Mario Cuomo, America’s greatest president who never was, observed: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” With the next general election possibly, hopefully just around the corner, and the Dhaka air thick with deja vu, Cuomo’s quote is what Bangladeshis ought to be reminded of.
Except, in Bangladesh, governance has always been devoid of poetry, prose, theme, diction and all other literary constraints, save for metaphor. Specifically, a metaphor for failed promises.
Campaigns, therefore, are about burying ambiguous, disingenuous promises deep underneath spiteful, petty mud-slinging. Blaming the other person, after all, and money, not policy and solutions, get people elected.
The elite have done an excellent job in preserving a reverse democracy: people do not elect governments, the government uses people as pawns to get elected. Politicians, thus, have a mandate to serve themselves, each other, and the elite, but not the people.
They are fortunate enough to have a poverty ridden population at their disposal – one that wants what it needs: food and clothing. The latter is negotiable. So is the former. The people – excitable as they are on occasions, much to the benefit and the chagrin of the politicians – are not even greedy enough to make demands about shelter.
Existing in this world, where the political system is not about making and delivering on promises, makes it easy to reverse positions without a thought. Since the objective is ruling and not governing, flexibility is necessary. Nothing displays this better than cutting through the rhetoric lacking in subtlety and rhetoric regarding the matter of the caretaker government.
The BNP wants now what it was vehemently opposed to when in power, because it is viewed as the only means to the only end. Awami League’s role has been reversed for the same reason.
Power, not democracy, is what both thought about then, and what dictates their thoughts and actions now. It is why the opposition, whoever it is, invariably stages parliamentary walkouts and inevitably cripples the nation with the plague of hartals, increasing in frequency towards the ends of their tenures.
In 2008, the two parties publicised their respective election manifestoes. They kept with tradition in doing so, and in reiterating promises of bygone years. It may be heartening for some to know that the politicians promised to free the country of corruption and establish a system of good governance.
Given the benefit of doubt at the last general election, Awami League has since followed in BNP’s footsteps until this point, at least so asserts the World Bank. Both prefer nepotism instead of clean politics, which means neither has a leg to stand on regarding boisterous, oft-repeated claims about rooting out corruption.
They also promised in 2008, as they did in 2001, to put a stop to the rise in the prices of essentials, and to generate jobs. Sadly, inflation and unemployment have both increased year on year since 2001. A look at the cars being driven on the streets of Dhaka today, compared to ten years ago, they bear testament to the rich getting progressively richer.
The leaders have reaped the rewards of this as well. However, the average Bangladeshi’s real wage and purchasing power have not shown the same upward movement, set against the backdrop of a 1.59% mode population growth rate.
Statistics rarely tell the full story; for instance, the literacy rate went up from 47.9% in 2001 to 57.7% at present, an indication that the parties’ pledges about education have been delivered upon. What the numbers leave out is the role of non-governmental organisations. They have almost single-handedly dragged these figures up, despite the obstacles thrown at them by the politicians.
Setting goals are important for good governance, even if they are not realised. Campaign pledges set goals and force politicians to try harder, do better. Bangladeshis, however, do not concern themselves with forcing their leaders to make promises that they are held to.
They seem to have as little time for solutions as the leaders do. Even if they did, the elite make sure that the people do not form part of the equation. This helps immensely, since all politicians stand for being in power, and are opposed to not being in power.
When that is the only goal, good governance becomes an impossibility. Given those margins, words are gibberish in a land of failed promises. Campaigns are pointless, meaningless, and always the same. With The Who singing: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” in the background, Bangladesh will get fooled again.