 years, 40 years. You can't say that if Sheikh Hasina retires today she is going to get a fascinating job with a six-digit salary. It's not there.

Tasnim Siddiqui: I will start with a story. I was doing some work with Shakti Foundation at the time. One of the women was involved in lipstick making at a factory there. At that time hartal was going on. The woman made a statement, a rather profound statement. She pointed out that we got nothing from the state water, sanitation, nothing. But we are making our lives viable and we are very much in the spirit of doing things, changing things. We are making that possible through our own efforts. The only thing we ask from the state is law and order so that I can move, so that my movement is not restricted anyhow. And that is my notion about democracy. I want to see democracy. I don't want anything from the state. I want to do my job. I just want the state to be in their policy making role, in the law and order situation so that I can do my job and enjoy freedom of expression, freedom of speech, social and political rights, everything I feel gradually will be in its own place.

Then I have another story about a woman migrant worker who was actually working in the Middle East. She couldn't go to the Middle East legally. So she was an illegal, undocumented female worker because of state policy of not allowing women to migrate for a job, independently, without her man. Her statement was, I don't care about the state. What I care about is that I see opportunities there and I will go there and I have that sort of empowerment maybe through NGOs, maybe through violence, whatever. I have realised my place in the world and I will go wherever I want to. I don't like the state to restrict my movement to those countries and you people who come up to us and talk about research and other things, portray a completely different story to the state when you say that these women are being raped in Middle Eastern countries and that they are trafficked and everything -- so try to stop them from going. So her version was, would you stop me from being raped by being in Bangladesh? You don't care that much. You stop me from being rich. We want to be rich. So from these two persons, which is very much my opinion too, I don't want much from the state. Democracy is enough.

We were talking about proportionate representation, definition of democracy, winner takes all. All these things are debated into western democratic models as well. We think about British democracy. What we are following today is very much debated by professors, about how this winner takes all policy is gradually taking over. Democracy has to go into proportionate representation-oriented democracy to make it more democratic. But where we are, we are in a state that has only started. If we think that 15 years is a long time, I would ask, Mahfuz Anam in particular, not to be very optimistic, then again, not to get very disheartened by seeing two or three months. The change is a long drawnout process which will take if not 50 years, at least 20 to 30 years. So we have to be patient and see the positive sides. If we see the last 10 years, we talked about so many things, but we didn't talk about so many positive developments. Those things that inspire me include, if you think about the Election Commission, its role, if you think about political parties and their behaviour, of course we can find a lot of negative things, but we can also find positive things.

If you think about the Election Commission, I think that 10 years ago these things like the poster has to be this size, it has to be black and white, or you cannot make a big sort of gate everywhere, or defaulters being questioned whether they should be allowed to participate in the election, I think these are major, major developments really making the political parties accountable in the process. Then again, here if we think, even in the Election Commission context, we undermine their role. We always tend to look at the negative side, but if we look at the first election in 1991 and then in 1996, the way NGOs got involved in election monitoring and the questioning of the legitimacy of NGOs in this whole act, because the y were becoming more and more partisan in the whole process. If you see the last election how the whole thing was standardized. Of course donor funding and everything was there, but the Election Commission had come up with a Code of Conduct which the political parties and the NGOs had to abide by. So I think this has been also a major learning process.

When you don't have an independent Election Commission, there is no alternative. Those who have talked about the legitimacy of the Election Commission, I would say to them that at least the intelligentsia or the academics or the newspapers have to come out from their party line and then have to talk openly from their heart and say that from these three elections, definitely we have progressed. Even governance, the institutionalization of the whole process of entering government, we can say maybe this one was more close to that party and so on, but if the election was under a political party, it would be so. If an independent Election Commission can emerge, maybe we won't need this institution, but if we talk about institutionalization, we have seen, particularly in the last election, that it is needed.

