A meaningful development ensures people’s right to decide what kind of development they need and people decide how that development would come. Without democracy, people cannot decide what kind of development they need. Without it, people also cannot decide how the development should take place. So without democracy, it is impossible to have meaningful development, says Mahi B Choudhury, joint secretary general of the Bikolpodhara Bangladesh, in an interview with Rashed Ahmed Mitul
New Age: The ruling Awami League and its partners claim these days that economic development is more important than political democracy. Do you agree?
Mahi B Choudhury: In general, development without democracy would create an opportunity for corruption as democracy is never the ultimate goal. Democratic way is the best possible way to ensure development. We, therefore, talk about democracy that is needed for development.
When the Awami League says that you can have economic development without democracy, it actually challenges the entire democratic world.
There have been different schools of thoughts of achieving economic emancipation. When the world was bipolar, the Russian bloc gave a socialist economic policy to ensure people’s economic emancipation.
On the other hand, the American bloc or the western bloc used to believe, or still believes, that only through democracy, economic development is possible. Finally, democracy has sustained in the whole world while socialism is lagging behind.
The Awami League seems to have come up with a new school of thought which says that economic development is possible without democracy. If that is true, I have to say that the Awami League probably does not understand the definition of democracy. Number one precondition for democracy is people’s participation.
You are talking about people’s development — my development. But I have no right to participate in my own development work. It is now the Awami League which is determining what is good and what is bad for me. It is deciding how I would be happy and, thus, wants to bring about development.
The Awami League does not want people to get involved in the nation-building process. Without the people’s participation, you cannot bring about development.
Development, in the true sense of the term, does not only mean building bridges or creating jobs or increasing per capita income. Development also includes ensuring justice, improved livelihood, security of life and property, proper education of children, freedom to do business without any obstruction, and security from extortionists.
If the Awami League believes that it has a big budget to build roads and bridges and builds them without ensuring the rule of law, the freedom of speech, and the security of people’s life and property and better future for children, it cannot be called development.
We differ with the Awami League on definitions of development and democracy.
What is important to me is to ensure the rule of law. I want the rule of law in the country. If it can ensure it without providing democracy, I will not raise any objection but the question is whether anybody in the world can ever provide the rule of law without democracy.
For me, number one priority is the rule of law that ensures people’s livelihood, the second one is economic emancipation and the third one should be political democracy.
Political democracy ensures freedom for political parties to voice their opinions, the holding of elections at the right time and declaring correct results of elections.
The holding of elections might be the number one priority for politicians as they want to go to power but it is not so for the ordinary people.
By saying that, the Awami League will ensure the rule of law and achieve economic emancipation without holding any elections and providing democracy. It is actually challenging the whole world that believes in a democratic system.
New Age: Why do you think that the Awami League, which has fought for political democracy in the past, has now resolved for development without democracy?
Mahi B Choudhury: The Awami League has resolved for it because it knows that it has become unpopular. So if it wants to ensure democracy today, it will lose its power. It, therefore, has opted for speaking about development but not democracy.
I feel that the country is in a crisis as there is no democracy in it. If I put things in such a simple manner that Awami League is an unpopular political party now, I will not do justice to people. The issue itself is more complex.
When it was in the opposition in the past, the Awami League had to face grenade attacks, killing and destruction. What I feel is that after the democratic process began in the country in 1991, the Awami League’s political stake had been too high. After all, losing its power was a great loss. Therefore, the party is scared of losing its power now.
The same thing happened in 2006 for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party as well. The BNP did not want to lose power; they wanted to stick to power by using the caretaker system. It brought Iajuddin Ahmed as chief of the caretaker government to cling to power by any means.
Now, Khaleda Zia has been driven out of her house in the cantonment. Even she could not say prayers at the grave site of her younger son as she had to remain within the confines of her house for 60 to 70 days during its movement.
I think Sheikh Hasina has the same fear.
The main objective of the current government is not to lose its security of life, property and dignity even if it loses its power.
If these things remain insecure after losing power, not only Sheikh Hasina but any government that comes to power would be scared of losing its power and would say that it is not democracy but development that is important.
New Age: How do you evaluate the ‘development’ taking place under the present political regime. Are people at large significantly benefited from the development model, if there is any, that the incumbents are following?
Mahi B Choudhury: The development that is taking place right now is worth talking about. As a person from the opposition I still believe that when it comes to the production of power and energy, the government has done a wonderful job. It has also done an excellent job in information and telecoms sectors. The hoisting of the national flag of Bangladesh in enclaves and resolving disputes about maritime boundary with Myanmar and India are, no doubt, big achievements.
I want to see the developmental aspects during this government’s tenure as something positive. But the absence of the rule of law has jeopardised people’s livelihood and existence. One cannot improve standards of one’s life. So, sometimes I ask whether this development is meaningless.
Although the Awami League government is engaged in developing roads, culverts and bridges to make people happy and increasing the salary of the government employees, there are reasons to believe that economic emancipation is not its main objective. It seems the government is trying to bribe ordinary people by giving roads and culverts without giving democracy. Economic emancipation and fitting livelihood for the people at large are not possible this way.
People, at large are somehow definitely benefited. The temporary benefit is there. The income of some people may have increased and investment may have increased because of electricity. But the security of the people has not been ensured.
If the ultimate result is people’s fear, how can I say that we have benefited from this development?
New Age: Is a meaningful economic development possible without people’s democracy?
Mahi B Choudhury: A meaningful development ensures economic development and people are benefited from it. It indicates that economic development is taking place and at the same time people have the freedom of speech, safety and security for their life and property. They get justice, better future for their children and proper livelihood.
Most importantly, a meaningful development ensures people’s right to decide what kind of development they need and people decide how that development would come.
Without democracy, people cannot decide what kind of development they need. Without it, people also cannot decide how the development should take place. So without democracy, it is impossible to have meaningful development.
New Age: How do you think Bangladesh can combine democracy and development?
Mahi B Choudhury: Democracy and development are inseparable. If they are separated, one may think of a plan or a strategy to combine them. One does not have to combine them. Both the things are actually inseparable.
You cannot separate meaningful development from democracy. The problem is the lack of political will. What I believe is that if a political leader is not a democrat by heart, the leader cannot ensure democracy in a country. If you believe in democracy, you will practise democracy in your house, family and in your political party. You do not do it as you do not have the right political will.
Ensuring democracy, meaningful economic development, independence of judiciary and freedom of speech and governing the country keeping the opposition in a respectable position can be possible if there is a political will.