Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Frailty in our ubiquitous Democracy

In the 1950s and 1960s, communism or socialism or their various shades of colour swept across the whole world, particularly across the developing countries (used to be called under-developed countries). Those political dogmas, however, did not or could not take firm grip on most of those countries. They came about on utopian sentimentality of certain sections of the public and faded away under the harsh reality, leaving behind a spattering of dogmatic title-tattle and lots of bitter memories.

The aspiration to move from proletariat dictatorship to democratic expropriation was strong among the left-outs of the great socialist revolutions. Democracy became the buzz-word, a tool which would offer the same fruit without the associated thorn. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt called his dictatorial regime ‘presidential democracy’, General Ayub Khan of Pakistan formulated ‘basic democracy’ for legitimacy, Sukarno of Indonesia devised ‘guided democracy’, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay legitimised his 35-year long rule with ‘selective democracy’ and many countries adopted democratic veneer such as autocratic North Korea called itself ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ and so forth. The appellation ‘democracy’ became a touchstone for legitimacy, regardless of whether there is any semblance of democratic tit-bits or not in the country.

Nearly 50 years on, right wing fanatics and extremists seized on this opportunity to grab power through the democratic veneer. Once in power, by hook or by crook, clutching the touchstone of ‘democracy’, the ‘non-democratic’ power becomes almost invincible; no popular movement or ideology could dare touch it. Such is the magic of democracy.

The xenophobic racist views such as – “America first”, “Brazil first”, “Philippines first” etc – are sweeping across the world.  Whereas in the communism-socialism rounds there were at least some semblance of social care, workers’ rights etc; but now in the right-wing extremism all those things have become peripheral and have been contemptuously dispensed with. The veneer of ‘democracy’ is only required to get to the power and the rest becomes superfluous.

The word ‘democracy’ originated from the Greek word ‘demokratis’, which is an amalgam of demos (mob, the many) and kratos (the rule). Thus, the original word signifies the ‘rule of the many’. The Greek philosophers Socrates and then Plato along with his disciples had high hopes in democracy. Aristotle over the centuries looked at various forms of governance and gradually the consensus view emerged that democratic participation of the citizens as equal would ensure free and fair form of governance; where rights, liberty and freedom of the people would be preserved.

But there were many shortcomings and apprehensions in that form of ‘democracy’, which Plato did pointedly bring out. He asserted that democratic system might lead to the establishment of the view of the majority, but that might not encompass the view of the whole or a large fraction of the society. He particularly disliked the connotation of ‘rule’ over the whole society. Wouldn’t that ‘rule’ by the majority mean the tyranny of the majority? And what form or type of ‘rule’ that would be applicable over the whole society?    

A true ‘democracy’ is something that may offer good governance, political justice, liberty, equality and human rights. Of course, not all of them can be fulfilled all at the same time. But the majority of these attributes can be met with the majority of the society. And the concept of ‘rule’ can be kept in abeyance, as it inherently means dictation over the society.

The more important point is the ‘issue’ (the choice of government; a matter of national interest in a referendum etc) on which consensus of the society is sought. Has the ‘issue’ been brought to the attention of the public with its pros and cons truthfully? In other words, are public knowledgeable or suitable to pass their opinion on the ‘issue’?

The outcome would be blatantly distorted if people are ignorant or misinformed or misled with different or conflicting interpretations of the same issue. There are plenty of opportunistic populist politicians in this country and around the world who are ready to manipulate the situation to gain the support of the majority and gain power. This practice does constitute a blatant abuse of ‘democracy’. It is very easy to mislead the public with convenient lies. Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Contrary to the conventional ‘democratic principle’, Roman Republicanism advocated that everyone was not fit to vote to elect the government. It gave some very good reasons including stating that only those who participate actively in public life and affairs of the State are qualified to vote. This ruling is eminently more sensible than allowing everybody to express opinions on issues regardless of their knowledge or suitability or association.