What has disheartened us in party politics is seeing how they behave after coming to power. At the same time, if we look into small things, we will be very happy that in the party political process, nomination and everything, it was very much apa and madam who decided everything. Although maybe even now there is that type of nomination process, but due to media and other things, you are seeing everyday on TV, that this particular person was interviewed, that particular person was interviewed, giving credibility that this is a participatory process. This is where you see other party people talking on those issues. So these are small things, but to me these are very big. This is how you proceed towards institutionaliza-tion.

What type of change do we want? If we go to the traditional concept of democracy and try to establish that, even that will take time. First thing about democracy is the rule of law. Where do we lack in the rule of law. If we try to find an answer, I think we can go ahead with small steps, but get big results. So what is lacking in the rule of law? We know we have a lot of extra-legal laws like the Special Power Act, Section 54 within the Constitution, Women Repression Act and other acts.

Debapriya Bhattacharya: Do you think that the eighth amendment to the Constitution is also an undemocratic and repressive law?

Tasnim Siddiqui: Exactly. Both the political parties have to look into these things because it is going to be a two-party system in Bangladesh for a long time. From there if we come to all of these bodies DFI, NSI, SB, DB and think about their role, where we should reform them and see where are they accountable and how to make them accountable. I think that is where the crux of our attention should be rather than dividing ourselves into party political divides.

From there we come to freedom of expression because it is very much here. Since a large part of the population is Muslim, we think it is very representative and everything, but if we look at the minority issue and look into Bangladesh politics, definitely we have to do a lot. That is where we have to look into. Now 88 per cent of the population is Muslim whereas in 1962 it was only 82 per cent, because they have not participated within the system. What type of avenues has to be created of that they can participate in the system?

Then we can come to sectarian and religious politics. We have to think about how, within the Muslim community, how kadianis and others communities are being treated politically and otherwise. So if we talk about freedom of expression, it has also to be the freedom of expression of the minority communities, religious minorities, sectarian minorities, all kinds. If we look into these things, I think we can be optimistic rather than being pessimistic about the political developments in Bangladesh.

We talked a lot about economic development. There was my story about the woman. This shows that women will participate in the system. They will bring out whatever economic benefit they want to bring out from the system and particularly if you think about the whole class, they will act thus. Then again, it is the general mass who are going for development. It is the political leaders and civil society members who are hindering the process. So we have to come out from that.

Debapriya Bhattacharya: I cannot agree more with what you have said. The democratic experience in politics and the development experience has been by now very well discussed. The causal association between democracy and development, and economic development, has been more or less been established.

But by nature since we are social scientists, we go on talking about the shortcomings. As good news doesn't sell newspapers, also good analysis and talking about achievements only, also doesn't make you a very successful social scientist. You will be totally out of business if there are no problems. So let me talk about the pitfalls that have been there on the way.

Mahfuz Anam: I think that there should be a demand for reforms. If I am not going to talk about criticism, then I am not going to create the demand for change. Now, the changes you have mentioned have come about because people have criticized. There is a very strong logic to look at what is not right.

Tasnim Siddiqui: The demand should be against Special Powers Act. The demands should be against those type of things, rather than party political things.

Debapriya Bhattacharya: Regarding the pitfalls, I think the reason why Dr. Farashuddin didn't call the economic growth economic development, was obviously because of the slow pace of poverty alleviation. Definitely that was there. Also further accentuation of the differentiation process within the economy. We look around and see that per capital income has definitely gone up, but the two poles of accruals and poverty has also distanced. That is also something we have to take into cognizance. This has also led to, in spite of all the good inspiring things that Dr. Salehuddin talked about, the marginalisation and the lack of participation which is still very prominent. We have seen the differential access to public resources has become also very prominent in that way.

The reflection of democracy in the economic field had been under the aegis of the introduction of the market forces. Basically we thought that if we gave more right to economic activities, private sector development, and withdrawal of the state would essentially bring more democracy within the economy which was essentially right but we also concentrated on the new institutions instead of strengthening the old ones which was necessary. As a result we have seen a perverse economic process in that way which is a reflection of politics in the economy. We have seen a very distorted process of privatization. We have seen the loan default culture. We have seen the system losses within the public utility system. Even in one of our success areas, micro-credit, we have failed to reach the poorest of the poor.

