What difference can elections make?

Afsan Chowdhury
Wednesday, May 16th, 2018


There is election in the air and people are keen to talk about it. Elections in our society are seen as a great tool of social change. Or at least that’s what we would like to think. Our reference is based on the past several elections going back all the way to 1937. Elections are considered magic wands or great game changers of history.  But does that reflect historical experience?

 

From 1937 to 1946

 

The first major election was that of 1937, the first held in Bengal though in colonial India. In these polls, the first leaders/rulers of Bengal were elected who were of Bengal origin. Based on separate electorates according to religious identity, the majority community- Bengali Muslims -won most seats split between Muslim League (ML) and Krishak Proja Party (KPP) of Fazlul Haq.

 

KPP was firmly located in East Bengal and amongst peasants. Huq and his party were against ML and tried to form an alliance against it by forming an alliance with Bengal Congress but it failed. Ultimately a KPP-ML alliance was formed which was short lived as KPP was soon thrown away, ML in Bengal became powerful and in the crucial election of 1946 swept away all and became the region critical for delivering Jinnah’s Pakistan.

 

Yet neither the election of 1937 or 1946 led to any positive achievement. In 1947, the 2 Pakistans concept of the Lahore Resolution was killed by the 1 Pakistan concept of the Delhi Resolution ensuring rule of the minority. Subsequent attempts to retrieve the situation all failed and it was not after 1948 that political mobilization began in earnest.

From 1947 to 1970

 

In 1949, Bengal Muslim League was redesigned as Awami Muslim League and took over political leadership of the region.  By then the Language movement had progressed far and by 1952, it erupted. The middle class had all fallen behind the party making it the main representative of the movement.

 

The most dramatic election was that of 1954 when all parties of East Bengal/ East Pakistan banded together to produce the United Front Victory that ended whatever little Pakistan was parked in East Pakistan 1947.  But this election brought no benefit as the UF government was dismissed by the Pakistanis almost immediately. Subsequently, parties played political musical chairs till 1958 when Ayub Khan imposed martial law in an attempt to crush the growing dissent in many parts of Pakistan but most importantly East Pakistan.

 

No elections were held in Pakistan to bring up the cause or improve the scene of future Bangladeshis but a series of political movements changed the complexion of the situation. Just as the period of activism prior to it led to the useless election of 1954, it was the same with 1970.

 

Dhaka saw the students movement of 1962, the 6 points movement of 1966, the anti-Agartala trial of 1966 leading to the  great agitation of 1969 that not only toppled  Ayub Khan Khan’s martial law but Pakistan itself. It laid the foundation for the 1971 war and created the pressure for Pakistan’s  first universal adult franchise elections.

 

The 1970 elections did many things but it didn’t lead to any change because the electoral results were not realized. Instead it led to the conflict of power transfer and ultimately the independence war. That happened outside the electoral space.

 

In effect the journey from 1947 to 1971 was not based on elections but agitations and no political goals were achieved through elections.

 

From 1972 to today

 

In the post 1971 scenario, elections were considered questionable till the 1990 elections after Ershad’s departure. Most commentators say that both 1990 and 1996 were better than all previous elections since 1971. However, the attempted manipulation by the BNP after 2006 unleashed a chain of events which led to the 2006-2008 regime and subsequently the electoral history is known.

 

2014 was a non-election and 2018 seems fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. Yet everyone talks of the elections as gateway to progress. Yet no evidence exists that says elections bring socio-economic development. The other fiction we nurse is that people are interested in elections. True, they would love to participate in an election but why or as what sort of activity is not asked.

 

Elections are good for the members of the ruling party or the other party and their beneficiary but whether people think of this as a trigger for socio-economic change is rarely probed. Our work on the perception of elections done in 2006 squarely pointed to public perceptions of elections as a social activity more than anything else. Its entertainment value, public activity participation value and similar interest. These non-political markers are higher because history has shown that elections don’t lead to any material benefit. And for the people, that is what matters.

 

Because politicians and their parties benefit, they like to think everyone is interested hence  prolonging the life of this fiction that elections are all that matters.

 

Is there any reason to think that life will be different in or after 2018?

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