For example, a significant majority of the general public with very little or no knowledge of the role or functioning of the EU voted in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016 to leave and then on the following day more than one million people carried out Google search on what ‘EU’ means. Their expressed opinion against the EU the previous day was not based on knowledge or rational assessment, but on prejudice and ignorance. Car workers throughout Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave Europe, because they were unhappy with their working conditions (nothing to do with EU). The farmers in Wales and in large parts of England voted to leave on misinformation and false promises by Populist politicians. The general public were fed blatant lies that the NHS would get extra £350 million per week on leaving the EU and there were many more lies. All of these misinformation and blatant lies had fundamentally corrupted the knowledge base on which the public had voted and hence the outcome became skewed.

David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, said on 3 July 2019 in his Mansion House dinner speech, “A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse”. He also said, “This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.”

Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, integrity, morality and ethics are divorced and opportunism and bigotry make inroad, democracy takes leave. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Political, Religious

Bangladesh’s economic potential in jeopardy

Bangladesh has come a long way since the dark days of early part of liberation (1970s) when the country did not have sufficient funds to pay for diplomatic missions abroad, when the prime minister had to rely on the charity of foreign countries to have urgent medical treatment abroad, when the country did not have money to offer proper burial to the freedom fighters. Henry Kissinger, the arch opponent of Bangladesh’s liberation, branded the country as a basket-case of the world! Those were the darkest days of the Bangladesh’s history.

Now over 46 years later, Bangladesh is in much better shape economically. Although it is still the poorest of the world’s 10 most populous nations, its economy is outperforming many of those well-heeled populous nations. The Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the UN all indicate that Bangladesh is presently steaming ahead economically. Nonetheless, they hasten to add the caveat that unless the country urgently reforms the education system and eliminate endemic corruption, the progress may be stunted.

For the time being, the economy is flourishing. As per the Global Finance Magazine report, Bangladesh has an international reserve of USD 31.8 billion (2016) and its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is USD 246.2 billion (2016). The GDP growth is 6.9% (2017) and the GDP per capita value is USD 1508 (2017), which is somewhat higher than that of Pakistan.

At the time of liberation, Bangladesh was primarily an agricultural country. But 46 years later in 2016, the agricultural output accounts for only 15.1%, industry accounts for 28.6% and the service sector is 56.3% of the GDP. The garment industry alone accounts for 25% of the service sector and earns 80% of all exports. This rebalancing of the economy from agriculture to multi-sectors is a tremendous success for the country.

The economic benefit was not confined to rich urban population. The national wealth has been distributed to the rural population also and poverty rates have dropped. In 1991, more than 40% of the population lived in extreme poverty and now, according to the World Bank, it is less than 14%. That means that over 42 million people have been pulled out of extreme poverty.

Bangladesh has also achieved success in population control. Although Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the population growth rate has been somewhat tamed. This can be gauged when it is compared with Pakistan, as shown in the following Table.

Population Growth

Country        1955      1960      1965      1970        1975      1985      1995      2005      2015


Bangladesh  2.14%   2.73%    2.98%    3.1%        1.85%    2.73%   2.25%    1.74%    1.16%
Pakistan        1.49%   2.13%    2.51%    2.7%        2.83%    3.39%   2.67%    2.13%    2.12%

The striking feature is that before the liberation, the population growth rates in the then East Pakistan was consistently higher than the national average (comprising East and West Pakistan), but after the liberation it is consistently lower than Pakistan (previously West Pakistan). The economy of the then East Pakistan was far inferior to West Pakistan’s before liberation; but after liberation it showed dramatic improvement. The conclusion that can be drawn from the Table is that as prosperity is achieved, the population growth rate declines and vice versa. In other words, the population growth rate and the economic growth rate show negative correlation.

There are, however, ominous signs for Bangladesh in the horizon of the prospect of continued growth. The Global Finance Report had clearly spelled out that unless the education system of the country is improved and corruption is reduced, the potential economic prospect may be jeopardised. Along with these two vital issues, one may add a few more issues and these are: adversarial political system, Islamic fundamentalism and, of course, perpetual traffic congestion in the capital city, Dhaka.

The education system of the country is a major cause for concern. The standards of education, particularly in the public sector, had degenerated so much that the vast majority of graduate and even post-graduate degree holders cannot even write decent sentences either in Bengali or in English. One has only to look at the comments these imbeciles make in various newspapers. The education system has been polluted by politicising it right from the primary level. The public university teachers are less interested in teaching and more so in political sycophancy, wage increases and promotions. University teachers are promoted on the basis of length of service (just like departmental clerks), not on academic excellence or quality of teaching or research. In any department of any university, more than 50% of the teaching staff are ‘professors’ (achieved due to length of service), which is a shameful situation. The proliferation of so-called ‘professors’, with little or no calibre, makes the whole system stink.

