Jun 30, 2014

Power politics and its consequences

THE political situation in Bangladesh has degenerated so much that our major political parties are now only interested in capturing power, and they leave no stone unturned, including the use of the power of money, muscle and incumbency, to do so. They do not practice internal democracy. Rather they are entrenched in authoritarianism and dynastic politics. They are not interested in politics based on ideology or principles, and have also become adept at politicisation and distributing patronages.
Such conditions represent symptoms, not the real disease afflicting our politics. In my view, our main disease is corruption.
Self and coterie interests, rather than public service, are the principal attractions behind the capture of political power in our country. Thus, if we are to have a true democratic system, we must make all-out efforts to uproot corruption and criminalised politics from our soil.
At present, the parties, when in power, can loot and plunder, and enjoy the loot almost with impunity. They can also use the spoils as patronage to ‘buy’ political allegiance. Thus, politicians who came close to those in power have become, with only a few exceptions, fabulously rich even though many of them have no known sources of earnings. The rise of the likes of Noor Hossain, the main accused in the recent gruesome killings in Narayanganj, is the product of this criminalised process. Thus, we rarely see any ‘poor’ politician in our two major parties that have taken turns in capturing power. Ironically, these rich people have now become a special class — the ruling class — and the government’s highest priority is to cater to them.
Buying allegiance through patronage distribution causes divisiveness in society. That is why we see divisions along party lines in the ranks of teachers, journalists, lawyers, doctors and cultural personalities, which usually form the core of civil society. Catchy slogans and symbols are generally used in this politics of divisiveness. Speeches that spew venom and hate against opponents are also generously used. As a result, our nation, which was united in 1971, has now become sharply divided into two almost warring camps.
The members of the ruling class do not have to go to jail for looting public exchequer or distributing patronages illegally. They get away by using their power of money, influence and connections. Cases filed against them are usually withdrawn on political considerations. They also do not have to pay any price in the social and political arenas because the perception of corruption no longer carries any stigma.
In Bangladesh’s 43 years of life, no powerful individual, other than Ershad, had to suffer conviction and incarceration for corruption. However, in spite of his being a convicted felon, he did not become an outcast in the social and political circles. Rather, he became a ‘kingmaker,’ and our two major political parties have been in shameless competition to get his support.
In a criminalised political structure, it is important not only to capture power, but also to continue to stay in power. However, staying in power requires centralising power. That is why top government and party positions are concentrated in the hands of two individuals, their families and those extremely loyal to them. And the absence of internal democracy in our political parties is merely the reflection of such a condition.
To centralise power, partisan individuals are generally appointed in constitutional and statutory institutions. Even the autonomous institutions are not spared such partisan aggression. Through this process, incompetent and undesirable individuals often get appointed in important positions, causing the institutions to gradually get weaker. Weak institutions, led by partisan individuals, are often unable to deliver the needed services to citizens. Worse yet, they often cater to the vested interest groups, sometimes in return for monetary or other benefits. In such a situation, the system of checks and balances breaks down, and the rule of law and human rights are seriously undermined, perpetuating a culture of impunity and injustice. The result is that the state becomes weaker.
Political parties enjoy various types of powers, one of which is official state power. Official power is the power to legally use force. The other type of power originates from political parties’ ability to unleash violence on the street. If the powers of the ruling and opposition parties to cause violence on the street are more or less equal and the official power cannot be used illegally for partisan purposes, a state of ‘equilibrium’ exists and they become inclined to reach political settlements regarding their disputes. Such a settlement paved the way for the adoption of a caretaker system in 1996 in Bangladesh, ensuring the peaceful transfer of power, and the institution of a type of minimalist or ‘one-day’ democracy in the country.
However, if the legitimate power can be illegitimately used toward partisan ends, especially to repress the opposition, the prevailing balance of power between the competing political parties can be disrupted. Politicisation of the bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies and various institutions can cause such a ‘disequilibrium’ to occur, and provide an opportunity to misuse power. With the power balance destroyed, the political settlement breaks down and those in power try to use various nefarious means to continue to stay in power, as it happened in 2006.
The use of the law enforcement agencies, especially of Rab during the elections of January 5 earlier this year, is a perfect example of the illegitimate use of legitimate power, causing serious consequences. Rab was created in 2004 to deal with the hooligans created through clientalism and political patronage by successive governments. But the government’s use of Rab along with other law enforcement agencies against the opposition parties before January 5 destroyed the power balance, which closed the doors for a political settlement between the parties, resulting in a non-inclusive, one-sided election. It may be noted that because of their use in undesirable and illegal activities, the discipline of Rab was greatly compromised and a tendency to indulge in criminal activities was created in its ranks. The recent killing in Narayanganj appears to be the manifestation of such tendencies.
It is relatively easier for the ruling party to attract people with muscle power to its ranks as it can not only offer patronage but also immunity. With the rapid spread of patronage politics over the years, there has also been a sharp increase in the number of hooligans in the country. These hooligans, empowered by their new-found riches earned from tender-snatching, toll collection, illegal occupation and other illegitimate activities have been entering electoral politics in significant numbers in recent years, driving their old patrons from the electoral arenas. That is why we now see increasing number of undesirable elements getting elected and holding important positions both at national and local levels. Thus, our politics has increasingly becoming a den of criminal elements.
Because of the prevailing dynastic politics, we have been experiencing a serious dearth of talented people in our politics. With the increasing encroachment of hooligans, honest and committed individuals interested in public service will be increasingly pushed out of the political arena, which will have enormous implications for our future. This will bring harder days for politicians, who are already facing daunting challenges because of increasing cutthroat competition for patronage and the resulting violence within the political parties — especially the ruling party.
The proliferation of hooligans in our politics may also usher in a rule of the incompetent, unqualified and corrupt in the country. Such a rule of the self-interested undesirables is also likely to foment chaos and instability in the country, creating opportunities for the extremist forces to fish in troubled water. We are already witnessing the rise of the fundamentalist forces in our sub-continent. The prevailing situation in Bangladesh will only hasten the spread of extremism and undermine progress in our country.
Published: The Daily Star, Tuesday, June 17, 2014

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