As bureaucrats, businessmen, media functionaries, etc increase in shape and size to be part of the formal state management team replacing many traditional players, the politician’s status as the leader of public aspiration is declining too.
Politicians had once represented multiple objectives of the people as leaders and social champions, but with the achievement of the nationalist objective of a new state, new formulations arise. How they fit in depends on the nature of the new state.
Before 1971, the nationalist struggle was key, but after independence it was the governance objectives of a better quality of life. These two roles are different, but politicians lead as public opinion leaders. When this equation diminishes, so do politics and politicians. The politician appears to have fallen through the cracks of transition as the quest for better governance is not public opinion driven.
Once the sole leader, the politician is now actually a part of a collective, a coalition of all the social and political managers of the state who make up the ruling class. No one section is in charge as in conventional politics, because that politics no longer exists.
“Politics” as the facilitator of governance has failed to take off in Bangladesh. After 47 years, the Sangsad is not functional, and the politician at various levels of state management shares both power and legitimacy with the bureaucracy and others.
Just as the Sangsad makes the law and the Secretariat implements them, the situation is otherwise now where the Sangsad is constitutionally supreme but not functionally so.
The only value-based product a politician can offer most is public displays of loyalty, which they do and in return is rewarded. That keeps him part of the ruling coalition.
Execution of development projects is now both political and economic priority rather than public participation based. Reduction of the concept of governance into this narrow paradigm has become a structural challenge to the politician’s functional identity. If traditional politics itself is less necessary as a functional input, the traditional politician can’t be expected to survive either.
The rise of the coalition of the ruling class based on clan and connection overshadows all other institutions, and this system doesn’t require social accountability or arbitration
Political practice is the best type of any political development project, but that is a missing part of our political life. Power is the sole objective of politics, and by conceptualising it as a project rather than a process, the role of the politician as an elite has been diminished too.
Since the dominant aspiration of the post-independence state is to be an elite, and being an elite is not limited to being a politician, people aspire to be an economic elite, not a political one, as the wealthy are the primary elite.
It’s not the fault of the politician that the brand has been weakened. It’s just that other brands have become stronger after 1971.
Did traditional politics decline due to 1971?
Much of the 1971 analysis is still focused on the incidental than the structural, patriotic rather than analytic, which has limited our understanding of the nature of changes that the war ignited, including in politics.
Traditional political parties like Muslim League didn’t just die or decline in 1971, but so did traditional political institutions like the salish, which was organic in nature to society. Research shows that armed groups on all sides became the major socio-political force eclipsing other institutions, and weapons became a major factor in the politics of yore. The war of 1971 was not fought between two armies facing each other on the battlefield, but enemies pitched on both sides way down to every village. It was not just the urban formal state that was in turmoil, but the entire society as it has never been in its entire history. It changed how society functioned.
After the war was over, many collaborators faced “social justice” and were killed. As it is, our formal justice system is unable to deliver much to such a large need, so society took matters in its own hand. Thus, at the informal level, the micro changes occurred too.
In 1971, looting was what kept many busy, and property and resource-grabbing and bloody incidents for personal gain were common. Armed thugs were used by local leaders to reign over society, and not just the battlefield, and this fundamentally may have changed Bangladesh.
Political and civil society crashed, which is to be expected in war, but in the post-1971 scenario, this tradition continued without restoration of the institutions. The space necessary for society-driven politics was absent due to many factors and not just one party or military rule. The rise of the coalition of the ruling class based on clan and connection capitalism overshadows all other institutions, and this system of economics management doesn’t require social accountability or arbitration. No political mediation or public representation is necessary in this economic system.
Politicians are connected to similar wealth-making units hence they don’t need any political credentials to benefit from this membership, as connections are enough. In some ways, a non-violent disarray regime operates where just about anything can happen, and survival is not guaranteed by any institution but is up to individuals.
In such conditions, what role can politicians play anyway?
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.