In addition, there is a very large sector of Islamic education, which was not present even in Pakistan days. There are 19,000 madrassahs with an enrolment of about 10 million children. These children will grow up as the unproductive population! The government has also established an Islamic Foundation to supervise Imams and Mullahs of 275,000 mosques (and increasing) in the country. These people are all devoted to spreading religious messages, not economic growth!

The binary political system between the Bangladesh Awami League and the BNP makes a mockery of the democratic system. When one party gets to power, its sole aim is to keep the other party out and inflict on it as much damage as possible. Alongside this objective is concentrated efforts in syphoning of state assets as quickly as possible, as in the next election this party may not be in power.

This looting of state assets is perennial. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) chairman, Iqbal Mahmood, has recently said that if large scale government corruption such as in procurement, project evaluation and implementation etc. can be avoided, then the GDP growth could go up by about 2 per cent. This means that 6.9% (2017) could well be 8.9% without corruption.

Dhaka traffic

Dhaka’s traffic condition is just a nightmare. Travelling just five or six miles across the city at any time of the day can take well over two hours. How the office workers manage to attend offices day after day is a mystery. Besides spending endless unproductive hours on the road, the people are subjected to high or very high levels of toxic pollution arising from exhaust fumes of transport vehicles. No wonder the UN report persistently categorises Dhaka as one of the most unliveable cities in the world.

Corruption is endemic right across the board. Even the definition of corruption has been rejigged. A senior politician asserted that if money is not transferred from one person to another, it cannot be called corruption. So, if students are allowed to pass exams illegally or get higher grades simply due to political affiliations, it is not corruption. If people are appointed or promoted in the public services from political considerations or sycophancy, these are not corruption! No wonder, the world bodies are pointing towards corruption as the nemesis of Bangladesh’s continued progress.

Let me finish it off with a joke. Three old men – one American, one Russian and one Bangladeshi – went to God to seek answers to their burning questions.
First, the American asked, “God, when will the politicians in America work together for the good of the people?”. God replied, “25 years.” The old man started to cry that he would not live to see that day.
Next, the Russians asked God, “God, when will democracy be restored in Russia?”. God replied, “50 years”. The old Russian started to cry that his days will be well over before that day.
Finally, the Bangladeshi asked God, “God, when will Bangladesh be free from corruption?”. God then started to cry and finally said, “Not in my lifetime.”

 

– A. Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Economic, International, Life as it is, Political

How ‘Democracy’ had been massacred in the EU referendum

4200The word ‘democracy’ came into English from Greek words demos meaning ‘the people’ and kratos meaning ‘the rule’. The joined-up word, democracy, thus defines ‘the rule of the people’. A system of governance, using what is called ‘direct democracy’, was invented by the Greeks more than two and half thousand years ago when every piece of legislation was voted by eligible Athenian voters. However, this eligibility excluded women, slaves and people who had not completed military services. That left only 20% of the population to have the benefit of the ‘direct democracy’.

That form of democracy became eventually the blueprint for democracy adopted round the world with some alterations, modifications and qualifications to suit socio-economic and political imperatives of the land. In the UK, the system is called ‘parliamentary democracy’, where parliamentarians elected directly by the people are responsible to formulate and pass legislation. Thus, the system is, what is known as ‘representative democracy’. In almost all the countries of the world, which operate ‘democratic’ systems, there are single or multiple layers of election processes.

Whatever the process, the system is fraught with shortcomings, inadequacies and downright failings of the original spirit. Bernard Crick in his book ‘Democracy’ commented, “If there is one true meaning of democracy, then it is indeed, as Plato might have said, stored up in heaven; but unhappily has not yet been communicated to us”.

Plato, the great Greek philosopher at the time when democracy evolved in Greece, detested intensely the system that was practised. To him, that was the rule of ‘opinion over knowledge’. The British sociologist of the last century, Beatrice Webb, said that if we are talking of justice and of good governance, then we are talking of multiplicity of concepts, values and practices which never remain the same. It cannot be the ‘multiplication of ignorant opinions’.

