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The dog ate my democracy

  • Published at 12:03 am September 4th, 2019
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It is not our people, but our institutions that are at fault 

Talking with my friends at a kebab joint in Puran Dhaka, I realized how much peers were disillusioned with democracy. “Democracy is stupid, and those who crave for democracy are stupider,” they opined. 

According to them, our democracy, and that of our neighbouring countries, was broken because of the faults of the system. They see it as an oppressive and cumbersome method of running the state where the majority, which they see as uninformed and whimsical, gets to rule over the minority. They say that a benevolent dictatorship or even some sort of a responsible monarchy is more desirable than democracy.

Well, it seems like they have got their wish. The democratic ideals in this country have eroded. 

But is it really democracy’s fault that the system is ailing? Are the people really that idiotic? Is some form of aristocracy better than a democracy?

To understand this, we must understand that the modern states that are seen as democracies by the outsiders are not really democracies. Seldom do states run on the opinions of the majorities. They are run by elected representatives who are informed and able to run the state affairs. 

The modern nation-states are mostly republics that use democracy as an election mechanism. Even then, the democracy is often contained through election regulations, the American Electoral College being a prime example of such constraint. But still, democracy as an election method and as an ideal is not a bad system.

Democracy does not merely mean elections. It stands for the collective ideals of the enlightenment -- freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of movement, freedom of culture being some of its main tenets. 

The ideals of democracy, seen together, are essential for a free society. Democratic rights without a responsible and accountable government are not possible. If an aristocracy ensures democratic ideals, it is a mere coincidence. It is not a system that we can trust. 

The rights of the people cannot be resigned upon the benevolence of the ruler. The safeguard for the rights of men needs to be more systematic and more reliable. That is where democracy comes in.

So what ensures that democracy works for the people and works for good without dysfunction?

Institutions. 

Republics need strong, independent, accountable, and responsible institutions to make sure that democracy is functional. The reason that some countries have more functional democracies than others is that those countries have stronger and more robust institutions than those that have seen the so called “failure” of democracy. 

Simply the absence of institutions in one part of the border and the presence in another can create a massive difference in terms of governance and wellbeing of the citizens. As such, when we want to analyze the failings of the political system, we must look below the surface and analyze the efficacy of the institutions.

Now, let us take a look at our institutions.

When we examine the institutions of this people’s republic, we see systematic dysfunction. Our courts are not free to challenge the executive branch. Our legislature is completely captured by the executive. 

Our police are corrupted from the bottom to the top. Our economy is captured by the wealthy cronies who are hell-bent on strangling entrepreneurship. Our administration is so strapped by red tape that it is barely functional.

So where do the people go with their grievances? Who do they keep their faith on for the delivery of services? 

The police demands bribes. The economy requires capital and influence. The courts are bogged down with cases. The administration requires connections. The legislature is unresponsive. 

So they take things on their own hands. They choose the swift justice of mob lynchings over the courts. They choose the black market over the open market. They worship power before justice.

Democracy erodes, justice withers, and the republic ails. 

And on the surface, it feels that the people are not worthy of democracy. It looks as if the people are at fault. The people blame themselves. As the institutions for holding the authorities accountable are non-existent, they choose the easy way out. They squabble among themselves. They say that they deserve what is happening to them because they are so irresponsible.

However, this disease of blaming the victim and overlooking the faults of the system is erratic at best and criminal at worst. It protects those who destroy our institutions and live off of the misdirection of the citizens.

But in reality, the country is not ailing because of irresponsible people -- it is ailing because of defunct institutions. If the system is broken and justice is non-operational, it is bound to produce rule-breakers. If helping people leads to getting embroiled in trouble, apathetic citizens are sure to be produced. If the leaders are corrupt, the people must be corrupt in order to survive. 

Dave Chappelle, my favorite comedian, summarized this idea the best: “If a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system and are incentivized by that system are not criminals. They are victims, and the system itself must be tried.” 

A primary rebuttal to this idea could be that systems are created by the leadership that is chosen by the people. So, if crooked systems exist, they exist because the people elect crooked leaders in the first place. It is because the people are irresponsible that their leaderships are irresponsible.

However, people elect irresponsible leaders because they do not have better alternatives. And once in power, the crooked leaders break the system such that no other leader can advance towards social change. They flood the streets with guns and machetes and push the student leadership into infighting. Those who are able of responsible leadership become fearful of politics and choose not to engage at all.

Therefore, the blame, if it is to fall on anyone, must fall on us, not the people. By us, I mean those who are able to take risks and join politics. Many of our young people are capable of joining politics and strive for institutional change.

But will they ever do it? Will they be willing to get into the dirt in order to clean the dirt? Will they take the risk? Will they prove that institutional reform can espouse responsible citizenry?

It is sadly true that our democracy is ailing, but it is not beyond saving. It is worth preserving, and it is worth proving that with proper coupling with robust institutionalism, it can be the best system that ensures people’s rights and a just society. 

Anupam Debashis Roy is a Sub-Editor at Dhaka Tribune. He can be reached at [email protected]