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The people that aren’t

  • Published at 06:48 pm January 6th, 2014
The people that aren’t

When we talk about democracy we tend to delude ourselves. We tend to equate popular modern forms of government with popular government; what we call democracy we tend to equate with the phrase “government by the people.” I propose instead a different reading of our modern-day form of government, and hence a framework for better understanding of contemporary politics in Bangladesh.

Perhaps we have watched too many American movies and have heard the phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” too often, This is what democracy means, does it not? The phrase is from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and derives its worldwide popularity from the strength of American popular culture. We have heard it so often we tend to think of it as a definition of democracy. This is what democracy means. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It sounds great. Unfortunately it is a delusion.

It is the second proposition which is the problematic one. The first proposition simply suggests that there be a government; and the third is equally simple albeit highly contested. “Government for the people.” Which government, however despotic, will not say it is “for the people”? We can debate the issue endlessly with reference to individual governments or even individual decisions. But let us leave that aside for now and focus on the principled core of the statement, the proposition that government be “by the people.” This is a crucial proposition, at the core of what democracy ideally is about. It is also wildely impractical.

When talking of democracy, some of us may have in mind a flickering mental picture of ancient Athens, where it all supposedly began. In Athens all free men (mind you, no women or slaves) took part in open assemblies to debate society’s matters. All of them could venture to talk and present matters for the others to deliberate upon, and all could, or so we imagine, speak their mind. The decision reached after deliberation and a vote would constitute the final word in the matter.

This may or may not have been the case. We know for a fact that money played a certain role in Athenian politics, and so did education and oratorical skills. A tongue-tied poor man did not have an equal say, after all. But let us not get into such details; let us just consider the proposition “government by the people” held up against the light from Athens.

If all could be present and all could present their case and speak in the assembly with equal weight and freedom, then we could with some reason term this a working “government by the people.” Democracy literally means that, “people’s government” or more rightly “government by the people.” In Athens the people directly took part.

But this flickering image of ancient Greece is very impractical even as an ideal. Estimates suggest that the population of Athens and its surrounding areas was 200,000 to 300,000 in antiquity, of whom about one-tenth were free adult males. Not all took part in the assemblies. We can assume that up towards 10,000 may have assembled on the greater occasions, such as when debating whether to engage in war, and much less during ordinary assemblies. The point is that there is a far cry from this rather humble assembly to the realities of our modern-day democracies.

We generally count our populations in millions. For Bangladesh we count 80 to 90 million voters. They cannot assemble every month or so to debate matters of common interest. It would have been wildly impractical. So in this vital aspect of democracy, ie of government “by the people,” the people do not take part, do not raise issues for the rest of the adult population to debate, do not speak to all others and do not expect to be heard. Athenian democracy is not how modern-day government works.

Instead we have, through history, devised a number of ways of dealing with our great numbers. We use newspapers and other media and increasingly television and internet instead of shouting. We have laws on free press to ensure that all can, theoretically, avail themselves of these opportunities and thus take part in democracy. And, most crucially, we have elections so that we may be represented by a more practical number of people. In other words, in modern-day democracies the people do not directly take part in government.

Modern-day democracies have representative government, which is different from “government by the people” in crucial ways. Representative government both in Bangladesh and in the rest of the “democratic” world is very different from ancient democracy and from the immediate idea of “government by the people” in one basic respect: We do not take part in government. Instead we elect our rulers.

Rule of politicians

There are two things to glean from this basic insight. First, modern-day democracy means at best government by a group of people chosen in a process called an election. And, second, this process called an election becomes crucial in order to understand modern-day polities as the single moment in which the ruled in some theoretic way take part in government. Let us return to the process of the election shortly and first ask ourselves who they might be, these people chosen in the election, the rulers.

In general, from most countries, including Bangladesh, we know that our rulers, as a rule, are not our equals. They are richer, better educated, more erudite, better connected and have a more convincing personality. We also know that Bangladeshi village voters in general prefer the educated to the non-educated, the rich to the non-

rich, and candidates experienced in the art of politics to candidates who are not. Interviews I conducted in villages in Munshiganj and Narsindhi confirmed this.

To most village voters, democracy does not mean “government by the people.” To most people, democracy means development. They prefered candidates who could get things done, in particular things to do with the improvement of society – rasta-ghat, school, jobs. An overwhelming majority of villagers were much disinclined to vote for an uneducated candidate with little political experience or money, such as themselves.

The village understanding of what democracy is about tallies fairly well with Joseph Schumpeter’s prefered form of government, as government of electoral entrepreneurs. This Austrian political scientist saw representative democracy as a way of retaining elite domination, as a better option than the socialist democracy he feared. To both Bangladeshi villagers and Schumpeter, albeit for differing reasons, democracy is not “government by the people” but government by a different creed of people, different from those who elect them. Democracy, in this sense, is the rule of politicians.

This in itself is not new in history. What is new and specific to democracy is the regular election, the occasion in which the mandate to rule has to be renewed and the contract between the ruler and the ruled reconfirmed. The election is the link of the ruler to the ruled and seemingly the sine qua non and crowning glory of democracies. It is democracy’s main claim to fame and the reason for its world-wide popularity that it holds the ruler at ransom and demands of him that he takes his electors seriously.

In democracies, particularly visible at times of election, the ruler treats the ruled with the respect you would accord your master. It may be here that we find democracy’s winning formula. It is not so much a form of government with a particular institutional setup, but it is a political value, what the French observer of American democracy, Alexis de Toqueville, called “an entire way of life.” The strongest sentiment behind democracy, he suggested, was resentment at condescension, the desire among most of us to be treated with respect.

There are, however, two important lacunae in this image of democracy as the rule of politicians. First, even if we can talk about the political class, that class is not united. In Bangladesh, as in most countries, both internal nomination processes and the actural elections are highly competitive. A great many individual candidates will lose. And major parties will lose. The reason why we can still talk of a political class is that as a group it retains its position; even losers retain some source of influence, and many nourish a hope to bounce back on the next occasion. Second, the class is not rigidly delineated from other classes. There is a constant recruitment of new members to the class, which sets it off from aristrocracies of the past.

Individuals from relatively humble backgrounds may rise to become someone of consequence, to become a member of this class, although most recruits to the political class come from the associated classes of business, government officials, or “civil society.” On the whole, however, recruitment of entirely fresh elements is not a widespread phenomenon in Bangladesh.

One of the most striking features of South Asian democracy is the role of inheritance. And here we may well ignore the most obvious examples, such as prime ministers and leaders of the opposition. In fact, both in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries, most politicians are from political families. A great many MPs are sons of former MPs, ministers or party leaders. The election has cataclysmic consequences for a section of the political class because it endangers their privileges and threatens to transfer these privileges to another section of the political class. But as a class they are shielded and even cushioned by belonging to other classes, and many eventually bounce back. The class hold over commanding heights of society remains intact.


*The concluding part of this article will appear tomorrow

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