So all the economic achievements, we can go on listing from GDP growth to export expansion, food self-sufficiency, rural infrastructure, al these things can be elaborated, but we have to see the other side as well. We have to see why these things have happened and whether these things are going to continue in the coming years.

What we have seen to sum up, is short term expedient politics. We have seen fractured politics. We have also seen an exclusionary politics. These three have led to a short-term vision about economy and development which is totally anathema to whole investment and savings experience of any nation. It has led to a fractured approach to economy. In the United States they may be able to afford this because they have the capacity. But we have so little capacity, if you pursue a fractured economy, obviously you will not be able to achieve your full potential. Similarly this has led to an exclusionary economic growth.

I think things have become more problematic because this whole democratic transition coincided with an era where the process of globalization was getting accelerated. We were dealing things which normally not necessarily would maximize the benefits of the globalization process within the economy one way or the other. What was happening was that we were trying to integrate ourselves in the global economy.

Fractured politics, exclusionary politics has definitely affected out foreign direct investment process. Now you may have the most liberal regulatory framework. You may have at this moment all the incentives in place. Even if we get the infrastructure, with that type of situation on the horizon, whether foreign direct investment will at all be coming in. Even if we get market access and all tomorrow, we will have problems in supply on time and suchlike. There is a major mismatch between national development and the forces of liberalization.

When the civil society gathers around the table, it becomes our favourite past time to bash the politicians. I think that is something which we should be a bit restrained about. I know as citizens we have all the right to criticize them. They are our leaders. I think we should also understand how the constituencies and other sections of the society can also get very opportunistic as well. I quite often thing, who is manipulating whom in the situation. Are the politicians manipulating the business community or the civil society? Or are they being manipulated? I will urge upon you to have a self-critical analysis on the civil society and their approach to the leaders and a more open exchange between the political leaders and the civil society to understand each other's constraints. Why exactly does a political party get to that moneymaking? Where exactly do the risks lie and where is the incentive? This is more like a prisoner's dilemma in many cases. If I run, will the others run with me or will they get shot down by the policemen? That has even been the case when you got almost full consensus on disarming the student cadres and restraining student politics. If I do it, will the other party really stick to its word? Where is the guarantee? Don't they really understand what is a popular decision and what is an unpopular decision? If I take a popular decision, will I really be adequately rewarded by the other party? Are we keeping our side of the bargain or not? I think that part has not always been adequately discussed.

On the other hand, they should also understand the civil society constraints. I think civil society exercises a lot of self-censorship. It wants to expand its domain, but not lose its current situation. We are quite often very opportunistic. How much risk is the civil society willing to take? This is in particular reference to the seminar-walas, at least the manabbandhan walas. I think that this distinction is coming through gradually. I think we will see a more activist role of the civil society down the road somewhere. In the civil society, if your working relationship with the state collapses, you are no more functionally useful. So you want to protect your working relations. So you see the dilemma over here. Politics is such, exclusionary, that every other day you are threatened by that kind of breakdown. So civil society self-criticism and mutual dialogue with the political leaders needs to be done more forcefully.

About social changes, we need to recognize the new forces of change, whether it is the women coming up in the rural areas or the new place of the defaulter loanees. They need to organize themselves in line of their own class interests. It has proliferated somehow in the class system. You have one group of Awami businessmen and one group of BNP businessmen which is also very destructive for the growth of this country. There is a need for the classes themselves to understand where lies their long-term interest. How does one do that? They have also become very opportunistic. They would like to think that well, do we have a leader in this cabinet? Do we have our leader in another government's cabinet and so on. So they also do portfolio management within the House and within the business community as well. This is regressive.

