By Selimul Quader Chowdhury
“Democracy” is more than a catchword often leading the general populace to a key assumption that it is a ‘panacea’ or something like its look-alike to fill the politico-moral voids and end public blackouts. It appeals to the people in general by pledging ‘good governance’ plus transparency and utter removal of political ‘kleptocracy’ by soberly fighting corruption. But, admittedly, as a result of the mess-ups encountered over time and the mishaps synchronized from the contemporary present to the near past or even farther, the placards of democracy turned, more or less, unpragmatic today. Though the 20th century, since the late 19th, observed the glorious triumph of normative as well as hard-headed democracy, by now it sounds to be a hollow promise undergoing from time to time a remarkable ‘paradigm shift’. Even so, democracy still has, somehow, an enduring appeal to most people but all those aggrieved are relentlessly asking a simple question- “Why is always there a potential threat to democracy, often a victor, to turn all on a sudden ‘pro-body politic’ against public interest”?
In Bangladesh today, some serious strange developments are on the go under the genre of ‘democracy’ and this is why the core values of democracy are sternly in question. So, it’s about time we explored the avenues of this real nice ‘ocracy’ with an aim to sort a holistic overhaul out.
Democracy in fashion: from Graeco-Athens to Asiatic Bangladesh
The world’s first, though not foremost, fledgling concept of democracy on record was the Grecian democracy practiced in ancient Athens tracing its historic origin to Aristotle’s oligarchic Constitution of the Athenians composed in 330 BC. Democracy was in coma during the Medieval Period and revived with stimulus anew during the Enlightenment when reason and analytical thought were emphasized by setting aside awkward mysticism of the Middle Ages. Tribute goes to many intellectual heroes like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Walter Bagehot, Bernard Mandeville, Charles Louis de Second. at Montesquieu, François-Marie Arouet Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, John Locke, William James Durant and John Stuart Mill etc who highly contributed towards refining the age-old concept of governments and redefining modern-day democracy. Besides Greeks, the Romans together with the Italian Republics’ proponents and statesmen deserve acclaim for pioneering novel democracies, though less viable compared to those of the subsequent bouts.
After the mid of the last century, the Apartheid-blemished South Africa and the Nazism- traumatized Germany accepted democracy as a ‘test-case’ and turned out somewhat as a ‘success story’. Bangladesh’s access to democratization is a part of ‘decolonization’, more precisely ‘decolonization of Asia’, relevantly denoting here the segregation of India and Pakistan as two distinct independent political entities in 1947. The ensuing liberation war of 1971 culminating in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation state paved the way for another fresh democracy in the contemporary global chapter. But, currently and for past several years, the high ideals of democracy are not stuck to in Bangladesh and let to diminish extremely by the ruling coalition. In this regard, Bangladesh is probably one of the most blameworthy countries for adopting ‘totalitarianism’ masquerading as ‘democracy’. The country is a ‘clear failure’ in terms of upholding the practical beauty of democracy to even more extent than the nascent Athenian democracy was around 2400 years back.
Democracy not only espouses but also caters for a political system wherein the leadership will be turned up and turned out through free and fair elections, the civic as well as politico-economic life will be marked with people’s active participation, the human rights of all citizens will be safeguarded against all types of violations and ‘rule of law’ will prevail making certain all laws must apply to all citizens equally by administering a grave slap in the face of the so-called ‘blue blood’, if needed. It does confer on the rulers power with a system of checks and balances but the ‘democrats-turned-authoritarians’ disfigure that system and go all dysfunctional aiming to hang on power. The readers are perhaps well-updated on the ongoing nasty situation Bangladesh is going through. Now you fellows can draw the conclusion by contrasting normative ‘rules-based democracy’ with the country’s ‘blue-black’ ocracy of the optical illusion. I am sure; you won’t be able to finish the disparity off in favor of the draw.
Another bottleneck is that the electorate here have no pleasant experience of voting being free from intimidation and violence, let alone the vote-counting fairness controversy. However, the right of the citizens to vote in secret without any fear, fraud or violence is a must for a true democracy. We don’t know how we should mark down the electoral track record of this country in this respect. In addition, ‘media pluralism’- the popular intransigence promoted unanimously- has also been transformed into ‘media-polarization’. Yellow-journalism has added fuel to the flames and stained the lustre of egalitarianism.
