Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why politics matters, and always

Why politics matters, and always . . .
Syed Badrul Ahsan

Source: Daily Star, Editorial
September 26, 2007

Being a politician and being in politics are not quite the same. The first refers to one who has made a vocation of politics. The second draws attention to one who has found his way into the political field without first having been baptised in it. A politician is an individual who has walked all across the country, known the pulse of the nation, and, having known it, spoken up in defence of all its aspirations. And one who strays into politics, or decides that he should be in it, is a person who may have pursued a profession all his adult life, and then, having gone into superannuation, decided that a foray into politics was not quite a bad idea.

When, therefore, you speak of politics in Bangladesh today, you are quite liable to be asked for some answers to questions that arise in your soul. And those questions will rear their heads because of the battering that politics has lately been getting in this country. It is the politician today who is at the receiving end of it all. The politician, it is being argued with a fairly good degree of regularity but with not much of persuasion, has been responsible for all the ailments the national body politic has been suffering from over the years. Bad administration, a politicisation of the institutions of state, et al, are all failings, the responsibility for which has been laid, consistently, at the door of the politician.

But look around you, around the entire canvas that has spread itself over the last two decades, perhaps even more. And you will perhaps stumble on the truth that it is not the politician who needs to be censured for everything that has gone wrong in the lives of the Bengalis. A somewhat slight degree of introspection will be revealing of the thought that everything of significance, every act of noble note that has been observed in Bangladesh has come from the politician. It was the political class that inaugurated the drive for nationalism in the 1960s, with results that have done all of us proud. Whatever radicalism (and radicals are often necessary when vested interests threaten to get the better of us) has come into the Bengali soul has been a direct offshoot of the struggle for self-determination that our politicians put up in the Pakistan era.

You might now suggest that it was the politicians who made a mess of things after 1971. You would be wrong to do that. Indeed, it would be highly unethical on your part to infer that everything that has gone awry has been a consequence of politicians doing a bad job. Ask yourself this question: in all these years since December 1971, what stretch of time, in government, has actually been dominated by politicians? The government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman lasted a bare three and a half years. That led by Sheikh Hasina was in office for five. And then there are the two stretches of government under Begum Khaleda Zia. The difficulty with the Khaleda Zia administration, especially the most recent manifestation of it, was that it comprised too many retired bureaucrats, quite a few former military officers, and a bevy of businessmen to be strictly regarded as government by politicians.

You note all the corruption that defined the government between October 2001 and October 2006. You note, too, the level of involvement in it of those who came from no recognisable political background and yet were not averse to making capital out of politics, simply because they found themselves, improbably for you and me and all the rest of us, in the political tent. It is the predominance of these people, all fundamentally non-political individuals trying to pass themselves off as politicians, that has given politics a bad name. Let us not be fooled here. Politics has remained the noble calling it has historically been, in this country and elsewhere. It is only the outsiders who have intruded into it that have left politics on shaky ground.

At this point in time, there is a huge need to segregate politicians from the pretenders in politics. Include in the latter group the retired government secretaries and former military officers and affluent businessmen who have found themselves in the happy position of being lawmakers and cabinet ministers. It might sound like a cliché, but it is a truth to be narrated again nevertheless: in Bangladesh, as in other countries where politics has by and large been a target of persecution or has been a fugitive, the bureaucracy has played an inordinately large role in undermining the cause of politics.

The elitism that you spot today in what passes for politics is what you naturally get out of a system that leaves politicians out in the cold wilderness and allows everyone else to come into the warmth of the fireplace. It is a bad tradition that has come down to us from Ayubian times. Remember the likes of Altaf Gauhar and Roedad Khan? Again, in the Zia years, it was politics that was humiliated when the nation's first military ruler went forth to accommodate, in his own parochial interest, the very elements that once vocally and violently opposed the emergence of this Bengali republic. He said he would make politics difficult, and he did. That was anti-politics at work.

The Ershad dictatorship simply carried such anti-politics to newer, more reprehensible extremes. Shady businessmen found friends in the corridors of power, indenting went into the hands of a new class of people who quickly earned notoriety as the nouveau riche, civil servants became part of the general's poetry circle, and long-time politicians were yanked away from their parties, became renegades, and were eventually destroyed.

Politics has been on the retreat. A brief revival of politics, and politicians, left the sky looking charmed in the later part of the 1990s. But that was all. In the BNP-Jamaat coalition government, it was non-politicians in the form and shape of businessmen who took charge. To a lesser degree, former civil servants and entrepreneurs (and among them were many who traditionally had little to share with the party) found their way into the Awami League too, disappointing tens of thousands of its workers at the grassroots level. And in the weeks and months before the eventually aborted January 22 elections this year, politics looked about to be reduced to a farce through the "nomination business" resorted to by the major parties.

Today, it is plain, politics is in a straitjacket. It should not have been. And it ought not to be in the weeks and months ahead. For the incontrovertible truth remains that the future of this country, of any country, is what the political classes, with all their sense of idealism, make of it. Detect the corrupt among them, by all means. They all are in huge requirement of comeuppance. But do not miss the woods for the trees. Do not begin thinking that a few bad eggs can spoil the whole, wonderful and passion-driven vocation that has at decisive turning points in the history of Bangladesh given its people a reputation to be proud of.

It was politics that forced Ayub Khan out and sent Yahya Khan and his Pakistan packing. It took politics for us to reclaim the country from the Ershad coterie. It was, again, a forceful demonstration of well-meaning politics that compelled the Iajuddin caretaker team into abdication. The goal was a reassertion of people power. The goal remains as potent and as poignant as it was back then, or at any earlier point in time.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.

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