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Bangladesh at crossroads

Publication Date : 07-05-2012


Winning against odds perhaps best expresses the essence of the Bangladesh story. But it has never been a foregone conclusion. Indeed, every crisis since independence whether natural or man-made had at the time seemed like the end of the road.

Only the concerted efforts of a myriad range of actors helped to turn the corners. While leaders repeatedly showed feet of clay, the man and woman on the ground quietly soldiered on with determination and ingenuity. And produced outcomes that have rightly earned the marvel of the world be it in economic resilience or social progress. But a new danger is afoot that of premature and ill-served complacency.

Even as Bangladesh's economic potential and strategic significance is gaining newer audiences in the global arena, the odds against realising such potentials are also piling up. Sycophantic rhetoric is triumphing over substance in the corridors of power.

Authoritarian mindsets are casting ever-darkening shadows over the initiative space of society threatening to break down the very social compact by which Bangladesh has come thus far. A spoils without standards approach to manning the state is worsening a capacity crisis at the very moment when the challenge of strategic engagement on emerging opportunities is at a peak. Bangladesh has been at crossroads before. But the odds now loom larger than ever.

Ever since 1991 when a new era of competitive electoral politics began, the economic balance-sheet has consistently been brighter than the political balance-sheet.

The entrepreneurial energy of a broad swath of economic actors including women, targeted reforms and relative tolerance of social initiatives played a large role in ensuring the brighter economic record. But after twenty odd years of "progressive economics, flawed politics," this particular dynamic appears to be reaching its limit.

Every electoral cycle has witnessed a worsening partisan spirit in running the state that coupled with rampant sycophancy has now reached levels that is impinging upon the very functioning capacity of the state.

The "low hanging fruits" on the economic frontier have been plucked but the larger challenge of engaging on big-ticket reforms such as energy and infrastructure as well as decisive action against corruption needed for the next advances has become hostage to the quality of politics being practiced. These trends have been compounded by qualitatively new insecurities in hitherto uncontested areas such as freedom of speech and social entrepreneurship.

Some trends are truly eye-openers. The state has always had a coercive face but there appears to be a new sense of impunity with which norms are being disregarded. The concern is not only about the statistics of human rights violations but more poignantly about a rapidly eroding confidence in the possibility of redress. The sense of disempowerment by ordinary citizens, not in their aspirations which remain robust but rather in front of the power realities of politics and state, is truly a new phenomenon and a direct indictment on all who espouse the cause of a democratic and humane society.

Some other trends too bear scrutiny. The economic success of Bangladesh has generally been based on a broad-based growth process with participation by many rather than only favoured few. But we may now be witnessing the determined entry of a new paradigm. Crony capitalism, where corrupt links to power serves as the primary capital, where efficiency is the least concern and where norms are casually dispensable, is fast becoming the mainstream economic story. Such trends had been there earlier too but the new phenomenon is the brazenness of such clout and their seeming operation beyond any accountability.

Bangladesh had been at crossroads before. But this time it is so at a time of great strategic transformations in its neighbourhood. China and India are the emerging drivers of the global economy. Myanmar is poised to emerge as a key regional player. USA has signaled an Asian pivot in its foreign policy. The Bay of Bengal has the potential to emerge as a potent driver of regional cooperation. The importance of being a more capable player in such transformational strategic environment is thus far more acute for Bangladesh than in any of its earlier crossroads moments. That is why it is so frustrating that the political class remains myopically glued to its zero-sum electoral contest.

The incumbent has gone for overreach and the ground reality is that overreach is not sustainable. The competitor has the sympathy due to any underdog but has not demonstrated any decisive change in its political culture than can inspire more enduring support. The familiarity of the political impasse is one facet of the crossroads Bangladesh faces. Few imagined that the impasse would re-assert itself so decisively in so short a time since the last election. But re-assert it has and our reservoirs of optimism are being tested anew as to the road ahead.

The political impasse is not the only crossroads we face. A vocabulary of intolerance has seeped into our body politic making it ever harder to find the crucial middle ground that alone sustains a vibrant and healthy society.

The poisonous brew is continually finding new breeding grounds in the professions, in the communities, in the business worlds. This in the longer run is a crisis even bigger than the political impasse.

Bangladesh has won against odds before. I am confident it will do so again. But my confidence is tempered with the hard realisation that only active and sustained initiatives from within society can create the momentum to forge the way out. Let the political actors deal with the political impasse. Let us, individual citizens, retrieve and consolidate the vanishing middle ground and raise the voice accordingly. There are many entry points. It is important to begin now.

The writer is an economist and a former adviser to caretaker government.


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