The discourse over democracy
Since the dawn of civilisation, the most cherished values of the humans' progressive journey are democracy and people's well-being. More precisely, democracy is 'power of the people' or 'rule by the people' whereas well-being defines 'the state of being comfortable, healthy, and happy. Moreover, how people feel and evaluate their lives is the central focus of the democratic system. In a democracy, a free and fair electoral system is a pre-condition where spontaneous and active participation of voters is the key to electing their representatives in parliament. Those parliamentarians will represent the voters and will take welfare initiatives for their constituencies. But democracy is not only an electoral system but rather a collective value system and state of mind to accept and tolerate others' views and opinions. From a broader perspective, it brings some additional benefits like prosperity, security, and instils a sense of equity among the people.
In different schools of thought, various views are prevailing on democracy, development, and people's well-being. The issues like democracy, growth, development, and people's welfare are most often interrelated. But the extent of correlation and whether the relation is positive or negative vary from country to country and over a period. It is tough to draw a conclusion about whether it is positively or negatively correlated. Because, it largely depends on some other relevant factors. But it is highly expected that in a democratic atmosphere people's confidence and happiness are much higher than in another system. One view is that first, it needs to achieve development, then democracy will be established automatically. The alternative and the more established view is through democratic practices development and people's well-being can be achieved in the long run. It is highly expected that the absence of democratic practices may endanger the economic policies and financial system as it has less scope to be rectified through discussion and criticism in parliament and the press.
It can be hypothesized that economic turmoil can increase in absence of democratic practices at the macro level. Moreover, regulatory systems can be fragile, and professionalism can be destroyed as transparency and accountability are totally missing. Some empirical evidence (like gross forgery in the financial sector) shows that these are the outcomes of the violation of democratic values in policy formulation and practice.
Despite diverse examples across the globe, it is significantly proven that democracy is indispensable in the long run for a stable society and an economy. In recent years, democracy is getting less priority compared to some other issues like development and populistic approach, and mass people are less concerned about it. Alternatively, people's focus has been shifted to some other issues intentionally. That is the major failure of pro-people politics in Bangladesh.
It needs solid democratic institutions and their proper functioning for durable development. Moreover, freedom, democracy, and quality institutions are largely correlated with people's well-being. In recent experience, we have observed a gross waste of public wealth and resources by initiating some unnecessary projects in the name of so-called development. The underlying causes are not to reach the welfare of the marginal people but to allocate the money through those project mechanisms among the closely associated groups. These types of channelling public wealth to the private beneficiary groups are the reason for making an economic condition so risky.
It is a rational approach to nullify those luxury economic projects by the initial evaluation of all relevant indicators, but it is implemented not because of economic rationality but rather as a personal choice. But in a democratic system, personal choice is not significant in the decision-making process. It seems like an economic oligarchy where only a few people take all the major decisions and enjoy power in all forms. By ignoring the voice of the largest portion of society the rulers often dominate by ignoring the expectations of the masses.
Political culture is a significant issue in the democratic system. Even within the political party how the members get the floor to express their views is determined by the culture. Sometimes in many political parties directly or indirectly a single person takes all the major decisions which is very much costly as it has a very narrow scope to review the decision regarding public welfare. On the other hand, some pro-people and pro-democratic rules are written in the constitution but not in practice. Implementing and practicing those are major challenges for a country.
Building institutions is mandatory for upholding democratic values in the long run. Without institutional support and its proper continuity, democratic values cannot survive. Generally, institutional degradation happens because of rulers' choice or not eagerness to strengthen and develop the worthy structure of democratic practice, when ignoring the opinion and expectations of mass people gives the pleasure to the rulers and limits the scope of raising the voice of people shifting to a feeling of being outcast in the democracy.
Democracy as a human inherent value needs to be nurtured continuously so that it can be an integral part of human well-being. Development will not sustain if the culture of democracy is not patronized or nurtured. Sometimes it is considered that democracy and economic growth are negatively correlated or vice versa as most often in the democratic system taking decisions is a time-bound process. But in a democratic system through a long debate process, the possibility of making errors decreases. Often development projects are imposed and the opinions of the majority of stakeholders are ignored. Without considering their opinion and the long-run impact on their life most often the policy and development projects imposed produce a costly failure in the economy.
The collective and traditional failure of politicians in establishing a democratic process in Bangladesh in the last 50 years is an innate tragedy. Their frequent interference and utilizing state mechanisms for personal gain are the costliest barriers to practising a democratic system. The recent experience in Bangladesh is a bit challenging. In the last decade in terms of growth and development, it seems a tremendous job has been done but at the same time democratic values are ignored to a greater extent. Consequently, the involvement of mass people in economic functioning is remarkably low.
The largest portion of our existing macro-crisis could have been solved through prior discussions and listening to opponents and other stakeholders. But the space of democratic culture is shrinking day by day which is a great challenge for economic and social stability. In different phases of development, it needs to reconsider the growth and development strategies and to what extent they will be aligned with living standards, lifestyle, and democratic values. In our case, development seems imposed without considering the opinion of prime stakeholders. As a result, within very few days these development projects turn into a burden or nightmare as waste and misuse of public wealth and resources are one type of tax on people.
Not necessarily growth ensures development. Even in the development process, it needs to ensure distributive justice and allocational efficiency. Otherwise, the largest portion of people will be excluded from their well-being. We must bring collective well-being through development. So, in the third decade of the 21st century, we need to consider some other issues like climate change, technological change, pandemic, and power shifting. So, democratic values need to be patronised to solve the globally integrated problem, but it should start from every small unit. Simultaneously, we need to critically consider the issue that when we say people's wellbeing it seems an anthropocentric approach and contrasts with the collective approach of human and nature combination.
Lastly, it can be said that the goal should be people's long-run well-being and sustainable progress. Among the alternatives, democracy is the best as it has the highest positive externalities. So, withdrawal from the democratic process or weakening the democratic institutions is not the solution, rather active groups must work for building awareness and upholding democratic values. By practising and nurturing democratic values in every phase of our life we can build a much more sustainable, tolerable, and integrated society and country.
Washim Palash is a writer and research scholar at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. [email protected]