For all the talk about change, the history of modern-day Bangladesh is a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that politics is an instrument of change and democracy a deliverer of justice. Bangladesh flirts with the idea of change but seeks accommodation with the status quo. Power changes hands. New players are ushered in; new pledges made. But beyond the sound and fury, nothing really seems to change. The Old Order remains firmly in place, unharmed if not unopposed, taking everything into its sinister embrace. But in recent days, there have been encouraging signs of what could be the start of a real change, as demonstrated by the young students occupying the streets and urging reforms in the transport sector. What makes their voice so inspiring is that they have learned to speak truth to power so early in their life, undeterred by the fact that those in power dislike nothing more than inconvenient truths thrust in their faces.
What will our political leaders be like in the future? There is no doubt that with the society in a state of flux, the political scene will also go through a transformation of its own. The question is, when it does, and today's youth assume the mantle of leadership, will they fall back into line like so many others did before them, or will they prove to be different? Recently, during the mayoral elections in three city corporations, two incidents have caught our attention as they provided a glimpse of what future leadership trends may look like. One incident involved a candidate who decided to forgo the ritual of issuing an election manifesto—because a “manifesto doesn't solve problems”—and the other was about one who embarked on a “crowd-funded” campaign in what was perhaps the first initiative of its kind in local history. Eloquent, persuasive and willing to break new grounds, these candidates represent the diverse crop of leaders emerging out of Bangladesh's politics.
In a way, Serniabat Sadiq Abdullah from the ruling Awami League and Dr Manisha Chakraborty from Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal, both of whom contested in the Barisal City Corporation election, also represent the opposite extremes of politics as we know it.
Take Sadiq, now the mayor-elect of Barisal. He has an impressive pedigree, unlike most of his compatriots, and the backing of a party that seems averse to ever sitting in the opposition bench. Sadiq is the archetypal Awami League Man whose ideological position is wedded to the inviolability of the legacy of his party and its most illustrious member. But to his credit, he also proved to have a mind of his own (ditching the electoral custom of publishing an election manifesto being a case in point). He is quite approachable, speaks in a language understood by the common man, and with everything going for him at the moment, has demonstrated reasonable self-restraint so far.
His win against his much older opponent from BNP in the election would have a symbolic meaning for youth leadership had it not been marred by gross irregularities and allegations of favouritism. For all his achievements, however, he remains untested. In the coming days, the challenge for Sadiq will be to prove that he is not just another foot soldier of the Old Order but has actually something worthwhile to offer to his people.
Manisha Chakraborty, on the other hand, may have been on the losing side but her political career is far from over. She can take comfort from the fact that she has fought an impossible election, as did all non-AL candidates in Barisal, but if the promise that she has shown in the past years comes to fruition, she might well be the next face of pro-people politics in Bangladesh. Manisha represents all there is to be hopeful about the future of leadership. As I met with her at her campaign office in Barisal, about a week before the election, I saw a woman unfazed by powerful opponents. She is polite but firm, persuasive, and a champion of the downtrodden. Seeing how she mobilised ordinary folks from schools to mosques to shanties during her campaign, it's not difficult to assume that at the heart of her crowd-funded election campaign was a belief that real power comes through inclusion.
At 28, Manisha doesn't suffer from the indecisiveness typical of young leaders. She is clearly an idealist—as her decision to run for mayor as the first female candidate to do so in Barisal would also suggest—but one with a pragmatic bent of mind. Her fight against injustices is counterbalanced by a vision to effect change through proactive measures for sustainable development. But there is no doubt that her integrity and political judgement will be put to test once she comes out of the fold of “local politics” and gets sucked into the bigger political orbit where idealism can rather be a hindrance sometimes. How her future will pan out will depend to a large extent on how she responds to her changing reality.
However, despite their vastly different personal and political backgrounds, the emergence of leaders like Manisha and Sadiq can be explained in terms of the reality on the ground. In a way, they are a response to—or a product of—a nation still dismissive of any meaningful change. Unfortunately, this is how the Old Order survives, by promoting conformity and a sense of security only to be had in the status quo. To further protect its interests, it also sustains a culture of mistrust, falsehood, conspiracy, empty rhetoric and vapid sloganeering. And it nurtures and glorifies apathy as if it were a virtue. If young, educated people are losing interest in politics, it is mostly because of that.
Emerging leaders, not just in Barisal, are however mindful of the changing times and the power of modern tools like social media which, if properly used, can help break through people's apathy and give them something to stand up for. Social media has changed a lot of the old equations. The political costs of not updating oneself in line with the latest trends may be too much, so young leaders are keeping up, and using these tools to reach the furthest corners of their constituency and advance their political agenda. Similarly, a lot of what our civil, academic and military establishments once took for granted may go through a transformation, for better or for worse. This much is obvious from the ongoing agitation of the school-goers which is, frankly, more a response to the overall leadership crisis and lack of political commitment—deemed to be the root cause of all public sufferings—than a mere rejection of one poorly functioning sector.
Emerging leaders might argue that leadership is not about “disappointing people at a rate they can stand,” as the Old Order would have us believe; that it could have a much bigger and more positive impact on life. But whether they will be able to prove it through their action and bring about some actual reforms in the system is something that only time can tell.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.