Saturday, March 10, 2012

Some thoughts on what it would take for Bangladesh to be a democracy

I think these are some of the things that prevent us from being a so-called real democracy (besides the obvious corruption and dynastic politics):

1. Identity crisis. Are you a Bengali first or are you a Muslim foremost? Are you Americanized, Bollywoodized, Ingrej or khati deshi? Is it possible to reconcile their differences? If so, how? Or, better yet, how without being hypocritical or a mixture of contradictions? And what about those Hindus/Christians/Buddhists and Tribal/Indigenous people that we hear about in the news from time to time? Bangladesh has been sold as a homogeneous country for a long time but it's clear that we're not. We need to accept these differences, respect and celebrate them. Easier said than done of course and we can see the kinds of problems that established heterogeneous countries like the USand India have. 

Fostering a distinct Bangladeshi identity is a very difficult aspect of nation-building. There is practically a silent consensus among most people that different religions and ethnicities should be respected; that strong religious and cultural values can co-exist, etc. But the problem is how the question ofidentity is used in the political sphere and how it is manipulated to create schisms in our society. An ordinary Bangladeshi can almost innately reconcile their Bengali heritage with their faith, their traditional values with their increasing exposure to the world. The problem arises when political forces artificially delineate what is 'Bengali', what is 'Islamic' and what is 'foreign' and force people to choose between them. Such ploys need to be discontinued.

2. Lack of political and legal education. An elected government has relatively free reign but an opposition party(ies) need to know how to effectively oppose in and out of Parliament and the public needs to be more aware of their rights.   

At the moment MPs have their hands tied if they wish to oppose a particular Bill, Act or Amendment as they have to vote along party lines. If I remember correctly, the tenuous justification given for why MPs have to vote according to party lines is that it prevents 'floor crossing'. Apparently, in the early days, MPs would surreptitiously change their party allegiance and it was feared that Parliament could become unstable as a result, so, floor crossing was banned. The fact that politicians like Barrister Moudud Ahmed changed their political party every few years clearly shows the ineffectiveness of this policy. Whatever merit this policy once had, it has no place in a country that tries to project itself as a multi-party, transparent democracy. 

The point is that the opposition parties as a whole should voice their objections in Parliament (rather than in public press conferences). People forget that only a little bit of Parliament's work occurs in the main Chamber and most of the actual legislating and policy making is done behind the scenes in standing committees. There, the Chief Whip has less power and there is more opportunity for across-the-floor negotiation. As far as I am aware, there are at least a few BNP MPs on standing committees and they have the opportunity of voicing their opinion and effecting a real change. Whether they do so, is another matter. (Of course, the incumbents act in the same way when they are in the opposition.) 

Parties seem to think that the most effective way of protesting legislation and policies is through general strikes. Staging protests outside of Parliament is nothing more than a facile exercise in political showmanship which only demonstrates how immature our democracy still is and is detrimental to the economy to boot.

3. Lack of an efficient and transparent criminal justice system.


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