Thursday, January 25, 2007

Blaming politicians alone is shirking responsibility


Now that the democratic process has been pushed aside and a military-backed government is in place, the country is in the danger of being depoliticised in the name of being depolarised. There is no doubt that unhealthy polarisation of society along party lines needs to be reversed, yet this cannot be done by discrediting the political process altogether.

DR MUHAMMAD Yunus told a foreign news agency last week that the people of this country ‘are not just happy, they are jubilant’ at the declaration of the state of emergency. It is entirely possible that the Nobel laureate gave away to some exaggeration, but there is no doubt that he was largely on the ball with his observation. After months of fear and anxiety, the people rightly feel a sense of relief and respite at the opportunity to go about their lives without interruption. The country has returned to near-normalcy from near-anarchy, and the man on the street couldn’t be faulted if he was jubilant at the turn of events.

However, there is a clear issue of irresponsibility when civil society and the media also partake in that jubilation. That the declaration of a state of emergency was necessary to bring stability back to the country cannot be denied, but the fact that sixteen years after our return to democracy, we have had to install a military-backed interim government to sort out the mess left by our political parties should be a cause for great despair, not jubilation.

Dr Yunus, in his interview, also spoke of the state of our politics and of our political parties only being interested in ‘power, power to make money’. Once again, he has provided a mostly accurate portrayal, even though he has been highly criticised over the weekend by all the major parties. Indeed these parties are to blame for the situation that exists in our country today. Over a period of sixteen years, they have not only provided pitiful governance, they have combined to destroy all the institutions of the state from the judiciary to the civil service. Instead of strengthening the pillars on which a functioning democracy could stand, they have systematically demolished those pillars to serve their partisan interests. Our major political parties are collectively responsible for this state of emergency, for this isn’t a result of what has taken place over the last two and a half months; rather this is the outcome of sixteen years of failure. The parties can criticise Dr Yunus for his generalizations, but they cannot shed the responsibility for the decay of our political process.

One can, therefore, understand that the people are disappointed and feel betrayed by the political parties; yet, the fault is not of the political parties alone. Civil society and the media are also responsible for the disintegration of our democratic order. They are supposed to act as pressure groups on the political parties to uphold certain democratic principles. Unfortunately, civil society and the media in our country have not only failed in that endeavour but also legitimised, at different times, the efforts of our political parties to tear apart the fabric of our democratic polity.

In any open and democratic society, it is only desirable that civil society and the media play an active part in the political process. As institutions, they are expected to be political. In our country unfortunately, civil society and the media have become partisan. They have allowed themselves to be infiltrated by the political parties and have become divided along party lines. Therefore, instead of upholding the democratic aspirations of the people, they have become party to the power struggle of our political parties. Civil society and the media have made countless demands on the previous caretaker government led by Iajuddin, including calling for his resignation. Yet how many times over the last sixteen years have they demanded the resignation of the prime minister or a minister for their failures? When have these upholders of our democratic principles demanded that the political parties become internally democratic? Why is it that they only talk of electoral reform when one or the other of the parties, typically while in opposition and close to election time, bring up these issues and never otherwise? When did civil society last demand the strengthening of local government to ensure proper service delivery to the people? Instead, those who constitute civil society — doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, artists and commentators — have signed up to the agenda of one or the other of the parties and spend their time promoting that agenda.

Therefore, the failure of our political parties is also a failure of society itself. If civil society and the media had played a positive role to keep our political parties honest, instead of surrendering themselves as tools for the politicians to play with and use to their advantage, our country would not have found itself in its present position. Now, having not only allowed but aided in the process of disintegration, which has resulted in this state of emergency, it is highly regrettable that civil society and the media can shamelessly support this outcome. In the days following the declaration of the state of emergency, a few of the most prominent national dailies in this country carried front page pieces in which they protested the government’s confused attempts at controlling the media, yet found no time or column space to protest against the suspension of the fundamental rights of the people. Their message was clear: we support the state of emergency and the suspension of fundamental rights as long as we, the media, can work without interference. That, it seems, is the extent of our media’s commitment to creating an open and democratic society.

Now that the democratic process has been pushed aside and a military-backed government is in place, the country is in the danger of being depoliticised in the name of being depolarised. There is no doubt that unhealthy polarisation of society along party lines needs to be reversed, yet this cannot be done by discrediting the political process altogether. We may yet be unsure of how long this interim government intends to stay, but we cannot be in any doubt that the country will have to sooner or later be given back to our political parties to run. Given that reality, would it not make much more sense for civil society and the media to work towards changing the ways in which these parties operate, rather than dismissing these parties and hailing a government which is temporary and can only deliver so much? At the end of the day, it is only through the political process that the people of this country will have their demands met and only through that process can any reforms brought about in the system by an interim government be sustained.

Therefore, it is very disheartening to see that certain prominent civil society members and a section of the media are providing such overt and unqualified support to this interim government, and are feeling jubilant at the way that things have come to pass, instead of expressing regret at their sheer failure in preventing this scenario. Now, instead of demanding the earliest return to the democratic process so that the wrongs of the last sixteen years can be put right, civil society and the media are asking for this unelected interim government to stay on for as long as it wishes.

One must not forget that even in our country an elected government is accountable to a certain extent, not just every five years when they go to polls but on a regular basis when elected representatives have to give answers to their constituents. This military-backed government does not even have that level of accountability. When this government, which is far removed from the masses and not dependent on their mandate, breaks down illegal structures and evicts hawkers from the city, who is there to question its motive? If this government starts bulldozing slums, who will ask what the government is doing to provide alternative housing to those who have been displaced? For those who feel jubilant that a ‘civil war’ has been averted because of this state of emergency, it will be a rude awakening if and when the masses may be pushed into such a corner that it ultimately has to rise to recapture power and hand it back to their political representatives. #

Republished from The New Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh 22 January 2007