What is frustrating is that successive governments including the current one have had policies and practice that have hindered true progress. If we can get rid of these barriers, we can introduce a democratic system which will enable us to bring about inclusive development for the cause of the people. This was our aspiration when we fought the war of liberation. Whoever goes against that is acting against the ideals of the liberation war. Development for the cause of the people and society without democracy, therefore, is not possible, says Zonayed Saki, chief coordinator of Ganasanghati Andolan, in an interview with New Age
New Age: The ruling Awami League and its partners claim these days that economic development is more important than political democracy. Do you agree?
Zonayed Saki: I think that the Awami League’s claim is designed to create a smokescreen over the reality. Economic development and democracy are not mutually exclusive; generally, they have a positive correlation. Presenting them as rivals is wrong. Economists are expressing their concern about the lack of investment and a decreased growth rate of industrial production. A higher GDP growth rate is artificially projected by the government and its development projects are riddled with corruption. So we have disagreements with the kind of development it has initiated and the way the development works are generally being done. But if you view the building of some structures as development, it cannot be claimed an achievement while all the governments in the past have played their part in that. So making excuses for an undemocratic rule cannot be acceptable.
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?
Zonayed Saki: It is true that the Awami League has fought for democracy in the past. But the point to note is that it has done so only when it was in the opposition. The Awami League has always squeezed the democratic space when it was in power and its rule had a tendency to be autocratic. History tells us that.
The problem lies in the system. After the independence of Bangladesh, our constitution was created to invest just one person with all the powers of the country. There was no separation of power. Democratic practices within the party were virtually absent. As a result, no institution could function independently as democracy was not institutionalised. The political parties of the ruling class/es are beneficiaries of this pseudo-democratic system and they have strengthened undemocratic norms. Neither the Awami League nor any other party that has ruled Bangladesh so far has the capacity to establish a democratic system. They have used state power as a tool to amass wealth. The Awami League-led government is also doing so; and an undemocratic environment is necessary for such a corrupt system to flourish.
New Age: How do you evaluate the ‘development’ taking place under the present political regime? Are the people at large significantly benefited from the development model, if there is any, that the incumbents are following?
Zonayed Saki: The big success that has been claimed by this regime is in power generation. It has allowed small-to-medium oil-based rental power plants to do that on an emergency basis. But the high cost that is involved in power generation by those plants has pushed prices of electricity up. Rental power plants have even availed the natural gas as a priority before the state-owned low-cost power plants could do. The rental plants, therefore, remain active at the cost of the state-owned ones. This has pushed the price of electricity upward further. The oil supplied to the rental plants is highly subsidised and thus the people’s money is being plundered by a few private enterprises favoured by the government. So we can see the success story of a classic ‘case of development’ when consumers at large are reeling under unabated surge in price of electricity.
The Awami League, the party in power now to speak specifically, promised to create employment opportunities to provide at least one member of every family with a job. What has actually come about in reality is completely different. Mass graveyards in Thailand can only bear testimony to the fact that the ruling party has failed to keep its promise. We read about mass graveyards in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia where a large number of poor Bangladeshi job-seekers are lying dead. On top of that, human trafficking is also going on with a renewed zeal. The government’s other infrastructure development projects with big public investments are highly questionable because of alleged corruptions in their implementation.
New Age: Is a meaningful economic development possible without people’s democracy?
Zonayed Saki: No, any meaningful development needs people’s participation; and without a democratic system you cannot ensure that.
New Age: How do you think Bangladesh can combine democracy and development?
Zonayed Saki: Bangladesh will begin a new era of development when a democratic system is established in the country. A corruption-free environment can attract loads of new investments. A democratic government would let the institutions function independently in an efficient way and would create an environment to tap the potential of productive capital. The enthusiasm of our enterprising people is a great asset for us. If they are given an opportunity to be active in developing themselves, they can do wonders. What is frustrating is that successive governments including the current one have had policies and practice that have hindered true progress. If we can get rid of these barriers, we can introduce a democratic system which will enable us to bring about inclusive development for the cause of the people. This was our aspiration when we fought the war of liberation. Whoever goes against that is acting against the ideals of the liberation war. Development for the cause of the people and society without democracy, therefore, is not possible. It is only possible when we stick to the ideals of the liberation war, the essence of which is democracy.