In Bangladesh, when the pourashava and city corporation polls are held, the mayoral candidates hardly get any less publicity than the candidates of the US presidential election. They appear on the front pages of the newspapers continuously for about a month or so. And the TV channels go the extra mile.
Whatever the reason may be, simple forms of entertainment and recreation have diminished to almost nil. There are no plays worth watching. The music doesn’t stir the mind. No one has the time to listen to classical and instrumental music. Intellectual debate and deliberations are non-existent.
There are still people who are involved in constructive work in remote areas of the country, but they remain unsung. Viewers can’t be held to the small screen with lifeless TV talk shows. So it is not surprising that the lively reports on the city corporation have served as a source of entertainment for the people.
In the past, there had been the pourashava or corporation chairman, but that sounds too mundane and outdated. So now it is mayor. The term ‘mayor’ lends a certain weight to the office. But the media has even upped that, using the term ‘nagar pita’ or ‘city father’. This implies he is the city’s father figure and the citizens are like his/her children. He is to ensure all facilities for every resident of the city. They declare this loud and clear during the campaign. While campaigning they go to the seediest of slums and meet and greet the people, even dragging up feeble old men to hug them with great gusto. They ask some old men to bless them, easily sprouting promises to mend the ruts and potholes in the muddy dilapidated roads in front of their houses. The journalists feel that there can be no alternative but for such a gentleman to be elected mayor.
Local government institutions are formed to resolve the problems of the respective areas. Such institutions have existed down the centuries. There were local government bodies in Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Taxila and Mahasthangarh too. The administrator was elected or selected by the people.
The people of this region were used to seeing local government elections a century before having the present form of full democracy. They have seen elections to the local board, the district board and the municipal board. Administrators have been elected to Dhaka and the big cities. People have approached the most respected and competent individuals, and have pleaded them to contest for office. The supporters would campaign while the candidate would sit at home with his hookah, inquiring about various problems of the locality and going out to resolve them. After being elected, he would see what could be done to enhance the civic amenities. But he never would make lofty promises before the elections. They would be very well-bred persons, not prone to false promises.
There are, of course, differences between the municipalities of those days and the present-day city corporations. The cities then were small both in area and in population. Now each city is like an empire. So rather than calling them city fathers, it would not be out of place to call the mayors emperors of the city.
In the Bangladesh model of democracy, the election campaign is more important than the actual voting. Surely the cadres of the aspirant city father cannot be blamed for sitting and stamping the ballot papers in his favour. After 450 years, it was only on Sunday we came to know, through the election commission, that there is no correct definition for a free election.
Actually there certainly is a definition for a fair election. There is no need to define duty. It just has to be carried out.
There is nothing wrong for using party symbols and party nomination in local government elections. After winning the election, whether through fair or foul means, the mayor should resign from all party posts. He may remain loyal to the party and have good relations with the government, but he must abstain from all party activities and programmes. After all, he is the guardian of all the people in the city. And if he does join any programme of his party, then he must join programmes of other parties too, if invited. But does this exist in our political culture?
We are the people of an agrarian society. We do not understand urban and city civilisation. That is why even if we are elected through a purportedly ‘excellent’ election with no rigging, it is not in our capacity to develop the municipal area. It is very much possible to work well in the pourashavas, given the small size of the municipalities. The pourashava election is not a festival or a sport. The fanfare created by the media may benefit a particular party, but it comes to no benefit of the people. Public welfare is what counts, not glamour and glitz.
The role of an autonomous and efficient local government is vital in building a modern democratic state. But depraved politics has ruined the local government system. When constitutional institutions and the local government system are ruined, then the vision of a developed democratic state can hardly be fulfilled.
* Syed Abul Maksud is a writer. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.