Two parties have ruled Bangladesh for most of its 47-year-old life since the independence and one of these parties will form the government again after today's election, which begins at 8AM to be precise. On occasions like this, it's customary to take an upbeat view of the outcomes of the election—the most empowering moment in a citizen's life. For Bangladesh, this moment was hard-earned and long-anticipated as it came after 10 years of wait, and whether or not it offers any real choice for the people, they are expected to participate in this democratic process anyway and choose their representatives to serve them in parliament for the next five years.
The optimist in me would like to believe in the effectiveness of this process but the pessimist in me, hardened by the years of discontent and disillusionment, is not so sure. How shall we assess Bangladesh's journey in these past decades? There are two conflicting conclusions: one hails the country's transformation from its post-1971 days as a “test case for development”—a success model for other countries—while another considers it a squandered opportunity to bring about real change in the life of its people. However, while the public is still numerically pro-status quo when it comes to the question of development, there is a growing sense of unease about the country's inherent authoritarian structure that allows pseudo-democratic regimes to exploit people while real development remains elusive.
This second school of thought also links Bangladesh's sub-optimal performance to the futility of our electoral exercise in the absence of a functional democracy. It argues that people are doomed to defeat whichever way the election turns. Election today, according to the nation's leading thinker Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury, has rather become “an occasion for the people to choose their own oppressors for the next five years.” He based his theory on the fact that no matter which party wins the election, they all eventually turn corrupt and oppressive because of the corrupt system in which they function. Be that as it may, one thing is certain: even after 47 years, Bangladesh has failed to address its deep-seated structural problems that allow the political class to perpetuate this cycle of exploitation, and if this is allowed to continue, we will never reach our full potential as a nation.
Which is why we need a new style of leadership that will save Bangladesh from this destructive cycle and lead to an in-depth transformation of our institutions and policies. Unlike the usual manifestos, which are issued by political parties outlining what they deem to be our priorities, this “manifesto” by the author is for those political parties and outlines what I believe the citizens actually want on a priority basis. But it doesn't contain any concrete proposals. Rather, it is a humble reminder of what the policies and decisions of our leaders should be based on, and equally importantly, what those should not be.
Our politicians, whether in power or not, must make a concerted effort to rid Bangladesh of its authoritarian system and practices which are at the heart of all its social and political crises. And unless and until we are able to dismantle this system, the citizens of this land will never be really free. A step in that direction will involve embracing, among other ideals, equality, diversity, and inclusivity, and the fundamental principles advocated in our Constitution.
Secondly, there is a need for political consensus on the idea of development. A narrower definition of the concept is actually harmful as it leaves room for exploitation. Amartya Sen provides an important insight into how development works. To him, economic growth is simply a part of development, a means to an end—not the end itself—which is freedom. Real development, therefore, requires the removal of various types of what he calls “unfreedoms” which “leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency” (Development as Freedom). Among these unfreedoms are poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities, systematic social deprivation, suppression of the weaker sections of society, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. The removal of these unfreedoms, in Sen's opinion, is constitutive of development.
However, the issue here is not one of bringing about a drastic change in our existing economic model or institutions or social programmes. The issue is primarily of changing how those function, their bureaucracy-ridden, inherently corrupt and deeply politicised system, which traditionally the ruling class use to their advantage. So our politicians must renew their commitment to good governance, rule of law, accountability and human rights.
They should also recognise the importance of encouraging social accountability so that citizens, especially the youth, can transform themselves from being a class “whom things happen to” into a people “who make things happen.” A sense of ownership among them is very important since a state is as strong and powerful as its citizens. Only then will the concept of republicanism embedded in the name “People's Republic of Bangladesh” will finally become meaningful. And it will eventually lead to a fair and lasting social development of the people.
As it happens, ours is a very polarised society. There are profound divisions within and among different classes, communities and faith groups. But any positive social transformation will require the citizens to embrace and promote the values of unity and diversity, despite their divisions, even though it may seem difficult at times. It is a task that the citizens must undertake on their own. They must reach out to those they don't like or support for the sake of a harmonious coexistence, and accept similar initiatives from others, but the political class has to lead this process, by empowering social networks and platforms and encouraging greater social engagement.
It is said that in a corrupt system, people usually have two options: conform or be crushed. The time has come to change that equation, because our nation has reached a point of crisis from which you can go no further. Bangladesh is hurting, quite visibly. With all the challenges that we are going through at the moment, it is no longer possible to continue as before. People will no longer be satisfied with a passive role in which “things happen to them.” This manifesto may not provide specific proposals for that desired transformation, but it does provide a moral baseline against which to gauge the judiciousness of all our future policies and decisions.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.