We have achieved this success through the efforts of many actors – government as well as non-government sectors, and communities. Above all our ordinary citizens demonstrated enormous resilience and entrepreneurship in meeting the everyday challenges of their lives and improve their conditions. Many of the simple low cost innovations we developed to reach services to the door steps of poor people and combat natural disasters gained global attention and have been replicated in many countries.
Today as we celebrate our achievements we need to give credit to all who contributed to our achievements and not simply to selected players and regimes. We also need to identify our shortfalls and mistakes so that we can learn lessons from them for course correction in the future. Most important we need to identity the challenges that lie ahead particularly in the post-Covid changing world order when competition for survival and domination will be more intense. Research shows that to sustain our progress in human development we cannot simply depend on our old strategies of simple low cost solutions to increase quantitative numbers in health and education sectors.We need to focus on improving quality and implement capacity of budgetary allocation in health and education. To sustain the pace of our economic growth we need to undertake a whole variety of policy and institutional reforms.
As we celebrate our achievements we need to also look at sectors where we have not been able to make or sustain progress.We have to admit that our political development has not kept pace with our social and economic development. We have failed to institutionalize democracy. Our governance system has failed to uphold therule of law, transparency and accountability which are essential to deepen the quality of a democratic system we all want to build.
Getting support from ordinary citizens behind the agenda of democracy and good governance is not going to be a problem. But a big challenge today is that in the last 50 years powerful groups have emerged who have gained enormous wealth by abusing our politics and political system
During our nationalist struggle our political leaders used a simple slogan - ‘Bhater odhikar, Voter odhiker’ (Rights for food and franchise). Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman mobilised mass base of support behind our nationalist movement by portraying a vision of democracy which will serve the interests of common people andliberate them from exploitation and oppression. We all believed in that vision of democracy.
As we all know we started well. We began as a multi-party parliamentary democracy with commitment to civil and political rights. Within a year of independence we adopted a constitution which enshrined four fundamental principles of state – nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism. But very soon we deviated from these foundational principles.The critical issues for me today is not to repeatedly discuss how we deviated from these principles, because we all know how this happened.The question we need to ask is:why we have not been able to reclaim these principles in the last five decades?
In meetings, seminars and talk shows we often hear lamentations about the absence of political will to institutionalize democracy and promote good governance one of our foundational principles. Instead of repeatedly lamenting its absence I feel we need to discuss how we can create a political will to reclaim this foundational principle.
Combination of three elements is necessary to create a political will behind the agenda of democracy and good governance. First, we need to build a mass support base, second, we need a strong organisational base and finally, we need to build leadership which is trusted by ordinary citizens.
We were able to create a political will behind our nationalist struggle by combing all these three elements. We built such a strong mass base of political support that people from all walks of life spontaneously took up arms to join Muktijuddho in 1971.We had strong organizational base. The Awami League, other political parties, trade unions, professional and cultural groups all supported the nationalist struggle. Most important, we had a trusted political leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. People trusted him that he would not sell out the Bengali nationalist agenda.
We should now ask where we are today in combining these three elements behind the agenda of democracy and good governance. First,let us look as the mass base of support. There is no doubt in my mind that if we ask ordinary citizens whether they support democracy, free and fair elections, freedom of expression, rule of law, transparency and accountability there would be overwhelming support. All opinion surveys show it. But suppose people get “development” in the form ofroads, bridges and electricity but do not get free and fair elections or freedom of expression.Will they tolerate the situation?
To take another example we all want rule of law. But now for decades we have been used to getting quick service by using informal access to powerful people or bribes. Will we be willing to wait our turns in line according to rules or we would rather get quick service by breaking rules?
I still believe getting support from ordinary citizens behind the agenda of democracy and good governance is not going to be a problem. But a big challenge today is that in the last 50 years powerful groups have emerged who have gained enormous wealth by abusing our politics and political system. We all talk about our crony capitalism, loan default culture, elite capture of political power, increasing use of money and violence to get elected etc.
Stakes for winning or losing elections have become enormous in our political culture of “winner takes it all”. So the big challenge is the hurdle posed by powerful individuals and groups who have benefited enormously from the existing “deals-based” system of malgovernance, non-transparency and non-accountability. This class of 'probhabshali' (powerful and influential (people permeates our system from both within and outside. They will try to push back any attempt to reform or change our system.
It is not that people are not protesting these abuses of power but the protesters and dissenters have not been able to build organizational strength. Let us look at the disparity in power between the organisations of RMG workers and RMG owners. RMG workers are frequently demonstrating on the streets but trade unions are increasingly losing their strength. BGMEA, on the other hand, enjoys a veto power.
We saw the disparity in the power of workers and owners organizations played out during the Covid period. We have been witnessing school children demonstrating on the streets demanding road safety from 2018 onwards but again we have seen the disparity in strength between the student organizations and organizations of owners and workers of transport industry.
So long as justice remains the universal demand of the youth and they remain committed to the struggle I see prospects for a better democracy in future
We all know that organisation building by the exploited classes these days is much more difficult than in the 1950s and 1960s. State and non-state actors can weaken budding organisations through various strategies of cooptation, infiltration, and repression.
Building trusted leadership,the third element to create a political will,is also more of a difficult project now compared to the 1950s and 1960s.Through state repression as well as through social media it is easier now to spread misinformation and disinformation about potential leaders and nip them in the bud.
We are now witnessing democracy deficits not only in the so-called Third World countries but also in the countries of the First World such as the USA where fairness of the election is being questioned by the losing political side. What is worrisome now is not the threat of military rule but the rising trend of autocratisation in democratically elected governments.Control of media and shrinking space for civil society are the two early signs of autocratisation which are being noted in many countries.
One hopeful sign and prospect for the democratic future is that young people around the globe and also in Bangladesh are protesting against abuses of power.“We want justice” is the slogan raised by the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA and the road safety movement in Bangladesh. The youth around the world are struggling for justice not only for people but also for the planet. So long as justice remains the universal demand of the youth and they remain committed to the struggle I see prospects for a better democracy in future.
* Rounaq Jahan is a political scientist. The article is based on her remarks presented at the closing plenary of CPD-Cornell international conference 50 years of Bangladesh: Retrospect and Prospect on 9 December 2021