I appreciate the Daily Star carton that day which responded to the Prime Minister's call to cut down on bureaucracy by asking, why not cut down on Cabinet members? That was very correct. I read yesterday about the new Code of Conduct being framed for civil servants. I fully appreciate that. I want rules of conduct that says civil servants having more than one lac taka of assets have to declare. What about the Ministers? They don't declare. Till a minister declares his assets, I do not accept that part. That has to be consistent, politicians will also have to. The last government promised that, but did not deliver. I think this government should deliver. They say if a civil servant accepts a gift of more than five thousand taka, he has to inform the authorities of this. What about the Minister accepting gifts worth a lac taka? And, nowadays gifts don't come in terms of goods, but also in services. One can buy a trip on an airline. One can pay for children's education. One also has to declare that. All the MPs who are there, and many come from the business community, should all declare their business interests. Without declaration of their business interests in the parliament, there will be serious scope for conflict in all the legislations. They may influence the legislation in such a way that their business interests are protected. A few things can be done and this will send a strong message throughout the system.

Look at the line in front of the Canadian Embassy and elsewhere. There is an elite exodus going on in this country. One must take this very seriously or else we will be a diminished nation. This is how it is going to happen and this will further accentuate. The distance between the north and the south will be further accentuated. We must get a hold on the new generation. If you got hold of about 50 people from by CPD recruitment, you would be curious to know that not even 10 per cent could tell who was the first President of Bangladesh. I got answers like even Mushtaque Ahmed. But I am very happy to know that at least 80 per cent could tell who was the first President of the United States of America. At one point I got disgusted at somebody and asked him, in which hall did you stay? He said, Surja Sen Hall. I asked, who was he? He said that he was a shaheed, a martyr. I asked, where was he a martyr? He said, in 1971. I asked, how? He said, during the Liberation War. I asked, where did he fight, in Sector 7? He said, yes. You see, this is the new generation you are having. This stupid guy stayed in Dhaka University's Surja Sen Hall for four years and he is telling me that Surja Sen fought in the Liberation War in Sector 7. Yet 80 per know who the first President of America was. This is the situation.

Ibrahim Khaled: There was a comment from Dr. Farashuddin that the Supreme Judicial Council did not function though it was there. Primarily this was because it was not given importance. That's why I said, make them effective by giving them the power of recruiting judges. If they could recruit High Court judges, promote judges to the Supreme Court, they will feel important and they will function.

Another important thing in the judiciary is that political appointments were made in the judiciary. There can be political sympathizers because all enlightened people are politically, if not affiliated, interested. There is a distinction between a political sympathizer and a political member. As long as political sympathizers are considered on the basis of their professional ability, when they sit on their chair, they will perform responsibly. But if a political member will be a member of the judiciary even if he is a good man, people will not believe it. That's why there should be a norm that political members should not be members of the judiciary. If the judiciary really plays its part in the judicial system, the other two organs are likely to follow. There will be a check and balance.

The second thing is history. Every nation has a history. History should be written by the historians, not by politicians. Books are being revised by politicians, not by historians. These things should be exposed. The civil society should do it. History is something which inspires us, something which fixes our aspirations and goals. That is why civil society can probably work on this. Restoring the 1972 Constitution was a good idea. It was a very good Constitution. It can be amended, updated to suit our modern day circumstances. I am saying this because this Constitution was not amended by democratically elected parties.

Tasnim Siddiqui: There were other things like the Special Powers Act. I think those were the major hindrances. There is also the independence of the judiciary.

Hossain Zillur Rahman: I agree. Another important thing in this country is that the winner, even by a fraction of a vote, becomes the absolute owner of the House. Here we should bring in the concept of sharing by all winners. This time I would say even Awami League was the winner, but lesser than the main party. The winner should share. It is not a matter of winning. It is a matter of sharing.

Another thing is local government. No government transferred power to the local government. The local government, NGOs and civil societies should all be absolutely vocal. This is very important restoration of local government.

In the USA, the President can be elected only for two terms. In Bangladesh why can't the Prime Minister be elected only two terms?