This ‘multiplication of ignorant opinions’ is what is passed on as democracy now. Democracy should not be considered as sacrosanct, particularly the way it is being practised now. Plato sensed that calamity lies at the heart of democracy as it is likely to be abused, and may lead to tyranny and subjugation.

In his book, The Republic, Plato described several stages of democratic process, where the system could be abused and manipulated. In a segregated and differentiated society, the process would invariably turn tribal and societal discord would be aggravated. The leaders elected by sectarian support would be alienated from the majority of electorates and would impose punitive measures to enforce sectarian interests and views, which may create dissent, dissatisfaction and may lead to revolution, bloodshed and subjugation. Even if violent overthrow can be averted, the leaders would be isolated from a large section of the voters and the leaders would take steps to protect themselves from large sections who voted for them. Gradually the government would lose support of majority of the people, become oppressive and tyrant in order to maintain power.

Plato’s concern (as well as Socrates’) was not far-fetched at all. One can see it has great resonance even in the modern society of today, nearly two and half thousand years later. In the majority of countries in the world, ‘democracy’ is used only as a badge of honour for the country, but then invariably abuse it in its implementation. In highly autocratic countries, democracy is used as a shield to deflect any criticism, whereas in other countries, it is used to legitimise its rule. Basically, it is used as a smokescreen.

But probably nowhere the system is more blatantly abused than in Britain and America. In both of these countries, the ruling class claims to uphold a true form of democracy, but, in reality, nothing can be furthest from the truth. In Britain, it is claimed to have the ‘mother of parliamentary democracy’; whereas in America, liberty, freedom, human rights, which are the key attributes of democracy, are proclaimed to be upheld. But neither of them can truly justify them.

Take America in the first instance. Donald Trump came into power by propagating racist, xenophobic, bigoted messages; he stoked up peoples’ prejudices and shamelessly polarised the society. A multi-billionaire Trump projected himself as the champion of the downtrodden underclass of the society. He averted paying hundreds of millions of dollars as taxes by using tax advisers, and then his propaganda machinery projected him as a clever guy to avoid tax. He stands against all decent and moral rectitude, and he is blindly followed by “a basket of deplorables who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic bunch”. If this is what democracy produces, then vulgarity could be a preferred option.

Britain is no better than America in its track records. In the EU referendum last year (23 June 2016), the Leave camp had persistently used blatant lies, deception and misrepresentation to persuade ignorant voters to vote for Leave. £350 million per week extra for the NHS; stopping millions of EU workers streaming into the UK; maintaining sovereignty of the British parliament; rejecting unelected EU legislators etc. and many more were the slogans for the Brexiters. Each one of these was a lie and mendacious presumption. But the election commission, advertising ombudsman etc., in general the administration, was unable to stop such lies. ‘Mother of parliamentary democracy’ went in a coma.

Even more pertinent point is that despite 651 democratically elected representatives in the British parliament, why and how could they have relegated their responsibilities on such a vital issue to decide whether or not to remain within the EU to the general public? Is that not an abject failure of the system? If this was beyond the intellectual capabilities of the elected representatives, how reliable is the democratic system to pick up competent legislators?  How can the presumed legislators even imagine that the illiterate and semi-literate general public comprising factory workers, farmers, fishermen, shop workers and shop keepers, plumbers, roofers etc can make a better decision? Have they all lost their senses?

The fact was that the referendum process was hoisted on to the public by the internal squabbles of the Tory party. The previous Tory party leader had to agree to have a referendum under duress from the Eurosceptic Tory political agitators. When the referendum came, the vile instincts of the Eurosceptics burst out into open to stir up fear and prejudices of the ignoramus people. Lies, deception, xenophobia, bigotry, innuendos and all other vile instincts that run counter to the spirit of democracy had been played out.

Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, decency, morality etc. are divorced, democracy takes leave too. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

No matter how loudly Brexiters shout, “Brexit is the will of the people”, if the voters had been fed with misinformation, fear and prejudices, the outcome is bound to be anything but sensible. When over a million people ‘Google searched’ the word ‘EU’ a day after casting vote on the EU referendum, one can say that there was something grossly wrong. Democracy had been massacred in the referendum. Sir Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

–  Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist