“No one must have any private property whatsoever, except what is absolutely necessary. Secondly, no one must have any lodging or storehouse at all which is not open to all comers … They must live in common, attending in messes as if they were in the field … They alone of all in the city dare not have any dealings with gold or silver or even touch them or come under the same roof with them.”
Is this a description of an ascetic religious order? Or of a communist group in training for a secret mission? Or is it a science-fiction account of a society of the future preparing for a space war?
This is actually Plato’s requirements for the ruling class of his ideal Republic. (Republic, Book III, 415 E.)
There is a close connection between Aristotle’s political and ethical theories as well. The basis of this connection is that Aristotle sees the state as existing for the sake of the “good life” and the basis of the politics is thus fundamentally ethical, according to the Oxford introduction to the famous book ‘Politics’ of fourth-century BC Greek political philosopher Aristotle.
Like Plato, Aristotle and numerous political philosophers, the political thought of eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant is closely bound up with ethics and principles of rights. There is no room of expediency in Kant’s political thought.
On the other hand, according to fifteenth-century’s Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, a wise ruler cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance would be to his disadvantage and when the reasons that caused him to make a promise are removed.
“Having the qualities of faith and honesty and always observing them is harmful, but appearing to observe them is useful,” wrote Machiavelli about the role of honesty in the politics.
The political thoughts of sixth-century BC Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu and of fourth-century BC Indian philosopher Chanakya (Kautilya) are almost like that of Machiavelli, which many brand as Machiavellianism.
“Move over Machiavelli, step aside Sun Tzu. If you want to know how to defeat your enemies and hold on to power the real playbook should be Bangladeshi politics,” - this is how the BBC’s New Delhi-based South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt begins his article on the sentencing of the country’s former prime minister and the main opposition leader Khaleda Zia to jail.
Immediately after the jail sentence, our political analysts unlike the BBC journalist have started dissecting the failures of the country’s main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), of which the three-time former prime minister is the chairperson, which, they claim, landed Khaleda to jail, without analysing the politics as a whole that is being pursued in Bangladesh.
A good number of articles and analyses on the arrest and its impacts on the upcoming crucial general elections have also been written by our political analysts, academics and journalists, apart from continuous ‘knowledge-rich’ discussion in the visual media every day.
And the analysts are often seen speaking only of the failures of the opposition BNP, remaining almost silent on the political machinations of the ruling regime, what is clearly evident in the events over the past years and thus mentioned by the BBC journalist.
Some are arguing that the BNP’s failures on the ground have given the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL) the opportunity to ‘call the shots in the politics’ (they don’t even dare to say that the current regime is gradually becoming authoritarian), some are saying the BNP’s ‘suicidal decision’ of boycotting the 5 January 2014 general elections has led it to today’s situation and some come up with very strange argument: “Would the BNP do better if it goes to power again?”
If we summarise their arguments, it stands like it is the BNP for which the BNP itself and, some would say, the country to some extent, are facing these crises; as if the country would face no crisis should there be no political party called the BNP in the country.
Now let us have a look how much responsibility an opposition political party, again which remains outside of the power structure for over a decade, should shoulder for a political crisis.
Yes, it is understandable that members of the intelligentsia are making such arguments out of their conventional thinking, that “Look, you need to undertake some tricks while practising politics”. They essentially mean ‘dirty tricks’ by ‘tricks’ here. It is not ‘politics as such’. It is the politics of expediency. It is ‘ill-politics’ indeed. That’s the Machiavellian politics and the politics of Chanakya.
What would have happened had BNP joined the 5 January 2014 polls? In the first place, it would need to betray its own position for which many of its activists laid down their lives by that time. Would not it be hypocrisy on the part of the BNP? Secondly, wouldn’t it be the party’s disservice to the nation and to the people of the country when a party joins the national elections only for its own partisan interests in a situation when it is not ensured that every citizen of the country will be able cast their votes without any fear and those will be counted?
