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What if Annisul Huq was right?

  • Published at 07:04 pm November 2nd, 2015
What if Annisul Huq was right?

If we turn now to the situation in Bangladesh and the state of its democratic state of mind, it is clear that democracy enjoys wide popular support as a system of government. The 2008 report “State of Democracy in South Asia” was based on surveys that included Bangladesh and showed a whopping 97% of the population in favour of elected leaders.

At the same time, almost 80% of those in favour of elected leaders in Bangladesh could also accept dictatorship sometimes and about half of the respondents accepted army rule. So, what exactly people meant when they held that they were in favour of elected leaders was not clear. The report called them “weak democrats” and pinned it down to a deficiency in how voters understood what democracy means or the process of decision-making in mature democracies. 

Another survey, conducted in villages in Bangladesh, suggests quite clearly that what most people think about when they think about democracy is, first, the procedure, ie the election.

But when asked to elaborate, most villagers pointed to policy outcomes. Democracy meant development: Economic growth, better roads, more schools, and health clinics.

“What are you looking for in a candidate?” we asked a woman. “That he is rich,” she answered. “So that he can build factories and our children can have work.” Others pointed out that they wanted a representative who could help, who could intervene with the police, or distribute subsidised loans. They often put this in terms of respect, that the MPs should show them respect. To them, such respect more easily comes from a man who is rich, educated, and well-connected. Such a man would be more useful than a poor, uneducated, or poorly connected representative.

The clue is efficiency -- a rich, educated, and well-connected man can get things done. Outcome is what matters to most. Due process or formal decision-making processes are not important. In fact, they seem almost irrelevant. One may probably extend this to include most Bangladeshis and most South Asians.

There are aspects of this process that could be important to the average Bangladeshi, such as equality of opportunity and equality before the law. But their reading of society is probably astute enough to realise that this is very far from where the world is. There is no such thing as equality before the law when education, money, and influence are so unequally distributed and have been for generations and more.

Equality is a faint dream. What they hope for is respect, shomman, which is less the respect entailed in absolute equality and more closely tied to an acknowledgement of their status -- which is enhanced by their role as voter.

Where does this leave Annisul Huq? At a tea-stall in a village once, I talked with a group of eight to 10 men and asked them about what sort of MP they preferred. Would it be someone clean, untainted by corruption, but inexperienced, or would it be someone tainted, corrupt, but experienced? After some debate they agreed for the latter, even if with some hesitation.

They might prefer their parliamentarian to be incorrupt and clean, but acknowledged that in the ultimate analysis, ability to be effective is more important. A do-gooder with little impact is of no use. A determined and effective man or woman is preferable, in particular if he or she is also respectful.

It is no error of judgement that makes voters all over Bangladesh, and indeed all over Asia, vote for dynastic leaders, corrupt and even criminal representatives, or so-called “bosses,” who are not adverse to a little muscle and intimidation to get things done. Political parties with such leaders and candidates often win elections. It is about energy, power, influence, the capacity to organise and mobilise, to effectuate. Voters want effective leaders, not leaders who look good in the eyes of some NGO-wallah.

In an unequal society, messy, and the bureaucracy is corrupt (often, not always) and understaffed, you do not want to rely on written rules. You will want a powerful man on your side. You will want prowess, force. Street marches, demonstrations, street presence, a large number of activists, senior leaders, influence over the judiciary and the police -- all these testify to the prowess of a particular party. It promises effective MPs and city corporation mayors, individuals with connections, with the power to get things done. The AL had all this, it was part of their election campaign. In this light, street muscle is not necessarily undemocratic.

There are similar phenomena all over the world. Voters will not vote for wimp candidates. American presidential candidates want to look strong and sound forceful, they want to be energy incarnated. Even British prime ministers and French presidents try to look youthful these days.

This exuberance has different expressions in different countries, as all such things vary with time and space. In Bangladesh, in April, the street presence of the ruling party was part of the message, part of the election campaign: We have the power, we have the influence, we are in control -- we can mobilise thousands and scare the others off the streets in any para.

What have they to offer? The opposition knew the game and tried to do the same, tried to mobilise, tried to look courageous and energetic. But the meetings were small and the slogans muted, and their leaders afraid or in hiding. It was a humiliating experience, but possibly more so because they, rather lost than the rules being wrong.

The voters I spoke with were all annoyed at the botched election. They would have preferred a real vote. A real vote is good because it keeps parties and MPs respectful of the ordinary voter. But this does not mean that the street agitations and the muscle itself were wrong to most. Remember that there were no street protests afterwards. The result was quietly accepted. And once the disappointment at not having been able to vote was over and in the past, most voters seemed to have been more than willing to look beyond and to what really matters: Policy outcome. If the government or the city corporations are able to deliver on the election campaign promises -- forceful, effective, pro-poor government -- then most may grudgingly accept it as legitimate, as democratic. 

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