When the citizen voices or public opinions are ignored, suppressed and silenced, any government in a democracy starts making wrong decisions or policies that are not beneficial to the citizens at large. A truly democratic government acknowledges citizen rights, values their opinions and listens to dissenting voices. Of course, there should be a symbiotic relation between the government and the citizens (public). In our democracy, many of the citizens tend to confuse the government (its role) with the state or the party in power (its role) and vice versa. In a strong functional democracy, the government fears the citizens who are supposed to be critical about the wrong policies. On the contrary, the citizens fear the government in a weak democracy. However, the citizens should stay informed politically and act responsibly. And, of course, the media should play a vital role in educating the citizens politically and letting them know their constitutional or fundamental rights and reaching out to the dissenting voices. Otherwise, the government would not be accountable to the citizens and to the constitutional institutions.
In a controlled or weak democracy, people look meek and politicians sound louder. But, in a functional democracy, people are not considered to be a mere "number" (numerical existence). Rather, they are called "citizens" who have political right to be critical about the government's wrong policies or decisions. Freedom of speech is such a fundamental right enshrined in our constitution. But, unfortunately, most of our politicians do not want to consider us as "citizens" and to hear dissenting voices. Even they do not want the citizens to be politically aware of how the public money is spent. They tend to call us "people" (in general) who are befooled in many ways. This is how citizen rights, to some extent, are ignored and denied.
Corruption poses a huge threat to good governance, and the absence of good governance leads to misuse of power. And the misuse of power begets corruption that is now rampant in Bangladesh. This is the biggest drawback to establishing good governance in public sector. In the last 30 years –since the democracy came into existence (in 1991) –not a single state institution or organization has managed to stand high with reputation, accountability and credibility. Even we, the citizens, do not have faith or confidence in any constitutional institution which should turn out to be a paragon of accountability, transparency, credibility and good governance in terms of the institutional commitment and the services –they provide.
These days we hear a buzzword "zero-tolerance" against the corrupt. The prime minister pronounced the word very strongly a couple of years back. Some of the ministers are also found uttering this word routinely, but many of us doubt whether they mean it and try to put an end to the unbridled corruption or not. In fact, the politicians are good at demagogic speeches. At the end of the day, the people (citizens) are befooled. Also, their perception is that both politicians and bureaucrats indulge in corruption.
When the idea of functional democracy is mostly invisible in the political parties, democracy cannot be established institutionally in this state. Here democracy means "the winners take all". This is what the politicians believe and practise in the name of democracy. Intolerance is an impediment to establishing a healthy political culture in Bangladesh. Also, intolerance is the root cause of political violence that has been prevailing since 1991 –the inception of parliamentary democracy.
Democracy is meant for the wellbeing of the citizens, not for the benefits of a particular political group. The sustainability of democracy depends on the tolerant healthy political culture and the strong independent role of the constitutional institutions which are accountable to the citizens (public). In our country the citizens experience democracy - once every five years - when they exercise their voting right. No doubt, only elections cannot guarantee democracy if the state institutions (constitutional organizations) are not strengthened enough to function independently without any political bias or pressure. But, unfortunately, all these institutions have been weakened over the years.
In a fragile democracy, the political party in power becomes more powerful than the government itself. It is evident that many political leaders (small, medium, big and hybrid) take advantage of it using the name of the topmost leader of the party in power and putting his/her picture beside them on the posters or banners. This is how these hybrid political goons (they should not be called politicians) deceive the citizens (people) and, sometimes, intimidate many others. They somehow manage to maintain good connection with the law enforcing agency like police. It is likely to happen when the state institutions fail to act proactively, independently and responsibly without any political bias. In fact, these powerful institutions should uphold the constitution. Now the party's top leaders should rein in the corrupt and the criminals. Otherwise, the truly meritorious, sensible and educated citizens will lose their interest about getting involved in politics. Thus politics will be more contaminated and criminalized. Consequently, democracy will be dying, and the nation will have to suffer in the long run.
The writer is an associate professor
and head, Department of English,
Stamford University Bangladesh