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New Money

The new political salience of social and class distinctions has much to do with the rise of the industrial elite, the prime beneficiaries of the booming export sectors. Their rise has made the national elite distinctly more capitalist. The same policies of economic liberalization and privatization that unleashed economic growth made it possible to accumulate capital, including from 'bargain' sales of state-owned enterprises and industrial debt default in the 1970s (Sobhan 1991; Sobhan and Ahmad 1980; Sobhan and Sen 1988; Alam 1993; Quadir 2000). Compared to before independence (Kochanek 1994; Sobhan and Sen 1988), the captains of industry are now more likely to be Bengali Muslim, and Nicholas's 'middle-income professional and business petty influentials' have been transformed into a business-industrial class. We see this in the changing composition of parliament. In the first parliament of independent Bangladesh, businessmen comprised 24 per cent of MPs compared to lawyers' 27; a quarter-century later, in the seventh parliament, the figures were 48 to 17; in the last contested election, in 2008, it was 56 to 15 per cent. Business and politics have become symbiotically related, such that success in one is likely to lead to success in another:

A new breed of politicians has emerged who have parachuted into parliament

from a business, bureaucracy, or military background without any prolonged

apprenticeship in party politics. (Jahan 2015, 259)

Party nominations are a business, and a seat in parliament an investment: in one view, 'You can now buy yourself an MP nomination the same way as you buy an air ticket to Singapore: pay up and off you go!' (Amundsen 2014, 140). Organized business interests need to align or partner with ruling party men to get anything done, just like everyone else (Hassan 2013). But the business of making money is different and arguably above mere politics. In the more mature 'limited access order' of Bangladesh in 2013, Hassan finds that far from being competitors, political rivals were commonly business partners: this, they had learned, was the best way of hedging against the uncertainty of political transitions (2013).

The business orientation of the main parties has harmonized over time. Elections to the tenth parliament were boycotted by the traditionally probusiness BNP, but the declared occupations of the Awami League, Jatiya Party, leftist ( JSD and the Workers' Party), and independent MPs suggest that business predominates in these parties too, with 52 per cent declaring it among their occupations. Career politicians and lawyers are still important (17 and 15 per cent respectively), and other professionals such as journalists, former civil and military bureaucrats, doctors, and professors make a respectable showing (12 per cent altogether). Interestingly, forty- one MPs declared an interest in agriculture or some form of agro-business; at 12 per cent, this is more than women, non-Muslims, or ethnic minorities (see Figure 3.1).

There have never been rigid divisions between the vernacular elites—the landowners, agro-processing industrialists, mill- and brickfield owners, rural politicians—and their national counterparts, who are mainly different because they made the transition a generation or so earlier. National elites generally retain both landholdings and rural connections. Uniquely in East Bengal, the relationship between the state and the rich peasantry became closer in the twentieth century, as first the British and then the neo-colonials were removed from the equation. Independence ultimately strengthened the local landed class in its pole position between the state and the rural masses (see Van Schendel 1982, 278). Despite efforts to decentralize power (or sometimes because of them—Crook and Manor 1998), the line between the centre and the moffusil or rural areas remains short and direct, a characteristic of a compact, monolingual territory. The return to multiparty parliament in the 1990s drew local elites even closer to state and party political power, as block grants for constituency development encouraged MPs to focus on local more than national matters (Amundsen 2012). And the rural economy has become

The Aid Lab

Occupations of Members of Parliament in tenth parliament Note

Figure 3.1. Occupations of Members of Parliament in tenth parliament Note: multiple occupations permitted; n = 443;total MPs = 350

Source: Author's compilation from list of MPs in tenth parliament, index.php/en/mps/members-of-parliament/current-mp-s/list-of-10th-parliament-members-english (accessed September 25-28 2015).

more important. The 'blue revolution' saw frozen-food exports averaging around USD 600 million (2.6 per cent of total exports) in the 2011 to 2013 period, and the rapid growth and diversification of the rural domestic economy in the 2000s, including rising food prices, gave agro-industrial interests stronger motivations to seek political representation.[1] New rural wealth can only increase the mutual interest between national and rural elites.

New money from agro-processing and non-farm rural industry pales into insignificance compared to the wealth from labour and garments exports. In 2013-14, woven and knitwear exports earned Bangladesh USD 24 billion, around 80 per cent of all exports in recent years; a further USD 14 billion was earned in expatriate remittances, and migrant workers earned between 7 and 10 per cent of the country's GDP in the past decade (MoF 2015a). It is worth stressing that Bangladesh's growth industries built on its human resources: 8.6 million workers, a fast-rising proportion of whom are women, 11

were estimated to be working abroad in 2015; at present, the readymade garments (RMG) industry employs four million workers in more than 4,000 factories, mostly women. The rapid turnover of workers in that physically demanding industry means that several million more workers will have contributed to that growth.[2]