Tasnim Siddiqui: How to make the parliament more active? Here we need participatory democracy. This calls for a shadow government. Capacity building has to be there. All ethnic groups and other groups must be involved.

About gender, the major recommendation is that women must be allowed to develop their constituency. We don't see women in mainstream politics. We need this. We can also question defence policy, defence budget, all these things. This will actually bring about accountability.

Hossain Zillur Rahman: The National Curriculum Boards has become a government curriculum board. That has to be reconsidered. In western countries, they don't have a national curriculum board.

The governmental power has to be de-governmentalised. It can be done in x number of areas. Police have to be de-governmentalised. It has become a governmental force.

We need to decentralize the parliament. We need to have division parliaments. It is a big country, 130 million people. It is the eighth largest country in the world. It is not a small country. In this parliament, 300 people discussing 130 million people doesn't work.

Look at the education center. The national curriculum should be such that general values are incorporated. Most students feel that they need to have links with political parties. Politics has become such. They need to have other opportunities.

We have been talking about doing away with the political divide. It is easier said than done. It is so much ingrained in our psyche, it is hard to do away with. I have seen families not talking to each other because of the political divide. Can we put this very contentious issue out of reach and go ahead with our nation-building and state building?

Mahfuz Anam:What about a second House? Is that a good idea?

Hossain Zillur Rahman: We have to balance our focus a bit, not just on the villains. Political leaders, villains, civil society, villains. But there are heroes to. There are uneducated entrepreneurs who are handling Tk. 100 crore projects. In Chittagong I came across some. They are never the focus of discourse. It's time we had a general change of orientation. Villains we meet too, but heroes also.

Secondly, this talk on Constitution. It sets certain bells ringing in my head. Let's say the Special Power Act is withdrawn. All the black laws, let's say, are withdrawn. Is freedom guaranteed then? From the perspective of a poor person in the village, is freedom guaranteed under what we call a normal situation? That's part of the problem. Going back to '72 is not the thing because '72 never got to grips with creating a new police station, with creating a new munsif court, with creating a new structure of administration. There is freedom in the general sense, but everyday freedoms matter much more for the larger mass of the people. That needs to be brought into focus.

Third, I feel very strongly that the civil society in particular has to be more politically intelligent. We need a more politically styled discussion. Look at local government. At the end of the day, bureaucrats aren't going to do anything about local government. How many seminars and how many articles is Daily Star going to publish? Bureaucrats are interested in certain segments of the administration. We need to engage them on that actually otherwise the ideas which are driving the development agenda are only from the bureaucrats. We need civil voices as well. This politically intelligent approach is vital otherwise we are talking to people who, as soon as you go out of the room, will say, you know what.

Someone was saying about the queues outside the Canadian High Commission. I wouldn't worry about a brain drain. I would be worried if the elite sending their children abroad are wasting state resources to do so. I don't think there is anything restrictive about going out.

Debapriya Bhattacharya: I didn't say restrictive.

The courts are full of cases at a local level, just cases of vengeance, to harass people, to keep them from their homes and such. I think that focus should be placed there because the people become embittered. They come back with double vengeance. And I am not very optimistic about internal democracy in parties.

Let me point to five issues. One is women's representation in parliament. Two, an independent Anti-Corruption Commission. Three, a human rights commission. Four is separation of judiciary. The fifth is transparency in public affairs. I expect these to be implemented as early as possible. I also expect the opposition, since they share these views, will also extend adequate support. Everybody benefits from it.

The other day I was watching television and saw news about Indo-Pakistan relationship in India. Their Cabinet met and then they came up and briefed the opposition about their discussion on Indo-Pakistan relationship. From there they went on to the press.

You see the sequence of events. I expect in the near future the one issue which I see very much at hand is Bangladesh's participation in the peace-keeping force in Afghanistan. I expect the Prime Minister to call the Leader of the Opposition, have a discussion on that because this is a very sensitive issue. Again this is a challenge of globalisation. We must rise up to it. The Prime Minister should consult the Leader of the Opposition


Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 13, 2002


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