The 2018 election is not just about changing a set of policymakers: It is a possible turning point in the struggle to restore our core values. If those who currently hold power manage to "win" the election, there is genuine fear that all the things that we hold most dear—honour, truth, and justice—may be buried for many years under a pile of lies, deception, and corruption. If the ruling party prevails, the empty shell of a democracy may remain, with the rulers mouthing platitudes about respect for the Constitution (that much distorted document) and democratic ideals while making a mockery of both.
Everyone should be conscious of the pernicious effect of the destruction of our values on our children. What are the lessons they are learning from the reality of politics and governance in Bangladesh? Do we really want them to imbibe the values of those currently holding high office: that might makes right, that if lies are repeated often enough they become "truths", that wealth, however dishonestly acquired, is the only yardstick of "success", that student politics rather than academic achievement or genuine entrepreneurship is the best route to wealth and fame, that servile obeisance to those in power—even when their venality and lack of respect for the law are known to all—is the norm. Merely placing the words like "Respected", "Honourable" in front of the names of those in power does not make them so.
Respect for the truth is eroded when freedom of speech is systematically undermined through large-scale control, ownership or censorship of the mass media. Manipulation of the social media has been more of a challenge for all autocratic regimes, but the ruling party's vast financial resources have been deployed for this purpose, spreading misinformation. Dealing in lies may seem like an effective instrument of government control, but it has grievously harmed us as a people. Routine lying by top public officials has had the effect of compromising the credibility of all those holding public office. This is regrettable and dangerous as it not only weakens the ability to govern effectively but also makes it more difficult for a government to unite the people to overcome serious national challenges.
The current culture of impunity for most crimes, whether it is murder, stealing public funds, banking fraud and share manipulation, has fostered an adverse incentive structure in our society. When criminal behaviour is rewarded rather than punished, and merit, experience (seniority) and effort fail to get due recognition, a nation is in trouble. The added problem of crony capitalism creates an uneven playing field for legitimate businesspersons who are not willing to accept the culture of bribery afflicting our economy and government.
The corresponding erosion of values such as respect for honesty, integrity, and heroism weakens the entire social fabric, which one day may threaten the stability of our nation. Most Bangladeshis feel that wealth, position and "connections" are worth more than ability or effort. This general perception that "the system" is unfair demoralises people. As a result, some of the most talented of our people have moved to countries such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom where ability and hard work are better rewarded. People in Bangladesh now feel that there is no chance of advancement in life unless one is either a member of the corrupt privileged elite or is willing to become a "collaborator" in their crimes. Can this be the basis for a just society? I think not.
Those who make great contributions to our nation must be honoured and properly recognised. The attempts to rewrite our history and excise the names of national heroes must be vigorously opposed. Many people are dismayed that due to political differences the government has sought to denigrate some individuals who achieved greatness due to their activities and heroism during our Liberation War or, in some cases, their contributions to mankind. Is this the way to inspire the next generation to greatness?
As the elections draw nearer the smug certainty of the rulers of this country has given way to shrill denunciations of the Oikyafront as unpatriotic or being involved in some sort of "conspiracy". Patriotism, it has been said, is the last refuge of scoundrels, and the people of this country are intelligent enough to see through false displays of patriotism—particularly from a government that has failed miserably to protect our national interests.
Dr Reza Kibria is an economist and a contestant for the 11th parliamentary election, to be held on December 30, as a candidate of Gonoforum and Jatiya Oikyafront.