Democracy among crowded ‘-cracies’: An appraisal
Ocracies (or cracies) mean forms of the government and there are a good number of hypothetical ‘ocracies suffixed’ in the classical world. Plato in his ‘Republic’ discussed five types of regimes, namely- Aristocracy (rule of the elite or ‘best-born’ or rule of the nobility, or government (politeia) by a relatively small privileged class), Timocracy (a form of government in which possession of property is required in order to hold office), Oligarchy (rule of few) which is in fact ‘aristocracy’ spoiled by corruption, Democracy (government by the people) and Tyranny which is ‘monarchy’ (rule of one) spoiled by ‘lack of virtue’. But, all these terminologies originally connoting city-state ideas have more or less departed from Platonic understanding of statehood. Moreover, Plutocracy (rule of the wealthiest), Ochlocracy (mob rule, mobocracy) which is ‘democracy spoiled by ‘demagoguery’ meaning ‘tyranny of the majority’ or rule of ‘passion’ over ‘reason’ and Monocracy (a system of government by only one person) etc are some most germane to the discussion.
Most oriental and occidental peoples did subscribe to democracy from among a host of cracies mainly because of the fact that in democracy only, qualification of birth and wealth literally counts as ‘zero qualification’. Democracy is less likely to wage a war and by routinely evolving those in charge of the state, it can bloodlessly free people from the shackles of the bullies who change their minds after democratic empowerment. The general will of the people underlies democracy in respect of choosing the leadership and forming the government. It values the stand of the majority and, at the same time, protects the rights of the minorities. It vehemently advocates human rights and fundamental rights. It causes elections to take place at regular intervals and protects the right of the electorate to vote freely. It uplifts people’s free will bestowed by God. It empowers the government but also favors the Opposition. It entertains political variety and cheers for pluralism. Notwithstanding all these beautiful values, if democracy fails someplace, it is mainly because of ‘undemocratic bullies’ who get the political takeover in no way but democratically. Stephen Leacock rightly observed in “Our Heritage of Liberty”-
“We must remember that no code or social legislation, no written law, can of itself guarantee true democracy and preserve liberty. The spring can rise no higher than its source. Democracy must continue to be fed from the altitude of the high ideals that founded it. …Democracy is a spirit.”
As democracy is on the decline in Bangladesh, curious minds often raise a pivotal question regarding whether this little land is walking the way to pejorative majoritarianism (tyranny of the majority) or a little less shit of consociationalism, the theory of elite cooperation and a less harmful democratic system based on sharing of power among the nobles from different societal groups in deeply divided societies falling under the purview of multi-religious, multiethnic and multicultural milieux. Tension triggered by the long-lasting political unrest in Bangladesh is sure to take the countrymen to more depth of despair if the ruling coalition does not give up their exhilarations generated by abuse of power and think the needed initiatives out immediately. If the government keeps haughty and goes on doing undemocratic jobs further and further, the political set-up will stumble, economy will falter and street demos of the people victimized will only get maximal.
No Arsenal of Democracy!
First off, I am talking about the slogan chanted and the part of the address delivered by the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the World War II. He urged- “We must be the great arsenal of democracy”. Did this idea take root, going beyond the time and space it was first contextualized in, in the world? If the answer is off-putting and of course it is, we have a nerve-racking problem all through.
Though the US and Canada are two democratic melting pots, they have also failed to break new ground in this context. Gerrymandering corrupted United State’s democracy and the blind point-scoring- which is in Obama’s words years ago, “For too long, politics and point-scoring have prevented our country from tackling this growing crisis”- led it to defaulting on its debts more than once. Though the American hegemony greatly influenced the 20th century success of democracy, the rise of China with prolific dominion brought out changes just in reverse. EU (European Union) is also no exception to this failure. The democratic deficit along with the ‘Euro-crisis’ stumbled upon the counterfeit hologram of European democracy.
