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The Political Unsettlement

There are important gaps in this story, and the history of a national development project is by no means the history of a nation. It is correct to remember how hard everyday conditions of life continue to be for many millions of Bangladeshis. Official figures state that almost twenty million people still suffer from basic calorie-deficit hunger, that is, do not get enough to eat, and several million children face severe acute malnutrition, that is, are at risk of starving to death in this famine-free success story. Many other such figures are available, but the visitor need not even leave the smart diplomatic zones to witness extreme poverty at first hand. Reports of the demise of Bangladesh's poverty have been greatly exaggerated, for all its vast achievements.

This book also excludes consideration of the 'accumulation by dispossession' through Bengali resettlement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and on other lands of indigenous or adivasi populations, even though it is plain that this, too, has been core to the national development project. But these are matters upon which others, such as scholars Shapan Adnan and Amena Mohsin, are better placed to analyse and comment. Nor is the marginalization, persecution, and frequent brutalization of religious and other minorities such as Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Ahmadiyas, and the so-called Bihari population discussed here, not because these are unimportant or insignificant either in scale or implication for social inclusion, but again, because justice cannot be done here to these important matters.

A key recent change has been in the political basis of the development project: domination by the Bengali Muslim majority is becoming associated with shifts in the balance of political power that seem likely to undermine the elite consensus, undercutting the competitive pressures that once existed to deliver development. The details are matters of fact: having governed for an unprecedented two successive terms (2009-13, 2014-present), the Awami League government has presided over impressive socioeconomic development gains and a significant consolidation of political power. From a competitive but clientelist pattern of national politics that dominated the quarter- century after the return to multiparty democracy in 1991, Bangladesh has been moving towards one dominated by a single party. This is reminiscent of the early years of nationhood, and among the chattering classes at least, references to BAKSALization[1] are common. Yet there are crucial differences to the mid-1970s: the country, population, and state is stronger and richer; its macro-economy is now managed with caution and skill; and it no longer relies on the variable goodwill of the international community to protect its people from disasters. This latter is true even though it is more, not less, vulnerable to the climatic and financial vicissitudes of the global system.

The main opposition remains the BNP, which, while significantly weakened, is not yet spent. Its heir-apparent Tarique Rahman (BNP leader Begum

Khaleda Zia's son) has been in effective exile abroad since his purportedly brutal treatment at the hands of the military- (and international community-) backed caretaker regime of 2007-8. The BNP's frontline activists have lost their clout, possibly partly because of their over-reliance on the hartal for their political repertoire. It is certainly true that the main power of the hartal strategy—to hold the society and the economy to political ransom through the passive demonstration of support for the strikers' demands— has been dissipated through overuse since 2013. No doubt this political maturity is itself an effect of development: in a society and an economy greatly dependent on globalized industries, on just-in-time delivery, on getting kids to school and workers to offices and factories, Bangladeshis can no longer afford to indulge politicians in their contentious political posturing. But the BNP has yet to devise alternative strategies for mobilizing or testing public opinion. It has no other way of doing politics.

The leadership of the BNP, and even more so that of its usual coalition ally, the Jamaat-i-Islami, has also been greatly weakened by convictions for crimes committed during the liberation struggle of 1971. Prominent opposition politicians have been convicted of war crimes under the effort to bring war criminals from 1971 to account through the so-called International War Crimes Tribunal. This has done much to decimate the leadership of the comparatively moderate Jamaat, a religious party that has been tactically positioned to form coalitions with both major parties at different times, but which itself never won even close to double-digit popular support in elections. Several top leaders have been convicted and hanged; others await trial. The international media has taken an apparently obtuse position on the war crimes trials, framing them as partisan efforts to stamp out political opposition without recognizing their legitimate aims. However, the popular mood seems strongly supportive of the moral guilt of those convicted in the war crimes trials, and generally unmoved by concerns about procedural correctness.[2]

Even though the legitimate aims of the war crimes tribunal are to achieve a long-overdue transitional justice, it is the case that centralizing and authoritarian tendencies run deep in the Awami League. This essentially petty bourgeois party brought to power on the back of charismatic leadership has repeatedly tried, with only partial success, to incorporate contenders and dissenters into its loosely pro-people platform. More recently, notably since civil society actors supported the extended caretaker-government regime, the Awami League leadership has taken a harder line against civil society and

NGO activity, and indeed any political or social dissent. Most recently there have been efforts to clamp down on independent media (Sattar 2016). A law has also been drafted restricting discussion of the Liberation War and its surrounding history (Mohaiemen 2016; Bergman 2016).

