Cross-posted from The Daily Star:

A Way Out of the Quagmire
By Ruby Amatulla

My previous article, (The Daily Star, Sept. 15, 2011) provides a soul search as to the blunders in the beginning period of Bangladesh. In this article I would like to share my thoughts on how we can get out of the quagmire.

Democracy is not only about elections and parliamentary systems. These are only means to achieve higher ends, as government derives its legitimacy from the people it governs.

The core idea in self-rule is that the people hold the ultimate power and legitimacy in the sociopolitical context, thus making civil society active, vigilant, and participatory in order to compel governments to serve people effectively, efficiently, and ethically in delivering maximum welfare for all.

Impartial rule of law must be based on equality before law, irrespective of wealth, poverty, influence, gender, religion, race or ethnicity. This is the foundation on which an equitable and stable society can establish preconditions for progress and prosperity. The impartial due process of democracy exerts profound influence in integrating even a diverse nation. Autocracy, military rule, theocracy, etc. all thrive on partiality and favouritism and thus have the tendency to cause division, polarisation, and even disintegration.

If a society is integrated it is most productive and if it is polarised it becomes most unproductive. Good governance and impartial rule of law are the natural outcomes of democracy that help integrate a nation.

Bangladesh, like any other developing country with huge population, needs socioeconomic growth to take care of its 16 crore people. To alleviate the alarming concentration of wealth as well as the enormous disparities and conflicts between rich and poor groups, Bangladesh needs a more accountable government with proper checks and balances. This is the only way to avoid roadblocks with catastrophic consequences.

Without these universal values that are in tune with human nature, a system of governance becomes deficient and unstable in handling human affairs, succumbing to a counterproductive chain of volatility and corruption.

The primary responsibility of civil society is to help ingrain these ideas and values in the hearts and minds of people of all echelons of a society, including the political leaders, and help build a national consensus that becomes the vanguard of democracy. Only then a forceful dialogue can be raised to convince or compel leaders not to deviate from the democratic path.

In order to be effective there must be unity in raising a forceful voice towards making a change. This unity does not require resolution of all conflicts or dissolution of all differences. It requires a focus on the priorities and the common purpose of establishing good governance and a progressive society. The following could be some of the important changes civil society should focus on.

All political parties must conduct their affairs in a democratic fashion. If the leading parties are not democratic, the nation cannot become democratic.

Term limits must exist for all top positions of the government, including the prime minister, parliament members, party officials, and others. Let us limit officeholders to two terms, a standard used by many other developed countries.

Free press, Internet, and media must serve as vehicles of exposure and awareness rather than microphones for the status quo. A democratic system thrives on a free and responsible press that informs the public and helps raise a forceful sociopolitical discourse.

Let there be caretaker governments for the next four or five elections until the people enact change through a referendum. If a caretaker government helps to bring about trust and confidence among the people by establishing their collective will, it can revitalise government as a tool for change.

Bangladesh must tap the force for change by reaching out to the international community for advocacy and support. We must bring about forceful and global people-to-people movements in order to minimise the formidable transnational alliances of elites and vested interests. If we only understand our struggles in an insular or localised fashion, we will fail to take advantage of the immense power of the growing and transnational movement towards self-rule and social justice.

We should ask top political party leaders such as Sheikh Hasina, Begum Khaleda Zia, Mr. Ershad, etc., all of whom have become permanent political fixtures, to salvage themselves and their legacy, and for the sake of the welfare of the nation, by quitting their parties and becoming national advisors or consultants. Their unification, regardless of their past differences, would demonstrate their sincerity and dedication for the country, and would help to secure their position in history.

History is a testament to the fact that leaders not in power could actually be more powerful in a society, as the popular will would move with them. Gandhi never held office, yet the powerful Congress Party could not dare to challenge him due to the fact that he had the hearts of the people. George Washington, Nelson Mandela, Sonia Gandhi, and others became the moral voice of their respective societies, and more powerful once they refused to stay in power.

As senior stateswomen and statesmen, these leaders should help to set a positive and vibrant political environment in which multiple parties would all compete for better ideas, programmes, and services to the people, and to advocate for proper checks and balances that all would have to comply with. This would attract more potential as well as more capable leadership in our country.

We must amend the constitution to bring about some of the changes mentioned above, and we must remove existing weaknesses and flaws that exist in Articles 33 and 70, which will help to stamp out abuse of power and to ensure that loyalty to the people supersedes loyalty to a party.

There must be provisions for international presence in the monitoring of national elections, in order to ensure via objective outside observers that rigging has not occurred.

There must exist safety and security provisions for domestic watchdogs and whistleblowers on a continuous basis. Investigative reporting by the press must be encouraged and protected.

With regards to environmental and sustainability protections, Bangladesh is facing the terrible crisis of climate change, not to mention issues of sustainable development in crowded urban areas that will remain intractable without significant policy-level government involvement and urban planning interventions. We must pressureise political leaders to institute a more effective policy roadmap for handling issues of climate mitigation, such as disaster relief, agricultural conservation, and population management and zoning in crowded urban centres.

Due to the broad-ranging systemic changes required in our society, the constitution should be put to a referendum in order to usher in a new beginning. Before that, there should be a three to six-month period in which intensive debate and discussion must occur at both the grassroots levels and the upper political echelons. This exposure would educate the public and help to bring about a national consensus that helps sustain a self-rule.

“What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” Even a hundred years ago, the intellectual superiority of Bengalis was noted by the famous Indian scholar-philosopher Gokhale, who was a mentor of both Gandhi and Jinnah. However, if intellectual ability fails to combine courage and determination in order to lead a society towards peace, justice and progress, it fails in its purpose — therefore becoming useless and meaningless.

(The writer is an activist to promote democratic governance and reform in Muslim majority societies.)