Reports often appear in our newspapers about persons of Bangladeshi origin being elected in the local government, legislative assemblies and parliaments of the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and such countries. I don’t understand the significance of such news. What difference does it make to me as to who is elected in those countries? To me, it is an expression of nepotism to feel proud of any Bangali’s success in these foreign lands. There may be another factor too. It indicates that it is not a mean achievement for a Bangali to be elected in a developed country where there is unadulterated democracy in place. It proves that Bangali’s do not lack in competence.
I see another issue in such reports. The Bangalis who have been elected in western countries in the recent past have all been young. Like us, those countries certainly have elderly politicians who have been in politics for long, but the people have chosen the young ones. And the Bangali young men and women who have won these elections are not the kids of rich folk. They are from low and lower middleclass families. Their fathers were factory workers, hotel and restaurant staff, bus drivers and bus conductors. They had no family identity to flaunt during the election. None of the Bangalis who have been elected over the past few years in Europe and America have had parents or grandparents who were well-known leaders there. I haven’t heard of a single one who comes from a wealthy background or from aristocratic heritage.
Have their education and other qualifications been the only factors behind their success? There is no reason to believe this. There is no dearth of highly educated and qualified people in those countries. So what is actually behind their success? The main factor is the democratic culture of those countries. Where there are no thorns on the path of democracy, the doors are not closed to the qualified and the young, even if they are not wealthy.
We often spew out the rhetoric that youth is the future of the nation. This is just a sort of false consolation. If we say the same thing to the youth of every generation, and push them to one side for the future, what about the present? Will that remain in the hands of the aging? That is like going to heaven in the afterlife. The poor blighter who receives nothing in this life is told, you will go to heaven in the afterlife. We are closing the doors to the promising youth of Bangladesh today, telling them that they are the future of the nation. Rubbish. That is simply cheating them.
While we proudly write about the success of our Bangalis abroad, the media of those countries give a different picture about Bangladesh’s politics and democratic system. They write long reports on how Bangladesh’s politics is controlled by two families. Two leaders from these two parties had ruled Bangladesh in the past. Their successors now control politics. They have remained in power in turns over the past 27 years. No third force in politics has been able to rear its head.
The commentators in these foreign newspapers are making one mistake. Bangladesh’s political culture at present has given rise to several political families, not just two. It is a sort of low grade feudalism. There has been a propensity over the past 27 years for the wife or offspring of any member of parliament who expires, to contest in the by-election. If they are of the ruling party, victory is assured. It is a lot like the norms of the Mughal period. If a leader dies, what right does his wife of children have to his seat? Are there no other qualified leaders in the area? Blocking the way for others is not democracy.
We may be clamouring for free and fair elections, but under the present political system, even if we had angels in the election commission, would the democratic rights of the people be established? In a feudalistic manner, the candidates are forced upon the people from above. Then comes the calls to seal the ballot paper for the selected candidate. And during the campaign, prayers mats and caps are handed out, or it is mosquito nets, lungis and saris, or simply cash, judging on the type of voters. Even if the election is fair, the voters have no alternative but to vote for the candidate forced upon them. How this will benefit the public, no one knows.
When convoys of motorbikes roar into an area, the voters quake in fear. The entire area panics. A potter had wanted his wife to dress up and go with him to the voting centre. But a motorcyclist rode up, stopped in front of him, took a long drag at his cigarette and said, “Don’t take the trouble to go all the way to the voting centre. We’ll cast all the votes of your household.” So the potter’s wife didn’t get to dress up and go to vote.
The democratic culture has been tarnished in various ways over the past 45 years. One, false votes. Two, stuffing ballot boxes the entire night before the election. Three, using the administration in the party’s interests. And four, getting certificates of approval from subservient election observers. It is because all this does not exist in western countries that the foreign youth of common families are easily elected there.
Where the democratic culture itself is tarnished, what difference does it make if the election is free or not? What difference is there between a rigged election and a neutral one? The cycle or motorcycle ridden by the local youth costs nothing to the rich man’s son who rides a Pajero, BMW or Mercedes. People have become used to this subtle manipulation which has grown down the years. It will be difficult to come out of this. The older leaders will want to keep this system intact by any means. It is the vibrant youth that can emerge from this.
Whether it is in the local government or the national parliament, it would only be natural to have representatives of the peasant class in a country whose mainstay is agriculture. I will repeatedly salute the MP whose father works in the fields. The MP whose father is a factory worker is the most respected. I will salute them because they can understand the pains and suffering of the people. Spouses and children of MPs and ministers being elected to parliament is a despicable instance of feudalism. There are, of course, exceptions where they may be qualified for the seat.
More harmful than tarnished democracy is an embedded media. Many of our newspapers round the year post up pictures of potential candidates of various areas and publicise them. Many of these candidates are criminals, dishonest and corrupt. But they are influential.
Higher education has spread in the country. There are competent young people all over the country. They are not getting a chance. There are only thorns in their path, all the doors are shut.
It requires indomitable strength of mind to remove all thorns. It requires patience and sacrifice. It requires immense strength to open the closed doors. I do not believe that the 40 million young men and women of Bangladesh do not have that strength. I call upon them. I look towards them with hope.
* Syed Abul Maksud is a writer and researcher. This column has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir