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A crisis of legitimacy

  • Published at 05:33 pm October 22nd, 2018
Is it possible to forget this? COURTESY

There is far more to the opposition than meets the eye

Political development in almost every corner of the world has never been a linear phenomenon. It entails episodes of both democratic progress and decay, and the net effect of these competing forces shape where every nation stands. At the heart of it lies our capacity to understand the political nuances, and correctly decide which way to turn. That is why political cross-roads are a tricky spot and good collective judgment becomes fundamental for any nation to move forward.  

Yet, not everyone is capable of making such good judgment.

During the American Civil War, many viewed Abraham Lincoln’s position on the war and slavery unacceptable. They found his ways of dealing with things deceitful and undemocratic. They did not believe that the democratic mantle was safe in his hands. And that conviction was so profound that there was no peaceful mechanism for solving the disagreements. 

Moreover, as history unfolded, we know many political stalwarts of that era bet on the wrong side. Lincoln was right. Not because he came out victor at the end of the painful civil war, but because what he believed was fundamentally necessary for the democratic order to prevail. He understood that one cannot attain democratic progress if one simultaneously believes in the enslavement of human beings. 

Such ideological position fundamentally violates the basic premise of democracy -- that “all men are created equal.” And without getting the basic building block right, there was no possibility of furthering democratic ideals. That is why understanding the core promise of democracy is imperative if we are sincere about progressing both as a nation and a society.

So, what are the fundamental promises of democracy? 

Democracies offer rules based on tolerance. It offers norms based on civility and humane etiquettes. It aims to free society from the shackles of violence, where public reasoning, and not force, will shape how outcomes are attained on the social, political, and economic fronts. Yet, the most fundamental promise of democracy is that it does not allow politics to turn into a “zero-sum” game. 

For centuries, politics was all about those who could command the greatest of forces to attain decisive victories over their rivals. It was the integral mechanism through which power was attained, maintained, and distributed. And those who fell on the wrong side of this zero-sum game went to the gallows. 

Yet, the advent of democracy offered a more civilized setting. It allowed people and groups falling out of power a genuine scope for both survival and revival. Thus, harnessing a political space conducive for coexistence is at the heart of any democratic fabric. 

But, every actor who finds himself/herself navigating the political space does not conform to this democratic promise. For them, either their ideological position, or their leadership, make them a problematic element within the political space. That is why Communists, Islamists, and Nazis have all found it difficult to both embrace their ideology and the promise of democracy.

In short, their ideology and party norms promote zero-sum politics -- and knowing these inherent contradictions -- mature democracies like the US or Germany have outlawed parties belonging to these radical constructs.  In the US, President Dwight Eisenhower oversaw the emergence of the Communist Control Act 1954, which outlawed the operations of the communist party. In post war Germany, the Nazi party was also banned for the grave consequences it had produced for Germany and the entire world.    

These historical events bring us to some pertinent questions concerning the state of politics in Bangladesh today. More specifically, how should one view an individual or an organized group who empowers a murderer, but did not commit the murder themselves? How should one deal with groups whose rhetorical commitment to democratic ideals are nothing but an operational façade -- hiding their deep impulse to attain power through implementing zero-sum political tactics.     

After the “August 21 Grenade Attack” verdict, it is quite clear that BNP and its present leadership are directly responsible for plotting and executing an assassination attempt on then leader of the opposition Sheikh Hasina in 2004. The heinous event not only resulted in the death of 24 innocent AL leaders -- its scar prevails over hundreds who suffered physical disabilities after surviving the event. Most unfortunately, the event reflects how BNP is not interested in the politics of coexistence, which has created an acute deficit of trust between AL and BNP. 

The verdict has also established that BNP operates in a nexus constituting its leadership, Jamaat-e-Islam, Bangabandhu’s murderers, and Islamist terrorist groups like Huji. And the operation of such alliance brings to question the legitimacy of BNP as an acceptable representative of centre-right political constituency.  

There is no doubt that every member of BNP is not directly responsible for what has happened, because the assassination plot was executed by the most trusted guards of its leadership. Yet, can its members seriously deny their “collective” responsibility? And if anyone, who was not directly involved with this plot choose to remain in BNP, can they avoid not offering the murderers their endorsement? 

What remains a more time relevant question is can we keep all such concerns regarding the legitimacy of the BNP under the carpet and simultaneously take forward our democratic journey simply by holding a participatory election?

Those who want to avoid these questions, but still impose their observations about the state of politics in Bangladesh, are not interested in improving the democratic fabric of this country. They have somehow convinced themselves that one can become a democracy without actors living up to the democratic promise. And after the verdict, it is clear that BNP does not believe in the democratic promise of coexistence, which brings to question their legitimacy as a democratic political organization. 

But, are we ready to make that pertinent collective judgment in this decisive political cross-road? Or, will we remain fashionably neutral to everything that has happened?

The choice is ours. 

Ashikur Rahman is Senior Economist, Policy Research Institute.