51. Political culture and democracy in Bangladesh

I read a very interesting and succinct article in the Daily Star Newspaper today, on the subject of democracy and political culture, by Bangladeshi political scientist, Dr. Ahrar Ahmed. You can read the online article version here. He pulled no punches in his excoriation of Bangladeshi political culture.

We live within a culture of impunity, cynicism, and arrogance where, ironically, the ability to circumvent the laws is claimed as a hallmark of status and power.

He wrote about the limited concept of democracy in Bangladesh, where it is equated primarily with free and fair elections. This has led to a poorly evolved political culture where the practice of democracy is sadly lacking. He sees parallels between the practice of democracy in our personal lives, in our workplaces, in our interactions with each other and in our political parties. If the personal practice of democracy is lacking, then no amount of laws, institutions or policies will improve political culture in a country. He gave some very good examples from everyday life in Bangladesh today of the gap between the rhetoric and reality espoused by the political classes, tied-up as they are in networks of patron-client relationships.

This article helped me in my continuing attempt to both articulate and understand the culture I am living in, and to comprehend some of the behaviour I encounter daily, especially in my workplace (see posts 25 and 48). Lately, I have been reading about the garment industry in Bangladesh. The way that the sector operates, in many respects, exemplifies what Ahmed is writing about. It makes for a very interesting case study on political culture in Bangladesh, and what that means for the ‘powerful’ and the ‘powerless’ (see post 52). Another example was highlighted in post 19 in relation to poor regulation in the private transport sector, again being facilitated by weak political culture. Alarmingly, in both these examples, the final outcomes can be linked to loss of human life, in the garment industry in the first instance, and as a result of ferry accidents in the second. 

A friend here in Bangladesh recently explained the culture of tadbir to me. There is a saying: tadbir-e takdir khole, which means ‘tadbir changes luck’. Tadbir is a word used to denote the activity of lobbying/persuading/manipulating and the implication is that nothing happens without tadbir,  especially if a public institution is involved. Within the civil service, it is said that tadbir is widespread concerning promotion and/or transfer. I suppose in a way there is a certain amount of tadbir in every culture. I could say that when I decided to bypass the two disengaged directors I was assigned to work with, and go straight to the Director General, I was hoping to leverage some of his influencing power to further my own work objectives. (See posts 2548.) My friend gave me examples from his own life of various political ‘fixers’ whose palms needed greasing, in order to ensure that his parents’ family business would survive. Another friend gave me a simple example of trying to collect a certificate for a course completed by his sister. The department official in question refused to hand it over without ‘tadbir’ (in this case, a monetary bribe). One or two people have provided me with an alternative interpretation of this culture of bribery. They liken it to a form of indirect taxation, whereby inadequately paid workers simply augment their official income as best they can from day-to-day. People are resigned to this situation and accept it, albeit resentfully.

Ahmed maintains that until the underlying issues are truly recognised and addressed, ‘democracy’ will remain an exercise to satisfy donor communities (through organising free and fair elections) but will never be a commitment to progress and freedom. He puts it as follows in his final paragraph:

As T.S. Eliot pointed out, between the intention and the act falls the shadow. In our case, that long and crippling shadow is cast by our lack of will and vision, and the perpetuation of a psychosocial environment driven by pettiness, pretension and profit, which jeopardises the very notion of the public good and social capital that democracy implies. Till we recognise the issue, and seek to change ourselves, everything else will seem like a prison exercise.

This problematic political culture is at the centre of the governance impasse in Bangladesh which, in turn, is at the centre of my work placement, another reason I found this article useful. It seems that the people who suffer most under poor governance structures are those who live in parts of the world that experience higher than average levels of corruption. Transparency International has confirmed that Bangladesh remains extremely high on the world corruption league table. In its 2010 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), the world’s most credible measure of domestic, public-sector corruption, Bangladesh failed to achieve improvement over the previous year. In a scale of 0-10, Bangladesh scored 2.4, the same as in 2009, and occupied 134th place among the 178 countries that featured in this year’s index. The latest survey by Transparency International Bangladesh shows rampant corruption in the police (79%), civil service (68%), political parties (58%), judiciary (43%) and parliament (32%).

The huge tragedy is that a relatively small minority, with a thwarted sense of ‘entitlement’, have extraordinary and pernicious power over the majority. As Ahmed points out, the corrupt seek power so that people will fear them: they do not seek moral authority that would enable people to respect them. And yet, in spite of this oppression and fear, this majority struggles on, plugging away, persevering as best they can with what grace and dignity they can muster. The people I meet every day in Bangladesh deserve so much better in terms of governance structures. Unfortunately, though, in the words of George Bernard Shaw (Irish dramatist and socialist 1856-1950):

A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.

In a society where corruption is deeply ingrained, it is often accepted and taken for granted that this is the way things are and always will be. In order to survive, many people find that they have no alternative but to play by the rules of the game. Therefore, the only way to escape poverty and servitude is by becoming ‘powerful’ oneself by, for example, cultivating networks that might afford a level of protection. This was exemplified in Aravind Adiga’s novel, The White Tiger. Though set in neighbouring India, the point holds. Balram suffered humiliation after humiliation and was expected to accept this as a matter of course. There wasn’t much point for him in practising democracy. It was only when he became corrupt himself that he was ‘empowered’ to fight back, and thus survive. In this way, cycles of corruption are perpetuated.

Another possibility is that the continuing failure of political culture could present fertile ground for religious extremism. While traditionally Bangladesh has been ideologically tolerant (see post 37), the promise of ‘empowerment’ and dignity for those who are vulnerable and downtrodden could seem very attractive. Especially when the mullahs can point with some confidence to the ideologically secular, but manifestly corruptible, middle classes, many of whom make a living off the munificence of international organisations and agencies.

The hope is that perhaps the ‘courageous, outstanding and exemplary’ individuals that Ahmed refers to in his article will win the day, gradually overthrowing and replacing the complacent, elitist, political classes and rooting out corruption in the middle classes. Then, perhaps, it will be possible for all to practice democracy as part of an open, just and equitable society.

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