THE present government of Bangladesh has proved itself to be the most powerful regime of all times in the country’s history by establishing total control over all institutions. After the one-sided election of 2014, the manner in which it has monopolised power over the five years has broken all past records. The last national election in 2018 was unbelievably controlled and manipulated that is unprecedented in country’s history.
It is obvious that the election procedure had been carefully planned for quite some time. It seems that many public relation agencies, local and foreign groups worked for implementing this plan. But the most shameful incident occurred on the night before the election date. Eye witness accounts, news in the media and written complaints reveal that in most of the election centres the ballot boxes were stuffed on the night before the polls.
Such a horrific nature of election, using all state power to implement this, does not obviously prove the ruling party’s strength. It proves, on the contrary, that the party felt extremely insecure about people’s support. However, the government and the ruling party are hardly bothered. After all, to the government and its partners at home and abroad, power is all that matters. There is very little consideration as to whether the ways and means were legitimate or not, ethical or unethical or what the long term consequences will be to the development of the democratic process and institutions.
The government is now propagating a concept of ‘development democracy’ and celebrating the success of its unprecedented authoritarian rule as a decade of development. In fact this is the third development decade that we are experiencing. In the past we experienced such decades of autocracy and ‘development’ combined twice. One was during the 1960s under the rule of general Ayub Khan, the other in the 1980s under general Ershad.
There are similarities between those two decades and the current one, but differences too. The similarities are in the sheer volume of infrastructure projects and the lack of transparency in the finance along with high level of corruption. The main difference between the present decade and those two of the past is that the former two autocrats did not have a organised political party and support base. In both of those earlier instances, after ascending to power through martial law, the autocrats tried to use state power to establish their own party and to pull public support. Ayub Khan’s ‘basic democracy’ was used to spread the power net to the union level. Ershad made similar attempts through the upazila system. But the present government came to power with an organised party and with a huge electoral victory.
Therefore, the development model projected by the government is nothing new and is not its own invention. It has been continuing over the past few decades, having taken tangible shape in the 1980s. The corporate groups from home and abroad seem to be very happy with this authoritarian rule. They highly praise the present government’s unabashed march ahead to fulfill all these agendas with little or no regard for public opinion, laws and consequences for the country. Global capital and its managers (the World Bank, IMF, ADB et al) have been the driving force of this model in many countries. In this model, privatisation of common property, grabbing of natural resources appear as progress, destruction of wetland, forest or cropland in favour of profitable business are seen as development, dismantling of public institutions are seen as economic reforms. GDP growth, even by destroying potentials and resources, is publicised as big success!
It is easier and cheaper for corporate groups to make space for authoritarian rule. Actually, they want to see the government in a country as coercive on the one hand, and indifferent to the interest of people and environment on the other. Then private capital can do as they want and make accumulation in high speed siphoning off their profits. Policy makers can sign any deal harmful for the country in exchange for commission without any accountability.
Therefore, a large number of environmentally dangerous and financially burdened projects such as the Rampal coal-fired power plant and the Rooppur nuclear power plant, are being implemented in Bangladesh. India has ample political clout, China’s power lies in its big funds. Every project has a number of financial beneficiaries among the ruling elites. Greed for profit and commission of the powerful groups has increased beyond any limit in absence of any accountability and transparency. That is why construction costs of roads, bridges and other projects in Bangladesh are the highest in the world.
We know that the present ruling party is the oldest and largest political party in the country who successfully has been exploiting its earned credibility for leading the liberation war in 1971 actually to do things opposite to the spirit of the liberation war. History shows that, when autocracy is run with the support of an organised public force, a propensity towards fascist politics and culture emerges. That is what is happening in Bangladesh. Moreover that is strengthened by global fascist environment.
We must keep the context in mind, the imperial fascist sermon ¾ ‘either with us or against us’ — with the declaration of war on (read of) terror, an eternal war, has been shaping present global (dis)order. This mantra has been used as clearly a provocation for unfolding hate politics and creating fertile ground for corporate grabbing in association with racist communal right wing politics in different parts of the world. Moreover, governments in different countries have taken the mantra as a justification to curtail democratic rights in extremist ways, usurp political power and give free hand authority to public resource grabbers, corporate lords and security forces. The present regimes in countries like Bangladesh, India are taking full advantage of this global fascist environment for strengthening their authoritarian rule.
The state is claiming that they are fighting extremism while the state itself becomes extremist, the law enforcement agencies become unregulated instrument of coercion and the judicial process becomes redundant. And people are deprived of minimum democratic rights, free expression of opinion. If this scenario remains then other extremisms, including religious ones, will surely flourish.
It is a common concern in the country now that how can we create space to make a difference, to create a condition for the people? How to fight repression, grabbing and destruction of the future of the country? What we see is that the only breathing space can be created by the people, especially the youth, who, despite repression and fear, continue questioning the hegemonic power, continue thinking in open mind and remain active to fight injustice and discrimination, remain active and creative in favour of public rights, natural resources and environment.
It is clear that ruling classes at home and abroad, despite their rhetoric, would be happy to embrace religious extremists and drug addicts to destroy the new youth of hope. At the present moment, nevertheless, we find hope with them who stand to demand justice for Abrar, Twaki, Tonu, Afsana, Dipon, Avijit, Sagor-Runi…, who stand to save Sundarban against a disastrous mad project, who stand against repressive laws and coercive actions by law enforcing agencies, who stand with workers for their rights and security, who stand against ethnic, religious and gender violence and discrimination, the girls who stand against child marriage and sexual harassment, and who stand against extremist attacks on public by the different visible-invisible groups as well as by the state. We find hope to see that despite all out repression, deception and frustration, there are people, especially youth, who still are capable of dreaming of a country of free people, a society without discrimination and oppression.
As the political activist, academic and author Angela Y Davis said, ‘sometimes we have to do the work even though we don’t yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it’s actually going to be possible’, yet ‘it is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.’
Anu Muhammad is a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University.
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