Recently, in a long-form piece, I argued that the current democratic deficit in Bangladesh was mainly due to the upsetting of a balance among centres of political power in Bangladesh, and that BNP was no less guilty than the AL in undermining the equilibrium that previously brought us semblances of electoral democracy for a couple of decades. An inevitable question that follows that argument is: What are the ways that balance can be restored? A supplementary question also comes up asking in what ways democracy can be institutionalised with the re-establishment of balance.
Obviously, the indispensable part in restoring balance in Bangladesh now is that non-religious right-of-centre politics have to overcome their current disarray and become revitalised through reorganisation. This is easier said than done. Bangladesh politics is utterly dependent on patronage -- reorganising during the lean years of opposition is very hard. But it is not impossible. No conscionable observer can deny the massive popular support for right-of-centre politics still pulsating beyond the official cognisance. All it requires is a structured and inspired vehicle for expression to become a prime mover in national politics again.
Revitalisation and re-organisation in opposition have precedence in Bangladesh too. BNP’s comeback during the 1980s is a case in point. The first step to recovery for BNP now is to get rid of the sense of entitlement and admit that the past is no reliable predictor of the future. There is no natural cycle in politics that will automatically enthrone the party back in power.
Re-organisation and revitalisation of a political force can happen both through top-down leadership and bottom-up organic groundwork. In politics, as in economics and other state-building enterprises, top-down approaches are fast, efficient, and often very effective. But they are also prone to calamitous mistakes as they depend on leadership abilities of individuals and also vagaries of fortune. Bottom-up approaches are slower but develop robust strength when they get going. The main problem is that bottom-up reforms are very hard to deliberately initiate and perpetuate. Without an electrifying cause or inspiring leadership, they seldom become organically self-perpetrating -- there is simply too much inertia working against such an approach.
I do not have familiarity with BNP’s organisation, at leadership and grassroots level, to dare to offer the merest suggestions on how it can go about re-organisation. I have a little more familiarity with the political-intellectual space in Bangladesh, so I can dare to proffer a few suggestions regarding the revitalisation of the right-of-centre political argument. Although not to the same extent as the current political imbalance, a certain lopsidedness has been prevailing between left and right-of-centre intellectual debate for a long time.
This is partly because left-of-centre politics have made highly emotive issues like 1971 and ethno-linguistic nationalism anchors of their argument. Right-of-centre politicians have relied on religious nationalism to counter that emotional appeal, and while this has been very successful in solidifying popular support behind right-of-centre politics, it has not delivered position of strength in space of political debate. This is very unfortunate because, throughout the world, right-of-centre politics has shown its strength and dominance when it has countered the left’s impassioned moralising, with a message of practicality and effectiveness in social, economic, and political debates.
Demonstration of strength in political debate is not just empty intellectual exercises, but precursors for the development of enduring political strength. The straight and bold path towards dominating the intellectual space is not to accept the existing terms of debate, question the very premises on which the existing narrative has been built, and use logic and information to, for want of a better term, shift the paradigm. But this re-drawing of intellectual space cannot be done through a top-down approach -- it has to be bottom-up.
One thing that sharply differentiates the supporting intellectual bases of AL vs BNP is spontaneous diversity on one side and a bleak formalism on the other. There are thousands of people and groups with very disparate voices supporting causes that directly benefit AL. They do not co-ordinate among themselves, often quarrel, but generally remain mindful of the ideology that unites them.
Most importantly, AL leadership does not try to exert control over their intellectual support base but rewards the best and most effective of them, often discounting their direct political allegiance. On the other hand, a mindset of control and loyalty pervades the BNP leadership regarding its intellectuals. For that reason, right-of-centre intellectuals who want to retain some measure of self-respect, maintain a distance with the party and try to give off an air that they are above partisan affray.
I would argue that an important part of re-balancing politics is to embrace more partisanship by right-of-centre intellectuals. Intellectuals have to realise that, for balanced politics in the country, the main pro-right party cannot remain a bandwagon for a family or vehicle of a monolith ideology. The party may have one structure, but it should have numerous owners within or outside of that structural frame -- like a large tent accommodating many diverse and spontaneous voices.
Open criticism of party leadership or policy should not automatically mean treasonous opposition, but indicative of responsible ownership. The leadership of the main parties routinely gives lip service that party is greater than person. They should be taken at their words. The parties should reflect the large and diverse population that supports them.
Despite all the maligning, I still think that a caretaker government remains our best and easiest way to externally impose a balance and institutionalise democratic practices. To see how that is so, we have to discard wishfully moral views of politics and look at the political dynamics from a rational choice view. Such a view would show that the political primary motive of parties is gaining or retaining power and the main method they have in a non-institutionalised country is extensive political-patronage network.
In a country with a large, active polity, the total political class of elites, bureaucrats, businessmen, professionals has a stake in developing a meritocratic, impersonal state system, especially a fair electoral system. In neighbouring India, elite consensus and pressure played a large role in electoral and bureaucratic reforms. But politicians’ appetite for such reforms depend on a trade-off between maximising their probability of gaining power through patronage and aligning with/placating interest of the political class as a whole. When they have unchecked power and unlimited fund at their disposal, they are very disinclined towards the “depoliticisation” of state.
A host of political science literature has shown that political parties support systemic reform only when there is a rough even-balance among the main contending parties and there is uncertainty about future power positions. At these times, the parties look at the uncertain time horizon and swallow reforms because they hurt their opponents as much as it hurts them, and reduces effectiveness of all patronage networks. Even then, endurance of reforms depends on maintenance of relative balance among parties for longer periods. Historical analyses have also shown that impulse for reform rarely comes from within political systems, they often come from the society or even context of the international system.
In Bangladesh, such conditions only occur during a CTG and before acceptably fair elections. Our persistent relative parity in popular support of major parties also supports reform potential of such critical junctures. There is also tremendous appetite in society for depolititicisation and institutionalisation. I remain convinced that a CTG with a long constitutional convention and a referendum at the end, remains our best hope for enduing political balance and institutionalisation of democracy. We have missed, one after another, critical junctures in our national history. When the next one occurs, we need to have clear eyes and rational minds.