Despite, or perhaps because of, the official effort to clamp down on political and social dissent, and very likely in part as a result of the closing of space for Islamist politics, the Awami League's second term since 2014 has been punctured by growing signs of Islamist mobilization. This has chiefly taken the form of murders of secularist writers and activists, members of religious minorities, human (including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights defenders, foreigners, and other groups at odds with extreme salafist ideology. In July 2016, a terrorist attack on a busy cafe popular with foreigners and wealthy locals in the well-heeled Gulshan area killed more than 20 people, mostly foreigners. These murders have been claimed by groups associating themselves with the terrorist movement Islamic State. Awami League government officials at first refused to accept the possibility of internationally connected terrorism on its soil, arguing instead that the criminals were associated with opposition parties who wish to defame Bangladesh and its government (Graham-Harrison and Hammadi 2016). Since the July attack it has taken a more active role in apprehending, sometimes killing, suspected terrorists.

Having earned a reputation for religious moderation and tolerance within the region, this radical Islamist turn has meant a new, unwelcome 'Bangladesh surprise'. Too little is known of these murderous groups to make sense of their motives and meanings. What might this political unsettlement mean for Bangladesh's development project? It is too soon to say, but not too soon to consider the possibilities. It is true that a strong party committed to development may avoid the pitfalls of short-termism associated with intense competitive electoral pressures. It may be possible for a powerful government of Bangladesh to bring about politically difficult decisions on, for instance, infrastructure, energy, and bureaucratic reform, that could unleash faster growth and higher-quality human development (see, for instance, Levy 2014).

Yet Bangladesh's political history suggests that competition and responsiveness, not autonomy and power, has driven its development successes to date. Even during its more authoritarian eras in the 1970s and 1980s, the Bangladeshi state was comparatively weak, always broadly responsive to the demands and concerns of a strong society (White 1999). The clampdown on free speech is a matter of particular concern in the complex conditions facing Bangladesh's future development: its pluralist service delivery model, capacity to respond to disasters, and international reputation all depend on the circulation of credible data and evidence, which in turn imply a degree of transparency, openness to criticism, and capacity to learn and innovate. The Bangladeshi state has never been strong enough to impose its will without the feedback and input of the far stronger society in which it is embedded. It continues to need to be able to respond to the messages from society, the economy, and the polity to succeed. Recall the significance of the absence of credible data in the failures to respond to the Bhola cyclone and the 1974 famine: a civil society and media fearful of criticizing the government may not publicize failures to address hunger or disaster. The government will experience weaker pressures to respond and the right triggers may not be activated for fear of crossing a line. Bangladesh thrives on its cacophony of debate and contention, and will be stifled without it.

* * *

Bangladesh learns from its own history in order to make sense of its future. But in the present historical moment of high globalization and the global crisis of climate change, the lessons of Bangladesh's social contract against subsistence crisis resonate more widely. At this moment in history, not long since the global financial crisis of 2008 and the global food crises of the same period, many people around the world have faced a 'perfect storm' of conditions resembling those facing the Bangladesh of the 1970s: people increasingly dependent on dysfunctional global markets for basic subsistence, wracked with sudden and slow-onset disasters of climate change. In short, many developing, and indeed developed, country populations face conditions structurally similar to those of the Bangladesh of the 1970s. As an early exemplar of life in an era of high globalization and accelerating climate change, Bangladesh demonstrates that the political foundations of human development, and the priority of a functioning state, must be protection against the crises of subsistence and survival. People cannot face the tsunamis (droughts, earthquakes, floods) without the state at their back; they cannot reproduce their families and their societies without the support of a state that depends on their success in doing so. At a bare minimum, there must be an unbreakable subsistence crisis contract. Aid can help bind that contract, but the Bangladesh experience suggests it needs to be rooted in national political struggles through which the masses hold elites accountable. From its vantage point in the historic heartlands of colonial domination and on the frontline of climate change, Bangladesh offers a glimpse of the future under advancing global capitalism. Such lessons are vital, not only for the former basket case, but for the rest of the world.

  • [1] A centralization of social, political, and economic power within the dominant ruling party,featuring control of the media and political dissent.
  • [2] The Tribunal has its own website ( Other sourcesinclude the East-West Center's project ( and David Bergman'sblog ( See also Chopra (2015) on the closing of spacefor critical scrutiny of the process.
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