Democracy isn’t only limited to voting rights

When a large section of people remains undeveloped or underdeveloped, they do not have real democracy. Democracy is not limited to only voting rights or rights to free expressions and associations although these are also important requirements of democracy, Dr Anupam Sen, vice-chancellor of the Premier University, tells Tapos Kanti Das in an interview with New Age

spo07New Age: The ruling Awami League and its partners claim these days that economic development is more important than political democracy. Do you agree?
Anupam Sen: I do not agree fully. In fact, if you look at the independence movement of Bangladesh, the movement that had been continuing in the 1960s, you will find that in that movement, left political parties made an announcement of ‘kicking at the ballot box.’ In their views, rice or food was more important than bourgeois democracy or right to vote. Right to vote, in their views, was meaningless if it did not ensure two meals a day for a person. Saying this, many left parties did not participate in the 1970 elections. Even Bhashani’s National Awami Party did not take part in that election. To them, economic emancipation was more important than the rights of bourgeois democracy, including voting rights. However, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who became the nation’s supreme leader, in fact, the sole leader, after declaring the six-point demand, did not share this view. Most of the Bengalis supported him as they felt that they were experiencing the severe impact of colonial exploitations at the hands of the Punjabi civil-military ruling clique which was depriving them of two meals. For this, the first necessity was the emancipation from external economic exploitation. In fact, Bangabandhu’s views were identical to what Marx had said about colonial subordination and exploitation. To Marx, a country first needs to remove external economic coercion before it can give attention to the internal coercion, ie class struggle. The people of Bangladesh were in agreement with this view because they could feel and see how resources of Bangladesh were being transferred to West Pakistan. However, to the left parties, the class struggle was the main issue; economic deprivation of the east wing was of secondary importance. Here, they failed to identify themselves with the feelings of ordinary people.

New Age: Why do you think the Awami League, which has fought for political democracy in the past, has now resolved for development without democracy?
Anupam Sen: It is true that the Awami League now puts great emphasis on the economic development, but I do not think that it wants development at the cost of democracy. Undoubtedly, the Awami League is now pursuing the capitalist path of development. Just after the independence, the AL adopted socialism as one of the basic principles of the country’s constitution. It has deviated from that principle to a great extent after the collapse of socialism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Eastern Europe. In 1996, the newly elected Awami League government — after remaining away from power for long 21 years — inherited an economy which could be classified as ‘lumpen capitalism’. The capitalist class that accumulated huge wealth in the two decades after the assassination of Bangabandhu did so by plundering nationalised and private banks. A large amount of money or capital was transferred or given to those who were related to, or had connections with, in some form, the government. This was done in the name of ‘industrialisation’. In fact, these so-called ‘entrepreneurs’ were not ‘entrepreneurs’ in the real sense of the term. An entrepreneur risks his own capital. Actually, these people did not have any capital of their own. They swallowed a big part of whatever money was advanced to them from the savings of the people and spent a large portion of it on buying land or cars, etc without investing the whole amount in industries. Of course, garment industries did flourish in the late 1980s despite the plunder because Bangladesh had the world’s cheapest labour force in its womenfolk who had nothing except their labour to sell. As they had nothing to consume in the form of commodities, they used to spend very little time on their domestic chores. Their spare time, which had been immense, was seized by the new garment industrialists or the so-called entrepreneurs. If we look at the economic history of the world, we will find that industrialisation started with textile industries in each and every country.
It may be noted that when the Awami League came to power in 1996 the total amount of default loan was more than Tk 20,000 crores — a big amount for that period. This gives an idea how in the two decades after the assassination of Bangabandhu, a nouveau riche or a new rich class in the form of lumpen bourgeoisie emerged (at first, most of these garment industries were nothing but big tailoring shops). However, we must admit that the needs of the garment industries — the forward and the backward linkage — have led to the emergence of textile industries in the late 1990s. In recent years, other industries have also come into existence. A big trading class and financial barons have also emerged. The major part — nearly 70 per cent of the new resources that have been produced in the manufacturing and service sectors — is being appropriated by the owning classes. While presenting the new constitution in 1972, Bangabandhu had said that the socialism and democracy that would be established in Bangladesh would be inclusive — a democracy for the oppressed and an economy for the downtrodden people. Bangladesh has not been allowed to follow Bangabandhu’s path. He was assassinated by the pro-Pakistanis and stooges of imperialism. In fact, not only Bangladesh but almost all the countries of the world are now treading the capitalist path. The socio-economic structure that has been formed in Bangladesh in the last three decades and the world economy in which the country now finds itself would not allow it to follow any other but the capitalist path, at least for the time being. The world economy, however, is now undergoing a big turmoil because of the extreme inequality that has been generated by the policies of neo-liberalism — the principles of ultra right or unregulated capitalism which has been the all-pervasive economic philosophy in the last two and a half decades. It may come as a big shock to many people to know that at present only 85 people own wealth equal to the total wealth of the lower 50 per cent of the earth’s population, ie, of 3.5 billion or 350 crore people. Two years back in many countries of the developed world, including the United States, a demand for equity was raised against the owning 1 per cent people on behalf of the 99 per cent people of the world. Although many such agitations in various parts of the world have failed to produce any result because of the pervasive ideology of capitalism that prevails now, the foundation of capitalism has felt an unnerving jolt. The source of this jolt was the great recession of 2007 from which the developed world has not yet been able to escape; the economic growth still remains an elusive chimera for the European Union, Japan and the United States.
In fact, I do not think that the Awami League can develop the country without democracy. Development needs democracy, in one form or another. This may either be bourgeois democracy or people’s democracy. Military bureaucratic rule cannot ensure development. Examples are plenty in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