Wasn’t the scrapping of the non-party caretaker government system a part of the political machinations of the ruling regime? The system was revoked only to ensure that the ruling party stays at the helm of power during the general elections. And the reason is obvious.
But, the members of the intelligentsia, in general, never pointed it out and dared to call it an ill-motive to hang onto power by holding an engineered election. Some of them rather unethically tried to push the BNP to join the polls in order to have a “kind of balance in the politics” having some BNP MPs in the opposition bench.
What would the country and its people get had BNP joined the polls even losing to the ill-politics? Would it be able to thwart the ruling regime being a growing despot and thus giving birth to numerous ills and injustices? The answer is obviously NO. Joining elections in such a circumstance would rather be a victory of ill-politics.
Never explaining how the BNP is a failed opposition, they say, “Should Awami League be in the opposition now, it would topple the government in no time”. The question is what this argument exactly implies. Aren’t they suggesting that the BNP should resort to more violent path? Didn’t the BNP take enough violent paths in the past years? Should it have launched an armed struggle against the incumbent regime? Don’t these suggestions or allegations support ill-politics only?
Yes, many can refer to political revolutions like the People Power Revolution of the Philippines of 1986, arguing that the BNP should do something like that, but even for such a revolution, it is the intelligentsia which should play a pioneering role. History says it’s not possible otherwise.
Is it a matter of discussion now as to whether the BNP would do better if it goes to power again when the people’s basic rights snatched every day? Okay, for the sake of argument, let us agree that the BNP would do worse assuming power. But, does this assumption justify our support for political machinations or ill-politics of an emerging despot? Okay if it is for sure that the BNP would do worse, let us throw it away and let us build a new political opposition. But is there any such visible move so far?
Have the country’s intelligentsia, who are supposed to analyse issues relating to the wellbeing of humans and thus give new ideas, ever given a new political thought for the country going beyond the thought of these two political dynasties, on the basis of which a new political platform can be floated?
With these arguments, the intelligentsia essentially support and thus promote dirty tricks of politics of the ruling regime, or ill-politics or Machiavellianism. Yes almost all the ruling regimes pursue or at least try to pursue Machiavellian politics, and it is irrespective of place and time. The BNP too did so in the past in many cases.
Our intelligentsia, sadly, never gave a damn to going deep into the reasons that brought us to today’s situation, coming out of the bipartisan political thought. It seems even in the sphere of intellectual practice, we are living in a bipartisan thought. They never tried to understand that ill-politics can never be called politics.
Politics is not an affair of competition and of domination, not an affair of master and slave, not an affair of evil tricks with ill arguments as conducted by the monarchs and governments of the Machiavellian era.
Aren’t the principles of justice, truth, freedom, and equality the yardsticks for political debates or for working out a political discourse for a society?
What should be the yardstick of our political discussion? Should we pursue ethics and morality-based politics as suggested by Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant or numerous other scholars or should we follow the politics of dirty tricks as outlined in the political thoughts of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and Chanakya Kautilya.
The very sad fact is that our so-called intellectuals, too, consider outmanoeuvering and outsmarting rivals exploiting ill tactics 'smart politics' as suggested by Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and Chanakya.
The question is whether the interests of the political parties should be the matter of concerns of the intelligentsia or they should talk about how a political party can go to “power” or not, or they should talk about how the people’s interests can be protected and upheld best or how the country’s democratic progression can be made smooth and unhindered or which political party is putting obstacle towards the democratic progression as well as to the rights of the people.
Our intellectuals not only remain uncritical of ill-politics but also support ill-politics, in some ways, over the years in the name of maintaining a “balance” between the AL and the BNP, but apparently in pursuance of the postmodern thought what Noam Chomsky calls to be an instrument of oppressive power structures.
A combination of ill-politics and uncritical intelligentsia can bring us a disastrous consequence in near future and we’ve already started witnessing some of which. However, the hope is that the people in general can distinguish between what is politics and what is ill-politics. They never accepted ill-politics in the past and will not do so in the days to come.
*Abu Taib Ahmed is a journalist at Prothom Alo