The country's wealth may have been earned by the toil of its masses, but the owners of the woven garments, knitwear, and 'man'power industries have profited handsomely. The display of this new wealth is contentious, set as it is against evidence of neglect and abuse of migrant and garment workers' rights, including of their basic survival.[3] It is instructive for its insights into how society is changing. An unmissable example is the flamboyant figure of Dr Moosa bin Shamsher, who founded a labour recruitment company, DATCO, in 1974. 'Prince Moosa', as he is known locally, is reportedly an arms dealer with USD 7 billion frozen in Swiss bank accounts; his offer of a GBP 5 million donation to the British Labour Party was declined by Tony Blair, and he currently faces corruption charges at home (despite close links to the political leadership). Dr Shamsher has been the subject of a Japanese television documentary and a Sunday Telegraph magazine article, and is described as[4]

the fountainhead of a vast business empire operating in more than 30 countries... Along with arms dealing, his main interests are in the construction industry, manpower services and the hotel trade. He bathes every day in rosewater and owns 3,000 suits. 'One can't expect him twice to be seen in the same very apparel.'... He looks a dandy... in his finely tailored Italian suit and ruby rings. His belt buckle winks with clusters of diamonds. There are rubies and diamonds, too, on his gold Rolex, and when he notices me squinting as my retinas adjust to their brilliance he tells me that it is the most expensive watch in the world. That it cost $1 million. (Farndale 2013)

With their bhadralok sensibilities, the old elite frowned on conspicuous consumption as a sign of insensitivity to the plight of the poor. With such lavish displays, the new rich jeopardize the social peace, in the words of a former senior civil servant turned politician in 1998:[5]

Maybe we are largely shielded because our poor are not so violent. If they were violent it would affect us very very much, because they are the majority... we are not terribly insensitive. We do care. There are of course the super-rich and the defaulters who do not care. But by and large I think we do care. (Hossain 2005, 91)

Less than a generation later, the lavishness of a Prince Moosa is constructed as a matter of nationalist pride—a challenge, no less, to the 'basket case' epithet:

Date-line mid 70s when the newly born at the same time the war torn country was devastated by millions of problems like famine, poverty as epidemic the whole nation was eclipsed by the darkness of distress humanity and untold misery. As the world's poorest country it was defamed by the world media as bottomless basket... But suddenly news sparked worldwide and that become a bolt from the blue to each and every Bangladeshi and helped to hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel i.e the meteoric rise of a young aspirant man in Asian foreign trade in competing with the giants in the field astounded all in the East. The world media showed keen interest in this rising star and cast their searching sights on a least developed country like Bangladesh.

It is a matter of pride at least that one of our close comrades has occupied a prestigious position in this world of immense wealth and unlimited power. He has added extraordinary qualities to his personality characterized by firm commitment to righteousness and genuine sympathy for mankind...

He is highly respected as the pre-eminent architect of man power export to whom the nation shall remain ever grateful. During the last few decades' natural calamities that befell the nation one after another, he came out in a big way to provide supports to the afflicted people.[6]

Beyond the paeans to Prince Moosa's diamond-encrusted fashion sense, this vanity journalism says something interesting: that a biography of business success must adopt the sentiments of development nationalism to resonate. Shamsher's achievements are set against the dark post-independence days, and charity for those afflicted by natural calamities show that he has the vital quality of care for those in distress, the glue that keeps the nation together. His success demonstrates that a citizen of benighted Bangladesh can rise to prestige and power on the world stage in a technicolour version of the rise of the business classes in Bangladesh.

  • [1] On the freshwater shrimp export industry, see Ahmed, Allison, and Muir (2010). Export figuresare from MoF (2015a). On rural economic diversification and development, see Nargis and Hossain(2006) and Toufique and Turton (2002). On growth in the rural economy since the globalcommodity spike of 2007-8 see Zhang etal. (2013). There does not appear to be any publishedanalysis of the political salience of the agro-processing and frozen food industries to date.
  • [2] BBS (2014). Factory and worker numbers are from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturersand Exporters Association (BGMEA) website (, accessed 5 October 2015. See also Bangladesh Bank (2015).
  • [3] On the RMG workers' wage struggle, see Muhammad (2011);see also Khanna (2011) andHossain and Jahan (2014). There is no shortage of reports of migrant workers' rights being abusedand of the role of recruitment agencies: the Refugees and Migratory Movements Research Unit(RMMRU) at the University of Dhaka has been documenting these issues since the mid-1990s (see,for instance, Siddiqui 2005). For a recent example see McGeehan (2015).
  • [4] I could find neither, but refer here to an article by Nigel Farndale (a Sunday Telegraphcontributor) based on an interview with Prince Moosa (Farndale 2013). The Labour Partydonation story is from Timmins (1994).
  • [5] Social media offer a whole new virtual world in which to conspicuously consume. I have beentold (I have also seen the evidence) that some wealthy Bangladeshis have dispensed with 'selfies'altogether, in favour of professional photographers who follow them around to record their socialactivities for Facebook, etc.
  • [6] From the online business paper, (S. A. Hossain 2013).
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