New Age: How do you evaluate the ‘development’ taking place under the present political regime? Are the people at large getting significantly benefited from the development model, if there is any, that the incumbents are following?
Anupam Sen: Development has accelerated in recent times: the GDP growth of the country has increased manifold. The per capita income is now more than $1,300 a year. Agricultural development has been tremendous. In 1971, we used to produce about 100 million tonnes of food grains. Now, the production has increased to 380 million tonnes. Our life expectancy has increased to 70 years; child mortality has decreased and literacy rate has increased manifold. During the war of independence, more than 60 per cent people used to live below the poverty line; now that rate has come down to 24 per cent.
However, the rising per capita income and the GDP growth or the declining rate of poverty cannot hide the fact that more than 80 per cent people of Bangladesh do not belong to the middle class. Those who are above the poverty line may earn $1.5 a day (which is the poverty indicator of the World Bank) but they are not ‘well off’ in any sense of the term. In fact, they are very poor but they somehow continue to exist. Every day for them is a day of existential survival.
However, a new rich class has now emerged which can wallow in the obscene riches that they have acquired.

New Age: Is a meaningful economic development possible without people’s democracy?
Anupam Sen: Bangladesh is not being allowed to follow the democracy that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman advocated when he presented the Bangladesh constitution at the constituent assembly on November 4, 1972. He said, ‘I want democracy of the oppressed, not of the oppressors. I want every man to have the dignity of man.
The democracy that we are introducing through this constitution will ensure the basic rights of all citizens including their rights to food, shelter, education, health, recreation and rest.’ Are we not far off from these goals
When a large section of people remains undeveloped or underdeveloped, they do not have real democracy. Democracy is not limited to only voting rights or rights to free expressions and associations although these are also important requirements of democracy.

New Age: How do you think Bangladesh can combine democracy and development?
Anupam Sen: Democracy ensures, besides rights to food, shelter, health, etc, that we have already mentioned, also the right to a decent living. Only when these are fulfilled, we can say that people’s democracy has been established. In that sense, we can say that people’s democracy has not yet been established in many developed and developing countries, including Bangladesh.
People’s struggles including ours must continue for that. In the context of this modern world dominated by supra-national corporations, a good government or people’s government that identify themselves with people’s interests must encourage and advance that struggle.