Unlike the Municipal Law, the burgeoning International Law does not have any robust legislative body or enforcement agency to tackle the subsequent courses of action and the same problem occurred in case of democracy too. As a flexible dogma, democracy is both ‘positive’ and ‘normative’ and it takes its course and shape itself into a mere ‘rubber-stamp’ in the hands and in accordance with the whim of the ostensible ‘democrats’! Blocs still do not have any globally sanctioned body to come with a paragon of democracy for all and protect it from disfigurement. This is why the tyrants go on shaping their own versions of democracy (!) and thereby try to perpetuate their power. Similar signs of stigma are rampant in Bangladesh these days. To resort to street protests is a democratic right of the Opposition but the government in Bangladesh is recurrently seen to curb them with a craze of gratuitous violence by cops and RABs opening fire at the protesters deliberately. Even orders to shoot ‘on sight’ were issued by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and Division General of Police (DIG). Most recently, scores of the Opposition men have been killed extra-judicially by policemen and RAB personnel over the ongoing indefinite blockade, often coupled with shutdowns, called by the Opposition alliance. The interesting part of the story is that all these foul plays are being committed in the name of democracy! What a mockery!!
This is why Walter Lippmann, in his treatise “The Public Philosophy”, suggested-
“(Proper political conclusions) cannot be had by glancing at newspapers, listening to snatches of radio comment, watching politicians perform on television, hearing occasional lectures, and reading a few books. …When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative into an absolute”.
In fact, we people are the great arsenal of democracy and we should feel this way. Democracy works for the common people on a common ground for common good. When that common ground goes missing and the common people get subconscious (often ‘unconscious’ too), that is the moment they lose their nerve.
‘Modus Vivendi’ cast out
When Modus Vivendi is exiled, ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘totalitarianism’ prevail. Straightforwardly, Modus Vivendi is an idyllic principle connoting ‘to agree to disagree’. This is the principal facet of democracy. Bangladesh has already come up to a glaring exemplar of intolerance to the opponents’ views. The orthodox politicians currently at the helm have, in themselves, no sense of respect for others and they always maintain ‘double standard’. A democracy cannot go by the book without mutual esteem and tolerance among the rulers and those ruled, among the representatives and those represented, and especially between the government and the Opposition.
Man is born with free will, a gift from above. No human can snatch from another a right conferred by God Himself. Man cannot go against ‘Law of Nature’ or ‘Act of God’ and if he is insistent, he must fail or fall in a heap. A basic principle is that “we need not agree on all things to work together”. We can work together to build a better tomorrow despite having differences of opinions. All we need to have is, while acting with others, the compliance with universal principles meant to apply to all humans irrespective of caste, creed or colour whatsoever. They are principles of truth and justice, tolerance, mutual esteem, mutual interest and the dignity of all human beings. It is our prime duty to speak the truth as best as we can. The Holy Quran has issued an instruction to the mankind not just to speak the truth but, in addition, to speak “to the point” [33:70]. “To speak to the point” is something much more than “to speak the truth” and there is a difference of degree, not of kind, in between them.
Intolerance leads a man to extremism; no matter whether such extremism is the product of religious insanity or nationalistic chauvinism. Extremism never bodes well for a country. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq etc are still unstable as democracies due to the curse of extremism. It has every possibility of waging civil wars or initiating international armed conflicts which claim civilian lives and spill innocent blood.
There is no denying that political tolerance must be restored to its due place for sustainable democracy and lasting peace. In the political milieux, there must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, learn from each other and respect one another; otherwise, untoward happenings won’t cease to occur, unwanted troubles won’t stop lurking about ahead and uninvited guests won’t give up on us without turning our uncelestial democratic altar upside down. By then, if things remain unchanged, we will, to our sheer surprise, see our nation on the verge of predictable (!) suicide.
Compatibility of democracy: “Civic Capacity” Factor
Democracy may be a boon or a curse simultaneously just the way how a knife can be used by a surgeon to give life to the patient operated on or by a dacoit to kill innocents. Therefore, ‘Civic Capacity’ is the parameter to determine whether democracy is feasible and going to function properly in a country or not. Civic Capacity is the capacity of the citizens to work hand in hand and their proactive move towards solving the problems. Besides individual capacity building, it also concerns the capacity of the communities to persuade their members to such mass-awareness and participation. A certain degree of such capacity of individuals within a community is urgent for a democracy not to thrive but essentially to survive.
