Thursday, January 18, 2007

Democracy Takes Time

I had a particularly friendly cabbie today and I thought I'd share his image with you.

I'm proud because I've learned how to take cab rides in Dhaka all by myself. Somewhat nervously, I flagged down one of those washing-machine-sized cabs I've mentioned before and used my nine carefully-coached words of Bangla to tell the driver where I was going: "Ami Banani jabo, bari number baro, rasta number atharo," which means, "I'm going to Banani, house number 12, street number 18." (Come to think of it, only six of those words are actually Bangla.)

I offered the driver 100 taka (about a buck and a half) for the fifteen-minute trip; he didn't understand me and peeled a fifty and two tens from the wad in his pocket to show me he wanted seventy, to which I of course agreed. He tried chatting me up on the ride, which was hopeless since my pathetic store of Bangla was exhausted, and he seemed quite happy when I asked if I could take his photo. (Check out his smile, as well as the cool painting on the back of the cab in front.) When he deposited me at my hotel, I gave him the 100 anyway. Maybe the extra 30 can cover his modeling fee.

The big news around Dhaka continues to be the national state of emergency and the postponement of elections. The general mood is one of relief that the caretaker government has restored order and is taking its time to get a broadly acceptable plan for the voting in place. Unfortunately, no one has a good word to say about either of the two dominant coalition parties, and the temptation for someone like Muhammad Yunus to step in and bring his intelligence and credibility to a massive reform effort must be great. Hopefully if he ever does decide to become a real player on the political scene (he actually served briefly in a similar caretaker administration in 1996), he won't end up overwhelmed by the endemic weakness and corruption of Bangladeshi government.

Reading the local (English-language) press during this time of national uncertainty and stress is a powerful reminder of how lucky we've been in America to have a relatively stable, broadly accepted constitution. Sheer longevity is a big reason why. Bangladesh has been independent only since 1974, and the country has veered between periods of military rule and more-or-less democratic governance ever since. As a result, people still aren't sure how democracy is supposed to work, and you can hear and see them trying to figure this out in public.

One editorial-page column in Tuesday's Daily Star (Dhaka's leading Anglophone paper) quotes a series of clauses from the national constitution about how and when elections are supposed to take place (not to prove a point, just to inform readers about these basic matters) and speculates inconclusively as to what substantive issues the interim caretaker government may or may not address. A second column bemoans the way family dynasties have taken over the leading parties, treating the government almost as a private business whose control they are fighting over, and ponders whether the country can escape this syndrome. And a third discusses how the shadow of the still-recent independence war hangs over the current political scene: "It is no secret," the columnist writes, "that the Jamaat leaders, Nizami and Mujahid, played a role in making Dhaka a killing field of the Bengali intellectuals on the night of December 13, 1971, immediately before the victory in the liberation war." (Jamaat is now part of one of the two leading electoral alliances vying for power.)

The uncertainty, the teetering between totalitarianism and republicanism, the pangs of the national birth-trauma--these are all living issues for Bangladeshis. In the United States, we went through similar struggles. But they are generations past, not a mere thirty-six years old, and the anxieties, passions, and hatred they stirred are (practically) extinct. The sheer passage of time has also ensured that, by now, we have a fairly clear shared understanding of what the government is supposed to do, how elections are supposed to work, and how power can change hands peacefully. It's not because we Americans have some superior capacity for self-governance--it's just because we've had longer to practice.

All of which makes the ruthless disregard for constitutional values exhibited by the current U.S. administration doubly tragic. It takes generations for a nation to weave the fabric of democracy--but, as we're witnessing, determined autocrats with their hands on power can tear it apart almost overnight.

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