Serajul Islam Choudhury
The opposition is as it does; it opposes, and that is precisely what it is expected to do. And in a democracy it is indeed essential to have an opposition, for without it democracy cannot stand, let alone move ahead. A thesis presupposes an antithesis, should it hope to reach a synthesis. But the fact remains that the opposition is not always allowed to function properly. A more primary question, of course, is in whose interest does the opposition work.
Politics is essentially a power game, and the political opposition seeks to get into state power through the next election, if and when it is held. We hear of multi-party systems, but what we really have in most counties, including Bangladesh, is a two-party system, and the party not in power ought to, and does, oppose the policies and operations of the ruling party. The objective is to gain public support. But what is the basic motive? Is it to promote public welfare or to win public support? The two can, of course, go together. But sadly, oftener than not, they do not. The aim of the opposition remains winning the elections rather than changing the lot of the people.
In a parliamentary system of government the opposition gets down to work right from the moment it has suffered an electoral defeat. It sets up a shadow cabinet and nominates members to serve on the various committees created by the parliament. The opposition begins to stalk the government exposing government failures and weaknesses offering its own solutions. The elected members try to remain close to their constituencies lest they should lose favour with the public. This is what should be the modus operandi of the opposition.
In Bangladesh we have had the two-party system eversince the so-called parliamentary system came to have its place in the governance of the state. When the government of India act, 1935 gave a quantum of governmental power to the provinces, elections were held on the two-party system, the parties being the Congress and the Muslim League. The Congress, we recall, was created at the initiative of a retired ICS officer, not without encouragement from the Viceroy himself. The purpose was to have the semblance of an opposition, loyal to the government. Later, the Muslim League came into existence, and the two political parties began to fight one another — at first gently, later fiercely. When Pakistan came into being, we expected a viable parliamentary system to be developed. But it did not. The opposition in the Assembly was weak, because its representation on it through the Congress was, as expected, meagre. The ruling class displayed no willingness to hold a general election, and did not allow it to happen until 1970. The 1970 election was virtually a swan-song; because the state disintegrated the very next year, the ruling junta having decided that it would do everything necessary, including perpetration of genocide, to keep Awami League, it enemy, out of power. After the establishment of Bangladesh, elections, have, though not regularly, been held; but none of these has been accepted by the losing party. Cries of fraud, irregularity and interference have been raised by the opposition, and almost without exception, the opposition has found the results unacceptable, and, consequently, they have remained more active in the streets than in the parliament. In a word, the parliamentary system has not worked in our country, owing mainly to the failure of the electoral system to work satisfactorily.
But is the system working elsewhere? No, not everywhere. Not certainly in the USA, which country claims to be the greatest defender of democracy and upholder of democratic principles. George Bush won in his first term through controversial judicial intervention and in the second through manipulation of jingoism and non-secular sentiments. True, John Kerry had thrown a challenge to Bush, but the voters did not have much to choose between the two. Kerry prided himself on his record of participation in America’s imperialist aggression in Vietnam and had failed to oppose Bush’s invasion in Iraq. Kerry’s patriotism is really another name for Bush’s downright imperialism. The difference is that of a pseudonym and a name. In the UK the New Labour is nothing more than a slightly left leaning conservative party and Tony Blair has hardly any challenger from within his fold. The election in Ukraine had to be repeated without solving the problem of general acceptance and continues to threaten the country to break into two halves.
In our country we have seen despots usurping state power; but those elected to power have not been democratic, either. In fact, elected despotism has, at times, tended to be worse than unelected despotism to the extent that it has worked with greater self-confidence, pluming itself on the gaining of electoral mandate. In the same manner as the despotic British rulers had set up the Indian National Congress as an opposition loyal to British interests, have the martial law regimes in both Pakistan and Bangladesh found it useful for them to create dummy oppositions which were expected to be, and have indeed been, obedient to the rulers, making elections farcical exercises.
The ‘democratic’ elections we are having now, one after another, have more blemishes than strong points. Elections, moreover, have turned into prerogatives for the rich and the privileged rather than a right for the voters. No one beyond the two parties, who represent the ruling class, has any reasonable chance of electoral success. Tradesmen and retired bureaucrats are nominated and get elected, treating the election as a trading investment. The silent political worker in the constituency cannot expect to be nominated, if he is not rich enough to compete with the gatecrashers. Election within the parties themselves is non-existent, and the office-bearers are handpicked by the leadership.
What is worse is the emergence of family-leadership in the two major political parties. Neither of the two leaders heading the two parties has risen from the rank and file, they have inherited their positions and are now seeking to set up their sons as political heirs to the seats they occupy. General Ershad fell not through an election but because of a mass uprising; but the fact that he still remains a factor in electoral politics is a testimony, if any be needed, to the hollowness, almost irrelevance, of the existing electoral system.
We, of course, cannot claim to have a democratic culture in the country, worthy of its name. Blind loyalty is what the leadership expects; and criticism is seldom, if ever, tolerated. Of the many kinds of hunger we suffer from, that for power is the most ugly and cruel. Anyone who gets power, political, bureaucratic or economic, not only abuses it, but also clings to it, throttling, if necessary, all opposition.
Democracy, it is also to be remembered, cannot, nor is it expected to, function in isolation. Dhaka University, for example, was granted by the government a democratic constitution of its own. The constitution has not worked in the manner it was expected to, owing to interferences — sometimes visible, often invisible — by the government and an appetite among some teachers, not many in number but certainly very influential, for governmental favours.
As a cure to electoral malpractices, the curious system of caretaker government has been devised. That system has also been subjected to criticism by the Awami League who want further improvements to be introduced. Looked at objectively, caretaker government is an insult — particularly to the politicians seeking to gain power through election, and, also, by implication, to the people who are obliged to choose them as their representatives. In putting up with this non-party governmental machinery the politicians admit that they cannot be trusted with the task of conducting a general election. And yet the same politicians take over the entire state power when they are elected. The public is also put to shame. For they elect such persons as by their own admission are untrustworthy. How can it be denied that a people is known by the representatives it chooses?
The fact of the matter in that the government as well the opposition is made of the same stuff. They are not the best persons in the society, and yet they are the most powerful and, because of the office they hold and the publicity they get, serve as role models for the people. The government uses and abuses power; the opposition tries to get it, with the same objective of using and abusing it. Far from making the government accountable through debates, criticism, offer of alternative policies and principles, the opposition tries to pull, ineffectively though, the government down. The cause of the people lies neglected. The government oppresses the public in as many ways as it can, and the opposition, instead of standing beside the public, initiates such agitational programmes as are likely to add to public misery, causing little or no damage to the government as it is.
What we need, therefore, is very clearly opposition not so much to the party in power as to the ruling class itself. That, and not the election seekers, will be the real opposition — opposition in the interest of public welfare not for promoting personal gains. And it is this opposition which is lacking in the country, contributing to our helplessness and despair. This opposition will be expected to work toward democratisation of the state and society. Democracy in this context would mean more than the right to vote and choose, as is often the case, between lesser of the two evils. Even free and fair elections are is not enough, democracy would require decentralisation of state power, equality of rights and opportunities, and governance by elected representatives at all levels of society. Society itself needs to be transformed, so that exploitation of the many by the few is made difficult, if not impossible.
The author is a former head of the department of English, Dhaka University.