Political intolerance — the big challenge for democracy23 November 2022
Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed :
In simple terms, democracy means the rule of the people. If there is a massive disparity with regards to ownership and power structure, and if class, gender, ethnic and religious discrimination dominate social relations, then the idea of the rule of the people cannot be realized. The struggle to achieve that goal is the essence of democracy. However, the primary condition of democracy is that it should at least operate on the basis of the consent of the people - consent that is expressed through elections. Let us look at where Bangladesh is now in this regard, after 50 years of existence. The movement for democracy in Bangladesh has been going on for decades. Under Pakistani rule, the Liberation War was a result of this desire for democracy. Even after the war, the struggle continued. The fight against martial law in the late 70s and 80s was also a fight to establish democracy. In the 90s and even now, this fight has endured.
It is a matter of great misfortune, as well as of disappointment and uncertainty, that democracy in Bangladesh is practically absent now. A system of governance must depend on the people to remain accountable, transparent, and responsible. Even if the process of being accountable to the people is erroneous, it should be corrected through people's participation and elections. There is effectively no such thing in Bangladesh right now. If we look at any number of institutions, be that the administration, law enforcing agencies, universities or the judiciary, they are all suffering from a lack of transparency and public scrutiny. Corruption has become the rule of the day. All the commissions, including the Human Rights Commission and the Election Commission, have made themselves ornamental.
The latest and gravest challenge to our democratic aspirations is the increasing pressure mounted by the government as well as its supporters to control and manipulate the freedom of the media and civil society. The new Digital Security Act has created apprehension about the possibility of its arbitrary use which has led to a lot of self-censorship. There has been a chilling impact on freedom of expression. However, mere citizen's protests are not enough to create the political will for greater democratization and remove the deficits of democracy whether in the long established or in the emerging ones. Sporadic and unorganized protests cannot sustain pressure for fundamental and long-term reforms that are needed to make democracy work equally for the under-privileged, less wealthy and excluded groups of society. Over the past many decades in many democracies the wealthy liberals have not championed quality public sector provisioning of education and health services. The corona pandemic has exposed the unequal and unjust system we all live under in many democracies which needs fundamental overhaul. We can move towards creating a political will for change only when the disparate sparks of resistance in various countries can build a sustainable organization and leadership and persist with long term commitment.
The bureaucracy in Bangladesh is repeatedly apparent with the issues of corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, lack of accountability and transparency, etc. Besides, some recent incidents apparently depict that the politics-administration interface is convoluted and non-cooperative one way or another. However, the argument of this issue is not new, rather comes from the British period. Excessive control of bureaucracy and politicization of administration have evidently been seen in our country. Politicians hinge on the bureaucrats for making and executing policy. Bureaucrats also hold a strong loyalty to the politicians for their betterment. Though this is an academic discussion obviously, no way to deny it; but also, a crucial issue for the country, because in a state mechanism, they are united, integrated and stable. Politicians lose their significance when the influence of bureaucracy cultivates in a country.
Even in society, because of the absence of democratic processes, all sorts of crimes - murder, rape, grabbing of land, waterbodies and forests, corruption - are going unchecked. As long as anyone is connected with the powers, he/she has a free pass. When criminals get patronage from high-ups, the judiciary too becomes non-effective. On the other hand, any sort of outcry or protest against misrule and corruption is being suppressed with force, and activists are being attacked by the police as well as the ruling party goons. They are also being harassed with the use of the Digital Security Act. Enforced disappearances, torture in custody and false cases have become instruments to run the show unopposed. Starting from the centre and going all the way to remote areas, we see a tendency of zero accountability. Corruption, robbery, defaulting on bank loans, bad deals with high commissions by powerful people, price hikes, rape and sexual harassment, grabbing properties of the poor and the marginalized people, money laundering - all of these are allowed to happen because of the absence of a democratic process.
The part of bureaucrats cannot be overlooked in Bangladesh as a developing country. They play a very important role in our society, the administration and efficient modification. Organizational development is not an easy job, predominantly in a state like Bangladesh which is beset with diverse complications. This does not denote that the regime should be unconcerned toward development. The productivity, efficiency and responsibility of the executive also rose to the range of time. But the situation is not sufficient to attain the objective. The political government must promise itself to reform packages, as per they are assured to yield both high political and economic settlements to the regime itself. The regime must act promptly to reestablish discipline in the governing arrangement through positive tools of direction, defense, delivery and regulation before boarding on micro level changes in the organizational arrangement.
(The writer is former Deputy Director General, Bangladesh Ansar and VDP).