Brisbane, January 9, 2015 (Alochonaa): I have just finished my three-week long Dhaka visit. I returned to Dhaka after nearly three years and during this period a lot seems to have happened. Bangladesh is evolving as a country of many islands and there is good news and bad news. The economy has done well but there are also signs of regression in other fields that risk sustainability of the economy.
During my visit I was heartened to see that there are new flyovers and nicely paved wide roads but I was also dismayed to see how these shiny new roads contrast with some of the old pot-holed ones that still exist and bore signs of neglect. There are fewer traffic jams (relatively, that is) but pollution is the same if not worse. Happily, there were no power cuts but power is being distributed at hugely subsidized prices on ad hoc basis with no long term strategy for cost-efficient and sustainable generation and supply in sight.
At the economic front, most people appear busy and, indeed, they have something to be busy about and are engaged in one or the other income earning activities. This is encouraging.
GDP’s most prominent beneficiaries are the rich and the privileged. Spend-free Bangladeshis frequent posh and expensive restaurants. Weddings are a thriving industry where lavish parties are the norm but the food menu remains a less visionary, the same old kachchi biryiani wherever you goand guests are the same, mostly ageing and they repeat same old stories of diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, blundering and extorting local private hospitals etc. etc.. Also, thanks to proliferating facebook (FB) memberships and newly acquired skills in mobile phone photography and instant FB postings, selfies have assumed a new art form in public forums in Bangladesh, especially in weddings. I am told that this is not necessarily a bad thing because ‘Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, loves selfies too.’ Nevertheless, I ponder whether it is fair to cite Indians for everything that is stupid and silly.
During my visit I also discovered that the ruling party that looked so visibly shaky in 2014 is now fully in control, so much so that ministers compose poems caricaturing the opposition and recite them at cabinet meetings. Admittedly, this is not as atrocious as Nero’s fiddling in burning Rome but given opposition’s muted existence, this is not only tasteless but downright cowardly, something like scoring goals at keeperless nets.
Another thing that appeared quite obvious is that even though the economy is not exactly booming it is recording a healthy growth rate of 6.2% per annum and with the political opposition virtually silenced some semblance of stability has returned but, intriguingly, this has not been matched with boosting of investor confidence. To appreciate this, one can simply look at many unfinished buildings that dot the Dhaka city’s skyline. These investors have either run out of capital or are refusing to sink more money into investments that promise little or uncertain returns. It seems that the Finance Minister’s oft-repeated lofty promises and ambitious budgets have done little to assuage the nervous investors and break the entrepreneurial lethargy.
Many of the lounge room discussions that I have had the privilege of attending during my trip also confirm this morbid scenario. Most sounded confused if not outright down. In these discussions, even those that are better-off and belong to professional class keep asking – how long will this continue; what is next etc. They are virtually saying, we may be better off, we are not happy. I also have had the opportunity to talk to ordinary people, such as taxi drivers, and they echo similar frustrations as well. The dismay with the government seems to run deep and cut across all classes.
This is puzzling, especially at a time when the Election Commission reported sweeping victories in one ‘election’ after another for the government. This should have boosted the trust of the people in government and raised the confidence of the government at the same time but that does not seem to the case. though, on the surface, the government looks confident and controls dissent with iron hands but this may be more a sign of weakness than strength.
Freedom of expression, a staple of working democracy, is shunned by most people out of fear and the government itself is not exactly a fan of free speech. For example, recently, when an internationally famed Bangladeshi intellectual and economist challenged, with empirical evidence, the integrity of government’s fiscal estimates, the government instead of responding with evidence based counter argument, responded with launching of an enquiry into this person’s and his expatriate wife’s bank accounts to investigate “nature of transactions.”, in the process giving a clear message to those who fancy critical thinking that shut up or shape up There is Orwellian fear everywhere.
Against this backdrop the conclusion I derive is that even though people are better off economically it is the political deprivation, moral decay, uncontrolled corruption, the breakdown of the rule of law and repression and harassment of opposition that people experience on a daily basis depress them most. Peoples’ euphoria of pecuniary gains is replaced by feelings of uncertainty, fear and resentment and this is bad.
The argument that ‘development’ is a preferred substitute or secondary to democracy is a false theory and thus it is little wonder that the theory is not gaining much popularity among the the rank and file and worryingly, with suppression and the diminishing of liberal and open opposition, dissent is accumulating and rising and like obstructed flood water the real opposition is taking a different route – in this case many argue that it is gathering underground.
Many believe that the seething discontent that is brewing underneath is being worked on by an extremist/ fundamentalist opposition in the form of Islamist nationalist militancy. Furthermore, the weakening of open opposition has also weakened public accountability, giving rise to another disturbing trend. The ruling party and its cohorts, that are already quite corrupt and thuggish, are becoming more corrupt, more abusive and more arrogant and in the process, alienating people even more. Furthermore, in the context of the culture of patronage that characterizes Bangladeshi politics , where patronage distribution is regarded as a legitimate payment for political loyalty, assymetrical distribution of largesse among the ruling party cadres are causing much tension resulting in intra-party infights (the rising phenomenon of rival candidates from the ruling party contesting various recent elections, attests to this). This is likely to promote opposition from within that at the end may even venture into forming alliances with unsavoury elements.
Indeed, given these complexities and numerous dynamics that are currently raging both within and across the country, it is difficult to predict exactly how things will shape up in the coming years. The argument that more development and less democracy is the answer is not only hollow but outright misleading. As a matter of fact, when development is pursued within the framework of corruption and authoritarianism, it breeds inequality, embeds injustices and proliferate mass discontent that fills the ranks of militants.
In the case of Bangladesh, where credible liberal alternatives are becoming casualties of a sham democracy, the vacuum is being filled by the Islamist fundamentalists/extremists and indeed,against the backdrop of a corrupt and repressive establishment, these extremists are gaining moral legitimacy especially at the grass-root level as crusaders of faith and protectors of morality! This is a horrifying prospect and most Bangladeshis do not want this. They do not want fundamentalism to triumph over liberalism, and they also believe that the way to defeat fundamentalism is neither through repression nor ‘development’ but through unadulterated democracy. The sooner the government and those that care about the national as well as the regional security and stability understand this, better it is.
* The author is a professor at the School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and a retired senior policy manager of the United Nations. The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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