Prof Rehman Sobhan, Chairman, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Dhaka, is a prominent Bangladeshi economist and public intellectual. His cohorts at Cambridge included globally-known economists of the Indian subcontinent such as Amartya Sen, Manmohan Singh, and Mahbub ul Haq.
He says that public funding of elections will bring in transparency and lend strength to democratic processes. He spoke to Ankita Sharma and Abdul Muheet Chowdhary of OneWorld South Asia on the sidelines of the ‘International Conference on Governance and Public Service Transformation in South Asia,’ Dhaka, organised by the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA).
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: You focused on the citizenship aspect of governance. Why is there a disconnect between the two?
The reason why there is a dissociation of ordinary people from this process is because there are structural injustices in the society. Those who are in a subordinate position, such as the landless or workers, are not able to exercise their democratic mandate.
Q: How can public funding of elections deepen the democratic process?
Firstly, it will ensure that accumulation of funds through private means will not be one of the key variables in influencing both nomination and a candidate’s credibility to compete in an election.
Secondly, it will enable people with modest means, who are credible candidates at the constituency level, to contest elections.
Thirdly, if public funding is available it can also be publically accountable, and institutions should be put in place to monitor the utilisation of how this public money is spent. However the danger is, if we put our resources in the hands of an undemocratic party, it gives a huge leverage to the party leadership. So, there is a need to build in mechanisms to ensure that public funds are being judiciously utilised.
Q: How do we ensure that participation by the "subordinates" increase and they exercise the democratic rights to the fullest. How do we overcome this master slave relationship?
This can only take place through collective action. The one area where it has been overcome is in the case of caste-based political mobilisation, where (historically speaking) the under-castes have come together and recognised their voting power and have thereby asserted their rightful position.
Unfortunately, as we have discovered from Indian experiences, caste may assert itself and then one may get ones` rightful share in political power, but within a caste there are huge inequalities. For instance, a leader can become a multi-millionaire by mobilising votes from his/her caste constituencies. Unless you can create action within your class or caste, there will be disenfranchisement. Hence, it is not true that under-classes cannot assert themselves, but they cannot do so as individuals. It is in this way that collective action - both to participate in politics and within the political system itself - is the key challenge that institutions and policy makers should address.
Q: In your experiences as an economist, would you say that there is an alternative to the market when it comes to organising the economic affairs of society?
The market is inherent in the functioning of the economy. The relevant point is not to have a frantic or an ideological view of the market and see it as something which needs to be worshipped. The market is an instrument which needs to be subordinated to the social objectives that you wish to achieve in your society.