- Kazi Anwarul Masud
Attempts by many Third World countries to develop adequate political institutions and earn popular legitimacy have often been unsuccessful, resulting in recurrent political instability. One, therefore, has to be careful in treating the current peace and tranquility enjoyed by the people as carte blanche for indefinite rule by an unrepresentative government. Undeniably the achievement of the present caretaker government has been exceptional and could, perhaps, not been possible by a popularly elected government indebted to various interest groups who had financed its election expenses. Bangladeshis had for the last five years looked on helplessly as the people in power ran amok with its unbridled exercise which occasionally was used for the good of the people. It is, therefore, understandable if people are temporarily amenable to call for patience till political institutionalization is firmly rooted and level playing field is created where money, muscle and misuse of power would not influence the transition of authority through a free and fair election. One wonders about the complexity ingrained in the personality of an individual who allegedly has bought 132 apartments in his own name or in the name of the others. While ownership is a matter of legal puzzle to be solved by the lawyers of the alleged owner and the authorities, what surprises many is of the nature of the driving force goading a man to acquire so many properties with ill-gotten money.
For quite sometime Bangladeshis have been losing faith in the total honesty of some of the people they send to parliament. Though it would be unfair to label all politicians as corrupt for the misdeeds of some yet the people were staggered when faced with the alleged extent of corruption front-paged in our newspapers. One wonders what punishment can be awarded to those found guilty of such corruption in a country where half the population live below poverty line, where talented youngsters cannot further their studies because they do not have the measly sum of a few hundred takas to be paid as tuition fees, where the rich and the famous spend in one evening what many poor people cannot earn in a month.
Gravity of a crime should be judged on an interpersonal level, on the basis of opportunity cost to others who are deprived of their due because of the corruption committed, and poverty is deepened and extended. It is sometimes worse than murder because an individual or a family is doomed to life-long loss of opportunities because they have been sentenced to dehumanized poverty by the greed of some. The poor are sick because they are poor, because they cannot afford to go to doctors and buy the medicine they need, because of the optimum sanitation they are denied which should be the birth right of all human beings. The poor are uneducated because they cannot afford, as mentioned earlier, good education, sustainable education that will free them from the poverty trap. But the unfathomable greed of individuals breaks the social contract the governed had entered into with the governors who in the exercise of absolute power without accountability forgets the Actonian precept that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The fracture in the social cohesion led to incidents we witnessed at Kansat, Phulbari and Shanir Ankhara which were revolts against the failure of the authorities to deliver social goods to the people, revolts without political color that grew out of the people's collective frustration. The dramatic changes we witnessed in the resignation of President Iazuddin Ahmed's caretaker government, resignation of the chairman and members of the Election Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission were possible because of the no confidence expressed by the people in these persons who had the ulterior motive of holding a farcical election to bring back to power the same group of kleptocrats who had been asphyxiating the country for the last five years.
The international community who watched with horror the Machiavellian tactics being used by the people then in power, their unbounded corruption, and confrontational politics leading the country towards abyss, already aware of the lethal power that can be unleashed by few non-state actors born out of chaos, backed the popular movement for rectification of the aberrant situation in Bangladesh.
One can put numbers to the loss sustained by the society due to corruption by the political leaders and the loss to the growth of the economy. One can also quantify the probable loss to the economy and its multiplier effect had the loss not been incurred. But it is not always possible to gauge the degrading effect on the morale of the people due to the demonstration effect of corruption and consequent climbing up the social ladder by the corrupt. Such examples that crime does pay would have encouraged youngsters to follow the path of crime with the illusion that there is no punishment at the end of the day.
Protestant ethics of hard work, honesty and thrift that has put the Western world (of all denominations) at the apex of development and now being emulated by some of the newly emerging economies were not put as examples to be followed in Bangladesh because, more often than not, hard work, honesty and thrift the reward was given away to people who had developed illegal collusive nexus among the politicians, bureaucrats and dishonest businessmen. Morality is inextricably linked with meritocracy. Rewards in all spheres of life should be given on the basis of merit that should be recognized as the ultimate barometer of eligibility. The society should, however, be on the guard that in the process of giving preeminence to meritocracy justice is also given due consideration.
This distributive justice, termed by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz as "moral growth," has to be ensured. The present government, however, can be faulted with its lack of success in controlling the price spiral which for quite sometime has gone beyond the purchasing power of the common people.
While its achievements so far would be gratefully remembered by the nation its failure to curb the price spiral or its attempts to explain away its inability to do so in terms of international increase in the price of some commodities can only contribute to lessening of popular support. After all, US Farm Act and European Common Agricultural Policy are not totally unknown in this country. Revitalization of Trading Corporation of Bangladesh and other forms of state intervention in price control could be considered. Free and fair elections are good but fair price of essentials is an equally good thing to aspire to.
Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Secretary and Ambassador.