The Emergence of 'the Public'

In the quarter-century of its ferociously competitive democracy, ideas of political freedom, rights, and the mandate to rule have started to displace notions of benevolence and mutual obligation in popular political culture. The rhetoric of political leadership is still tinged with maternal affection, but this language is ornamental: the people now expect, they no longer pray for crumbs from the table of the rich. But then the population has become accustomed to the idea of itself as a political force, perhaps because until 2014 (an election boycotted by the main opposition) it had evicted the incumbent each time it went to the polls.

The public did not reject client status or turn into autonomous political actors overnight: there remains 'contract all the way down', as Carole Pateman puts it (1988). But patron-clientelism is resilient and flexible, and adapts well to democratic cultural forms: in this more competitive political market '[t]he how of giving...becomes as important as the what' (Devine 2006, 92). Ruud argues that ordinary citizens embrace the 'mechanisms of democracy' because they give them influence over who is in power, but do not expect to take it themselves (2012,46). Kabeer (2011) finds that for urban folk the state is malign or absent, but rural people do not feel 'imprisoned' by local power structures (Wood 2000). Instead new forms of political consciousness and practice suggest political change from below (Sobhan 2000, cited in Kabeer (2011)). People mobilized by organizations like Nijera Kori, with its class-struggle theory of social change, recognized the sources of their problems and saw their relationship to the state and political power changing: 'barriers to citizenship were spoken of in the past tense, suggesting that at some significant level, there has been a real shift in the balance of power. Rural respondents... saw themselves as citizens, or in transition to citizenship' (Kabeer 2011, 352).

If the hard facts of power have changed little, there is a stronger grasp of political possibility and the underlying power dynamics. The change registers as tone more than content. We hear it in the shifting language with which ordinary citizens speak of themselves as political actors, less often as jonogon, a word suffused with moral meaning, than as public, with its implications of collective, if usually latent, power (Ali and Hossain 2006). Perhaps the loanword public was necessary because vernacular terms for relations of power are too contentious[1] or the political relation itself is new: never before have the masses been the political masters of the elite. Possibly television talk shows popularized the word, since the liberalization of broadcast media in the 2000s spread the habit of political debate.[2] Whatever its source, public suggests citizens who deliberate about their common affairs in the public sphere (Fraser 1990, 57); it suggests formalization and a degree of withdrawal from the private role of the client.

How and whether mass political power can countervail against entrenched political power is not obvious. But political culture is shifting towards greater awareness and a powerful sense of citizenship on which all else hinges. An otherwise 'shy and hesitant' woman told researchers, when asked if her husband told her how to vote, 'No, I decide my vote. Voting is freedom [swadhinota]. To vote for the candidate you like best. If you cannot vote for him, then there is no freedom' (Ruud 2012, 54). Polls of political attitudes tend to find that the majority of Bangladeshis prefer multiparty elections to other ways of choosing their leaders (Barman etal. 2002). There is a difference between deciding who can decide and being the group on whom decisions are benevolently enacted, even if that difference remains theoretical for now.

  • [1] For terms used in the Bangla press for protests during 2007-12, see Hossain and Jahan (2014).
  • [2] Note that 41 per cent of households owned a television by 2006, compared to only 8 per centa decade earlier, and 65 per cent of adults watched television in 2006, of whom 16 per cent watchedtalk shows and 66 per cent the news (Rahman 2011).
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