Institutionalization of Democracy in Bangladesh
Prof Dr Arun Kumar Goswami
Dr Arun Kumar Goswami is Professor of Political Science and Director of South Asian Study Circle, Jagannath University, Dhaka. The book contains more than 700 pages in 9 chapters and 14 appendixes. The book is the first of its kind in Bangladesh. The research thesis can be considered one of the most comprehensive and insightful one ever written about Bangladesh's democratic Institutionalisation …. Having seen the failed attempts at a democratic government in his native Bangladesh, Prof Arun set out to study a stable and prosperous democracy in order to gain insight into how it worked or how it has been working.
The state of democracy in Bangladesh is the result of his studies. The book is and shall remain so popular because it deals with issues related to institutionalisation of democracy in Bangladesh.
It also focuses mainly on the structure of government and the institutions that help maintain freedom in Bangladesh. Moreover, it focuses more on individuals and the effects that the democratic mentality has on the norms and thoughts that exist in Bangladesh's society.
Dr. Arun's main purpose in writing this book was to analyse the functioning of political society and the various forms of political associations, although he also had some reflections on civil society as well as the relations between political and civil society. He ultimately seeks to understand the true nature of Bangladesh's political life and why it is so different from other countries.
The writer's research of Bangladesh democracy has led him to the conclusion that Bangladesh's society is characterised by five key features:
1. Love of equality: Bengalis love equality even more than we love individual liberty or freedom;
2. Absence of tradition: Bangladesh inhabits a landscape largely without inherited institutions and traditions that define their relations to one another;
3. Individualism: Because no person is intrinsically better than another, Bengalis begin to seek all reasons in themselves, looking neither to tradition nor to the wisdom of singular individuals, but to their own opinion for guidance;
4. Tyranny of the majority: At the same time, Bengalis give great weight to, and feel great pressure from, the opinion of the majority. Precisely because they are all equal, they feel insignificant and weak in contrast to the greater number; and
5. Importance of free association: Bengalis have a happy impulse to work together to improve their common life, most obviously by forming voluntary associations. This uniquely Bengali art of association tempers their tendencies towards individualism and gives them a habit and taste for serving others.
Prof Arun is often acclaimed for making a number of correct predictions in Democracy in Bangladesh. In the book, he has warned that friends of democracy must keep an anxious eye peeled in this direction at all times and gone on to say that a new found wealthy class may potentially dominate society.
According to him, democracy would also have some un-favourable consequences, including the tyranny of the majority over thought, a preoccupation with material goods, and isolating individuals from each other and society.
Bangladesh offers a unique case study of an Asian state that has sought to balance and reconcile the needs for national development with some notion of democracy. As one political commentator puts it, 'the political leaders are not passionate believers in the creed of democracy although they understand that some form of electoral mandate is needed for their legitimacy to govern.
Good governance is defined more by its efficiency at solving problems, and adherence to the democratic requirement of checks and balances is mostly secondary although not abnegated. Another political scientist believes that 'it is equally certain that Bangladesh is not likely to see a similar substantial transformation of its limited democracy for a considerable period of time. The political leaders tend not to display acute concern for political and democratic norms.
However, critics feel it is precisely this pragmatism that may ultimately undo the achievements of the government in the long run. While this may not be an entirely fair statement, the country is indeed at a crossroads.
The political leaders' effective and efficient management of the whole society and its pervasive influence has resulted in widespread political apathy and a certain dependency. People have come to rely on the government to solve most of their problems. The exercise of extensive controls over so many important public and social institutions by the government has retarded the development of a citizenry that would take greater responsibility for their own actions.
The government has responded to the changing nature of the global economy and faced the onslaught of globalisation with greater economic liberalisation. Can this, however, be sustained without correspondingly greater political liberalisation? The government, as discussed earlier, has loosened its control on society and must encourage some political pluralism. However, it still attempts to cling on to its old formula of co-optation by trying to tolerate and accommodate more differences through expanding its networks and means of co-optation.
This formula is beginning to show signs of dysfunctionality as the need to transcend into a knowledge-based economy requires individuals that are nonconformist, more creative and more willing to take risks. There is an urgent need to re-structure the economy to ensure the continued economic vitality of the country. Without reforms in both the economic and political management of Bangladesh, there are doubts about the country's continued peace and prosperity.
It is at this critical juncture that political transformation in the direction of genuine liberalisation might surface. Accustomed to almost unchallenged dominance, the government would find it a difficult transition to make. It would necessitate a move from co-optation and ingenious ways of curbing dissidence to reforms that might ultimately undermine the fundamentals of a one-party dominant system and challenge the basic tenet of the government leadership philosophy, that once given the mandate at the elections it should be allowed to rule without undue pressure from competing groups.
In post-independent Bangladesh, the first constitution was framed within one year and became effective from December 16, 1972, elections of first Jatiya Sangsad (JS/National Assembly/Parliament) was held under this constitution. The AL, again won an overwhelming majority in the first JS. However, the process of democratization was seriously disrupted in August 15, 1975 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated along with his family members. After long years of army rule by two generals, General Zia and General Ershad democracy was restored in 1990s. By that time, however, Bangladesh polity and society became highly fractious, polarized and violence ridden, making it extremely difficult for democratic institutions to take root and effective in bringing order and stability in the country.
For students, academics and researchers of Bangladesh politics and democracy, for the first 4 years after Bangladesh was born and ruled by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and from 1991 to till date is required extensive reading. The book is worth in its weight in gold. As Davidson noted, Bangladesh democracy and its institutionalisation, as in so many other places are an "unfinished process" and its future will be determined by its people and its leaders. The book helps us to understand these prospects and possibilities. The book is his PhD dissertation obtained from the University of Dhaka in 2002.
Prof Dr. Arun Kumar Goswami is a renowned teacher in Bangladesh. There are the words that he personally found most inspiring, all gathered in one place in his book. The book also includes some delightful and inspiring thoughts and ideas. The strengths of the book lie in them.
The reviewer is an independent political observer, writes on politics, individuals and current affairs