The art of the possible

By Zafar Sobhan
Published November 26th 2004 in The Daily Star
With the current parliamentary term more than half-way over, the talk in the air is of reform. There is talk of caretaker government reform. Election reform. Political reform. Judicial reform. Social reform. You name it. Let's be perfectly frank. There is not too much in the Bangladeshi polity that couldn't stand a little reform.

It is a perennial game among the academics and policy-makers and media and civil society. There are endless rounds of meetings and symposia and dialogues and seminars and round-table discussions and conferences.

The talk is always of what is wrong and what needs to be done. But how often does the talk ever translate into concrete action? Pretty rarely it seems to me.

There is a reason for this. I think that when we get together to discuss the state of the nation, the problems that we face and possible solutions, we rarely focus on the art of the possible -- on what can realistically be achieved.

Part of the problem is that often those sitting around the round-table are in no position to implement or effectuate the solutions that they come up with. Often the suggested solutions are too sweeping and utopian to have any hope of implementation. They are theoretical solutions, not practical ones.

When we aim too high or too unrealistically we end up with nothing.

Let's face it.

It doesn't take a genius to diagnose the problems that Bangladesh is confronted with. These are pretty obvious even to a casual observer and have been endlessly catalogued and discoursed upon in seminar after seminar.

Endemic corruption. Crumbling infrastructure. Politicisation of the bureaucracy. Non- functional parliamentary system. Non-independent judiciary. Criminalisation of politics and politicisation of crime. Lack of adequate planning in every sector of the economy. Et cetera et cetera.

None of the above is a news-flash. Everyone knows what the problems are.

But it is much harder to come up with a solution to these problems. Or let me correct myself -- it is much harder to come up with a workable solution to these problems.

It is the easiest thing in the world to come up with a theoretical utopian solution which can never be implemented here in Bangladesh.

We need, above all, to be realistic about who we are as a people and what the current situation in the country is. I understand that this can be a rather depressing thought -- but there we have it.

It seems to me that when we talk about the problems that we are facing as a nation, there are three different kinds of solutions.

There is the kind of solution that could be achieved if we were a different people inhabiting a different country. But we aren't. You have to play the hand you're dealt.

I am talking, for instance, of solutions that call for our political leaders to implement changes that would limit or reduce their own powers and privileges or that presuppose that what motivates them is the pursuit of the common good or the national interest.

This is why corruption is such a problem -- the much ballyhooed recent establishment of an independent anti-corruption commission notwithstanding. Truly resolving the problem of corruption requires the ruling elite to police itself. Since it is those in power who are the main beneficiaries of corruption, I am not holding my breath waiting for high-profile indictments to be handed down that would bring them to book.

Sadly, in our political climate, this kind of change is hardly likely to ever transpire.

Secondly, there is the kind of solution that our political leaders might implement -- not because it would be of benefit to the nation -- but because it might be of benefit to them as well -- or at least cause them no foreseeable harm.

Something like amending the constitution to establish a system of proportional representation might fall into this category. The idea has even been bruited by senior cabinet members of the current administration and it is not really clear whether proportional representation would harm or help either the current government or the opposition in the long run.

It has been suggested that such a shift could usher in an era of permanent majority for the four-party ruling alliance, but then again, under such a dispensation, the current opposition would gain far more seats in parliament than it holds at present, and that the four-party alliance would command an enduring majority is far from certain. The political advantages for either side remain debatable.

But a system of proportional representation would have the benefit of delinking representatives from constituencies which could be expected to decrease election-time irregularities and might lead to the election of respected policy-makers rather than local strongmen. It might also help smooth the way for devolution of power to the local level.

These are reforms that are worth working for because -- since they may not necessarily be negatively impacted -- we might just persuade our political masters to implement them. But in the final analysis, the power to effect this kind of change lies solely in the hands of the politicians, and so it is very difficult for the general public to do much to bring it about.

Finally, there are the reforms that are in our hands as communities and individuals and organisations and associations. Things we don't have to wait for the government to do for us. Things we don't have to petition the government to do. Things we can do ourselves.

This to my mind is self-evidently the best place for reform to start.

I think, for instance, of one of the initiatives of the Jatiya Oikya Mancha -- a sort of rating system for candidates standing for election. The idea is to put together a bipartisan and respected association that would issue ratings or endorsements for potential candidates for electoral office.

The idea being that if the voters have to choose between a candidate who is thus endorsed and one who is not (due to corruption perhaps) that this will help persuade them to choose the endorsed candidate.

This in turn might induce the political parties to only nominate candidates who would pass such scrutiny. There are good people in all political parties and this is one means of helping ensure that it is these people who end up getting the party nominations and not some crook or strongman.

When we think about solutions to intractable political dilemmas such as how to sever the nexus between crime and politics, we have to think in terms of solutions that are in our own hands and might be workable, as opposed to solutions that are exclusively in the hands of those we wish to reform. If we wait for the political class to reform itself we might be waiting for a very long time.

Eventually, of course, the point is to reform the government to the point where it becomes possible to contemplate official policies that aim to redress the current raft of problems we face as a nation. But to the extent that we focus our efforts on solutions that we can impose on the ruling class rather than on solutions that only the ruling class can impose on the rest of us, the closer we will be to seeing real results.

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.