Can you guys guess why the journey of democracy in Bangladesh is always facing more speed bumps than in other developed countries? If you feel like opining that the reason is the low quality ‘civic capacity’ of country’s major segment of the citizenry, then be sure that it is really a pretty good guess. Hundreds of drawbacks of everyday-living could not allow our people to promote their capacity building as citizens and natives. Most people don’t feel the importance of their existence on this earth and the spirit of their responsibility for their country’s sake. They undervalue themselves and their power to shake as well as change the country for the better. They love their country without knowing the true meaning of patriotism. They live for themselves or for their dear ones but not necessarily for a holy celestial purpose. The most important thing they learn from their ancestors is to struggle for three square meals a day. This is what happens everywhere in such a case and this is also what happened here. The reason is almost the same- low quality ‘civic capacity’ of the individuals and the communities.
We are not that kind of smart chap to advocate that democracy is all perfect. No, it’s not. We also do not prefer to discuss any demerits ‘in parenthesis’ only. Unlike motherhood and apple pie, democracy has, within its underpinnings, some serious setbacks whereto there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. The exponents of all times considered democracy to be a “necessary but defective” mechanism to run a state. Beside installing democracy, the state must undertake many other initiatives to guard it and make it viable. Many autocrats of the world paved the way for their vibrant autocracy via democratic route. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts. We cannot refute FACTs.
“The People”: Intra-generational and Intergenerational equity!
Jeremy Bentham presupposed “the People” as “the aggregate of Living persons” while Edmund Burke gave the notion that “the People” are not only those living but also inclusive of those dead and those yet to be born. To this effect, Lippmann concluded- “That is why young men die in battle for their country’s sake and why old men plant trees they will never sit under”.
Bangladeshi people must be held responsible mostly for overlooking Intra-generational and Intergenerational equity by showing indifference towards public issues and the actions of the representatives they elected and sent to the Parliament.
‘Intra-generational equity’ is all about doing equity, simply meaning ‘justice’, between or among the people of the contemporary generation and it is quite unalike from ‘Intergenerational equity’ which is doing justice by the running generation to the coming one. It is our inherent obligation as human beings to leave this world better as an abode than we have found it. Most Bangladeshis are doing double offences in the eye of equity by defaulting on ‘equitable justice’ to the immediately current generation and the next most one. It is mainly because they see injustices all around but don’t break silence until those injustices befall them. But we know that both the bad men’s violence and good men’s silence are squarely detrimental to the society. It is also cause they often sell their invaluable electoral votes out to the ill-spirited political beggars in exchange for some money in a very silly way. Thus they offer dishonest leadership to their own children for today and leave bad impacts caused thereby behind for their future heirs. For this exactly, John Stuart Mill in his book “Consideration on Representative Government” opined that the “representative institutions are of little value” on the ground of selling out people’s ‘voting ethics’ for money.
Edmund Burke’s “Virtual Representation” theory is decidedly pertinent here which means that the electorate while casting their votes for any political figure also votes virtually on behalf of those who due to some legal or natural inability (i.e. infants or the unborn) cannot vote by their own for now but receive the same consequences the actual voters do. It further entails that the politically elected people’s representatives do not represent only their voters exclusively; rather they also, virtually, represent those connected with their voters and relevantly even those who factually vote against them or simply do not go out to vote at all.
Yes, there goes an interesting debate about which the representatives should show their loyalty to! To their party or to the people represented? Here is a simple answer and a simple fact to understand. In strict sense, the representatives are ‘representatives of the people’ and, of course, not ‘representatives of their party’ and their party do not as well as cannot send them to the legislature but the people’s votes do. This is the simple fact. The simple answer is that they can keep loyal to both, their party and their voting people, during normal course of action but if the interests of the people are in jeopardy for their unjust loyalty to their parties, then they must keep loyal to the people they represent even in the face of fury of their party. Bangladeshi politicians have failed to earn even the “pass mark” in this context. The representatives must not forget that they are, in essence, an ever-remaining part of “the People” which is not so in case of their relationship with their party!! That’s really fatal not to realize!!!
Last but not least, there is a big reason for us to worry about our beloved homeland. We do not want it to be impeded by the reins of evil geniuses who are committed to obliterating the efficacy of the trappings of democracy. Democracy’s main adversaries are the foes of peace and demons of violence. We still have miles to go to get to our destination and we are ‘data miles’ away from our horizontal axis.