Wednesday, April 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

What matters

The growing connectivity and inclusiveness of society matters more than the age-old commentaries on the death of democracy in Bangladesh

Update : 26 Jan 2024, 12:46 PM

There has been a lot of dissection of the 2024 election in Bangladesh by pundits and commentators in the media. I listen to their frustrations with the government and politicians.  I hear them lament, “The sad thing is there is virtually no atmosphere for serious policy discussion in the country these days.” Sounds very outdated! Contrary to the conventional wisdom on democracy I had some thoughts over the last couple of months. 

Does it matter when Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre writes “Bangladesh’s democracy will be in an extremely precarious state once the election is done?” 

Does it matter when The Economist, a renowned British weekly publication, comments on the 2024 Bangladesh general election, “it was another good day for South Asia’s Iron lady. Despite recent high inflation and other economic pressures, the Prime Minister’s development record remains strong. Despite the farce of the poll, there is unlikely to be much imminent resistance to Sheikh Hasina’s increasingly iron-fisted rule. January 7 was a bad day for Bangladesh’s democracy.” 

Democracy became particularly popular from the early 20th century onwards. But it always had some structural problems. The pillars on which democracy rests have their weaknesses. These have been compounded by 21st century globalization and the advancement in digital technologies, which have changed national politics profoundly. 

What matters is someone like Momtaz Begum, a village girl growing up singing Sufi music with her boyati father, becoming a member of parliament in 2014. I stumbled upon her electrifying 2024 election campaigns in her constituency. The internet allowed me access to her vibrant rallies. I was intrigued by her logical arguments, articulated through her simple words. In her style of speech that appealed to the common people, she spoke about the context of development of the local and national economy, about the Russia-Ukraine war, the impact of Covid, and the Rohingya issue. She masterfully wove into her speeches her musical talents, segueing into spiritual music, never forgetting to mention what she had done as a member of parliament for the development of her constituents, how she had received a taxpayer card as one of the top taxpayers. 

After all this, despite having the nomination of the ruling party, she failed to secure her parliamentary seat membership in the 2024 election. She did a lot for her constituency, but she made mistakes too. In the end, she lost to an independent candidate who exploited the disappointment of the voters with her shortcomings. What matters is why she failed at the last mile. The defeat of the official candidate of the ruling party has a significance. 

Connectivity matters

In the past, radio, television, and the print media were the main sources of mass communication. Now social media has become the most important source of information on any matter. It has connected isolated communities from distant parts of the globe, fueling hopes even in remote areas. 

Sitting in my own comfort zone, thousands of miles away from home, I witnessed on digital platforms the grueling process of the election campaign, how candidates tried to convince the voters in rural Bangladesh about their 2024 election candidacy. It is amazing to watch how in these areas, where the literacy rate is low with many vulnerable, low-income groups, stakeholders are still conscious about their rights and want to see their hopes fulfilled. 

I was struck watching how a middle-aged woman aggressively dismissed a candidate’s claim that she was one of them. In another video, a voter complained to a sitting member of parliament that the tubewell he had arranged was no longer working. It matters that ordinary people are voicing their concerns without any inhibition. It also matters that millions spread all over the world are watching this in real time, thanks to YouTube and social media. 

It matters that a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old savvy internet user from a very remote area in Bangladesh, whom I met last year, earns almost a hundred thousand takas a year creating graphics for clients in other countries. He learned these modern technologies when a team of students from the computer science department of a major university came to pick top students from the village secondary schools for a computer camp in Dhaka. This teenager is just one example, there are many like him -- top students in the rural areas, a generation growing up behind the scenes. 

Thus, it matters that the government has adopted the vision of Smart Bangladesh 2041, built on four strategic pillars: Smart citizens -- the government hopes to give all citizens access to high speed internet by 2025, and provide digital literacy; Smart government -- intends to engage citizen participation in governance by using digital platforms; Smart economy -- to diversify the economy, boost productivity and competitiveness by using AI; Smart society -- reducing poverty and inequality by 2040. It is the examples of such teenagers that tells us that the idea of Smart Bangladesh has already taken root throughout the country.  

It matters when I read the philosopher and historian Noah Harari, “One of the dangers we are facing now with the new technology is that if we don’t make sure that everybody benefits then we might see the greatest inequality ever emerging because of these new technologies. This is certainly a very big danger.” His insights reflect the vision behind the idea of a Smart Bangladesh, which is meant for the many, not a privileged few. 

In the end what matters is the ardent cry to change the prism with which to look at 21st century democracy. We have an urgency to embrace the holistic, democratic citizen-centred sentiments that made official candidates lose to the independent candidates in the 2024 election. 

There is a new political system emerging where, instead of continuing to offer conventional professional advice, there is an earnest need to demonstrate true commitment to inclusiveness. These will be the building blocks for 21st century democracy. 

Atiya Rumni Mahmood is a long-term resident of Maryland, who studied at University of Dhaka and University of Maryland at College Park, and worked in the greater DC Metro area in corporate finance and accounting. She enjoys cooking, reading and travelling.

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