Musfequr Rahman talks to professor emeriti of Dhaka University, Serajul Islam Choudhury about how Bangladesh reached its present political state and what impact this will have in the future
How do you evaluate the caretaker government’s activities over the last two years?
This caretaker government is backed by the army. At the beginning of the caretaker regime they had the admiration of the people for neutralising the clash between the two alliances. After that, they became more ambitious and introduced reforms in two sectors – electoral and in corruption.
The political parties have not been reformed the way the government envisioned it. Such initiatives are not successful through imposition. The fact that they completed the national polls, their primary duty, is good enough.
During their tenure, senior political figures were arrested but at the eve of the election they came out on bail in large numbers, which, in the end, reduced the credibility of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
During this period, the economy suffered the most. Investment dropped. Vendors, small industries, shopkeepers’ businesses all shrunk. The banking sector did not flourish. Prices of essentials have become abnormally high as the steps taken by the interim government to curb it, failed.
What are the factors that instigated 1/11?
The BNP four-party alliance and Awami League fourteen party alliance are responsible for the events that led to January 11. BNP was then in power and can be held more responsible than Awami League. They manipulated the Election Commission and imposed such electoral laws that created difficulties for their opponents. Furthermore, because of their intolerance of each other, they engaged in bloody confrontations.
When the interim government took power, AL spread propaganda saying that this government was the outcome of their movement.
The ninth national election has been due for the last two years. The military-backed interim government used various kinds of ‘reforms’ as an excuse to delay elections. Have there been any qualitative changes?
The interim government is responsible for holding a free and fair election within three months of its installation. But it took almost two years in processing the election. The election is the means for people to express their view. It is good for the democratic process if elections are held on time and this election should have been held earlier. Seven years have passed since the eighth national election in 2001.
In this election there have been no, stark, qualitative changes. We have witnessed that most of the previously, blatant, corrupt, candidates contested in this election as usual.
But this time, some young candidates had received nominations, which is a good sign. Young candidates should come forward as they are ready to take challenges and inventive initiatives.
With regards to the parties’ manifestos, they have taken some new pledges but most of them are because of the pressure from the people. Very few qualitative changes took place here.
What is the future of democracy with regard to this present scenario?
Democracy can be defined in three ways. Equality of rights and opportunities of citizens, decentralisation of political power, and a government consisting of elected representatives at every layer. Democracy did not come with these three features following this election. A parliamentarian democracy probably came to us, only partially, fulfilling the third characteristic of democracy. The other two, though vital, remain unfulfilled.
What step should be taken to make an effective parliament?
The government and opposition must stay inside the parliament during sessions to express opinions and constructively criticise each other. We should not only depend on these two parties, as they are not democratic by themselves. They are not worthy enough. Alternative political movements with a cultural ideology need to come forward, enhancing tolerance.
If a shadow cabinet is introduced in this parliament it will suggest to the government that accountability is high and the government remains exposed to the people.
What should be the role of civil society? Is it partisan towards political parties? How can they be more effective?
The civil society should have a political orientation and stop making people apathetic toward politics. With political orientation, I mean, an approach towards political emancipation of society. The civil society is almost divided and maintains allegiances towards parties and alliances. I cannot depend on them.
The civil society became vocal in the country when political activity became weak. Politics gradually loses its power and credibility when the civil society is more exposed, delivering their views to a target audience to depoliticise the people. Such intentions from the civil society are harmful.
A bureaucracy-based structure then becomes more powerful, which suppresses the political development of people. Traditionally, from the British period, the ruling class structure was bureaucratic and still remains the same.
Maybe some political figures ran after their own interests and defamed politics, destroying people’s trust in politics, but politics is not bad. The civil society, meanwhile, tries to control power through bureaucracy. However, politicians are the main reformers of society.
The civil society should strengthen political movement and the democratisation of society and state. The duties of civil society are not only to generate views and opinions.
On many occasions, the civil society tries to divert the masses from politics. In this regard, the masses resist this and become more participatory in politics. Patriotic and enlightened people should come forward to guide the people into movement.
How do you evaluate the military, diplomatic and other organisations’ interference in national politics?
Such intervention from them is not desirable. It is harmful for society and democratic growth.
The military is the machinery of the state. They should work according to the constitution and should not be visible or back a government. This time they worked unusually at an exceptional circumstance.
Foreign intervention indicates that our country is not fully independent and it is controlled by capitalist ideology where IMF, World Bank and others are more influential. Their influence is invisible but sometimes their money-making activities become exposed even to the masses.
After independence, we were working towards democracy. But this trend failed to reach its destination. Most of the people then were nationalists, when the need for socialists was vital. One part got attached to the government and the other one gradually detached from exercising power.
Reaching a democratic process cannot be possible without movement and the integration of intellectual and patriotic alliances to vitalise and guide the mass movement forward.
Do you think that the term of five years for an elected government to remain in power should be reduced?
I think it should be reduced to four years. After evaluating the governments’ tenure we witnessed that in the fifth year, the last year of their power, they become more undemocratic, their plundering attitude turns massive. To consolidate power, the ruling party recruit more people in the state organ and provide promotions, especially to government staff who kept affiliation with them. They grossly manipulate the state mechanism and the administration to work in favour of them after extinction of their tenure.
People and opponents became intolerant to their attitude during that time.