April 28, 2007

A conversation with Mash

A conversation with Mash, owner of this blog. It started when I responded to someone else's comments about civil society elitism. Although the conversation between us veered off topic after that, it was nonetheless highly interesting and worth a read if anyone is interested. In between is a telling comment by sushantaa.

The entire thread can be found on salamdhaka's blog here.

Asif said...

Would YOU say that the people of BD in general, regardless of class, know how to vote? Don't the worst MPs come from Dhaka city, esp. Gulshan-Banani?

11:23 AM
SUSHANTA said...
bhai, ami bangladesher ek mofossol shaharer chele. Sushil Somaj niye kotha bolte bhoy lage!

12:37 PM
Mash said...
asif I think was joking when he said:

Would YOU say that the people of BD in general, regardless of class, know how to vote? Don't the worst MPs come from Dhaka city, esp. Gulshan-Banani?

What exactly does knowing "how to vote" mean? Isn't that the problem: A few people who "know" trying to impose their will on the bulk of the population because they are "too ignorant to know"?

3:25 PM
Asif said...

Now that you mention it, yes that sounded terribly lame. I got somewhat emotional seeing people blame (effectively) powerless civil society members instead of very powerful "quarters".

To elaborate and clarify: people in general do not discriminate between their candidates. Yes, that sounds elitist on the face of it. And yes, Debopriyo's "clean candidate" initiative can be criticised as a bunch of people who "know" (intelligensia/elite) imposing their views on the masses.

That however is not what I meant. I meant that if you go and ask your average AL or BNP or JI supporter in the street, they will give you some really really bad arguments. Usually things like: "AL will sell Bangladesh" or "BNP will bring back autocracy". Hardly anyone focusses on issues.

And mind you, I don't think this is a class thing at all. Some of the best political conversations I've had are with rickshawalas. The majority of them vote looking after their interest as a group. However, people in other professions (whatever the income) do not.

This lack of non-focus on issues of importance is what I meant when I said that "people do not know how to vote". Of course they do. But if you ask me, looking into wider issues is voting properly. Looking into narrow interests or petty issues ("who announced our independence?") is voting improperly.

I'm very, very glad you caught my mistake. I hope I've clarified some of what I was trying to say.

5:41 PM
Mash said...
asif, I agree with most of what you said. I appreciate the clarification. I was pretty sure you misspoke since, from reading your blog, it did not seem to be a position you have ever advocated.

One thing I will say though about people not voting the issues. I have come to respect the will and the collective wisdom of the people. People are very good at figuring out what is in their best interest. They may not articulate it well when asked, but I have always found it so.

As one who believes strongly in democracy, I am an advocate of getting as much information as possible out into the public and then letting the public decide not only who to vote for, but also what bits of information they find to be important. It may be frustrating to hear from someone that they are voting for a party simply because they are a "party man", but at the same time, that is a choice they are making and that issue is important to them.

By way of example, take the US elections in 2004. In that election, the Republicans drove home the issue of gay marriage as the wedge issue. It was almost certainly the deciding issue of the election. It drove their base to the polls on the fear that gays would marry and then take over the world or something. Now, you and I can scream at the top of our lungs that that is a minor issue compared to the larger issues of national security, war in Iraq, etc. But to those who came out to vote, that was the motivating factor. So, I say, power to the Republicans for finding an issue that motivated their base. Too bad for the Democrats that they could not convince more people that there are more important issues out there. Democracy worked, even though I didn't like the outcome. The people spoke on matters that they found important.

I think the same is true in Bangladesh. It is a failure of the political parties to shape the debate - not a failure of the people to look out for their own self interest and vote accordingly.

5:57 PM
Asif said...


I am also a true believer in the collective will of the people. However, I have also studied (not specialised, simply studied) in some depth how people's will can be fragmented. I'd highly recommend Kurt Weyland's study on Brazil (I'll post the name to your blog when I find it) and De Soto's "The Other Way" if you're interested. In these books, they show how broad coalitions have been stopped from forming.
When America voted on Gay Marriage instead of National Security issues, that was a step backward which they corrected in the next elections (2006 midterms). Over three rounds, our people have made the same old mistakes.
Add to this the "uniquely" South Asian addiction to dynasties and you've got yourself a pretty bad combination. People will end up voting in families instead of issues. I mean people who are ashamed of their extended families have no problem affirming "like father, like son/daughter/whatever" (I'm sure you've read my rant on my blog)! Surely it's not elitist to say that that's wrong!

In any case, I really appreciate your thoughts again. You've given me something to think about. Now, back to the books!

6:16 PM
Asif said...
Besides Mash,

If one were to follow your line of thinking and say "kudos to the republicans", one would have to say kudos to Milosevic, Shiv Sena and our beloved, oh-so-beloved Jamaat for "finding issues that motivate their base".

In the end, we need some institutions (constitution/strong cultural norms) to tell people and parties that this is right and this is wrong. And no, colonial institutions just won't do anymore I'm afraid.

6:19 PM
Mash said...
Asif, I don't like Karl Rove. But nonetheless he is a formidable political tactician. And no, I don't think you are "elitist" when you say that it is wrong. I happen to also think its the wrong issue, but, alas, I only get one vote :)

I am not prepared to make the judgment that the US took a step back in 2004 and a step forward in 2006. I think the political landscape changed and the relative importance of issues changed in 2006. Its not that gay marriage was not an issue, its just that political corruption and the Iraq war had a larger constituency.

As for Jamaat in Bangladesh, there is no denying that they are an effective political party with a loyal and dedicated base. I will leave aside my aversion for Islamists for a moment and stick to the politics only (so don't take my statements of praise as endorsement of their views - a reading of my blog will make clear what my view of Islamists are). Jamaat can package their message effictively and deliver it efficiently. That is what makes them a potent political force. Same applies for Shiv Sena; Milosevic was working in a more restricted political system so I don't think the thread carries that far. So, to recap, as a political force these groups are very well oiled. AL and BNP can only dream of being half as efficient - a pipe dream because their supporters are a more diverse constituency with wider and more diluted interests.

Thanks also for the references. I am familiar with the Brazil study, but not as familiar as I need to be to talk intelligently about it. I look forward to getting more detail on them from you. Also, thanks for the civil and enlightening discussion and debate. I am always heartened when we can argue and debate hefty issues without rancor.

6:45 PM
Asif said...
Trust me, same to you on that last point. Very rare in our circles not to take disagreement personally!

Will elaborate more tomorrow. Maybe even a blogpost:D. Stay tuned!

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