By Anu Muhammad
16 December, 2013
Where does Bangladesh stand at the age of 42? In the month of victory, this year, everyday is marked by strike, blockade, Hartal, killing, burning cars, buses and people. There are overflow of patients in the burn unit of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), the largest public hospital that has the only burn unit. The whole year witnessed unprecedented violence; nearly 400 people have been killed since February. The country appears dysfunctional. People are scared, people are angry.
Geeta Sen along with her daughter were among the victims of the latest violent incident. She was travelling with her daughter, and suddenly a bomb hit the bus, fire broke out, both of them were badly burnt. What Geeta told Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, when she visited the burnt people in DMCH on December 1, 2013, was in fact, the echo of the people’s sentiment these days. Geeta said, ‘neither Hasina nor Khaleda feed us...you have not made us, rather we have made you..We dont want sick politics..’ I remember Dabir ul, the poor peasant of Phulbari who was agitated to see the role of the government and said in 2006, ‘we are the permanent government. We make temporary governments, they come and go. How can they work under foreign company’s dictation?’
What made this ‘sick politics’? What made the government work in the interest of local or foreign companies at the cost of people in general? We know that parties those are aspiring for powers have their own strategy of mobilizing support in other countries too. We also know that the power of money and muscle play determining role in electoral politics in many countries. What more is happening in Bangladesh that the whole election process becomes a hostage?
We need to note that, no other country carries unfinished tasks like trial of war criminals even after 42 years of liberation war. No other country has experience of upside down equations of major parties with the party of leading war criminals in different phases. In Bangladesh, patronization by military regimes, and alliance making by both the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), strengthened the social and political base of the war criminals and their party Jamaat-e-Islami. Now a close ally of BNP, Jamaat is taking advantage of the misrule of the government, and using their muscles to save war criminals. This has become one major factor behind many violent conflicts in 2013.
Another major factor is polarization of super rich people in two major parties, who look at the state power as essential factor for further accumulation of wealth. The third major factor is aggressive expansion of global capital and the terrorising projects of global regime in the name of ‘war on terror’. The United States, India and China and many corporate groups, are taking advantage of the status of the ruling class. These global and regional powers have conflicts on their interest but unity in expanding their pie on Bangladesh.
The present crisis cannot be termed merely as ‘the battle of the Begums’, as the Economist (August 10, 2013) personified the conflict of two parties/alliances. Many at home also look at the problem as the conflict between two women. Actually, this is still the men’s world, including the sons of the women leaders, who are seen as next leaders of the two dynasties. The present horrible situation is in fact cumulative outcome of (i) hangover of unfinished tasks, (ii) betrayal of ruling elites with the spirit of liberation war, (iii) rise of super rich through mainly rent seeking and plunder, (iv) neo liberal reforms, (v) projects of imperial expansion, and (vi) the failure or erosion of the left.
Within three years of independence, Bangladesh fell again under military rule that they fought against in Pakistan. After long struggles against martial law, the country came back into civil electoral process in 1991. Since then we have elected government in every 5 years, with a grace period of two years in 2007-8 for army backed caretaker government. In all the four terms since 1991, never this happened that one party could keep it support after get elected and, therefore, re-elected for the next term.
In every term, the party/alliance quickly and conveniently forgets their promises to the people after coming to power, becomes active in accumulating and grabbing resources using government power. Along with that come political violent repression, killing, abuse of state institutions, and anti-people deals. What people do, in election time, they try to exercise their voting power. After their rejection of the party in power, another party/alliance takes the office for repeating the same. This is not a vicious cycle per se; this is upward movement of the cycle, shows increasing corruption plunder and drainage of public resources and undemocratic exercises.
This was exposed in recent estimates. One leading Banglas financial daily (Bank Barta, 4 December, 2013) of the country estimated the level of corruption during successive regimes. Their findings are consistent with people’s perception about the growing intensity of corruption in these regimes. According to the estimate, the corruption accounted for Tk 9,634 crore in 1991-96 when the BNP was in power, and Tk 16,353 crore in 1996-2001 during the tenure of the Awami League government. During the second term of the BNP, then leading a four-party alliance that featured Jamaat, in 2001-06, corruption accounted for Tk 42,731 crore, and a whopping Tk 152,789 crore in the second term of the Awami League, heading a 14-party alliance, in 2009-13. Converted into US dollars at an average exchange rate of the corresponding period, the amounts are, USD$2.4 billion, USD$3.4 billion, USD$6.6 billion and USD$18 billion respectively.
World Ultra Wealth Report of 2013 found a similar trend for Bangladesh. According to this report, in 2013, only 90 persons accumulated wealth of US$15 billion worth. The rate of increase in accumulated wealth in a few hands was more than double of the rate of GDP growth in the last four years. Therefore, a class of super rich was consolidated in the country through the process of development that allowed grabbing of common property, corruption and signing bad deals.
This uninterrupted process reveals the unity between the opposite parties, continuity of their policies and corruption. That goes from plundering share market and banks to grabbing forests, wetland, Sundarbans and other public property. That also gives wider space to the global corporates; therefore, the signing of disastrous deals on natural resources, Bay of Bengal, Sundarbans became possible. Policy makers convert into commission agents. Corruption becomes the lifeline of the ruling parties.
The parties that are keeping the country hostage represent this class. This class grew taking advantage of the state power and the neoliberal global power. State power is crucial for accumulating wealth, out of power does not only squeeze the opportunity of grabbing resources but also throw them into total uncertainty and possible repression, jail, remand, harassment etc. Differences are similar to heaven if in power, hell if out of it! That makes each party inflexible and desperate for power.
During the 1980s, neo-liberal reforms were initiated in Bangladesh under military regime. That was introduced in the name of curbing corruption, improving efficiency and transparency, increasing decent employment and reducing poverty. But as we found, these reforms instead increased the scope and legality of corruption, criminality, resource-grabbing, commissions from bad deals, and gangsterism.
This process of capital accumulation is in many ways similar to what Marx wrote about the process of primitive capital accumulation in Europe, wherein old and new elites appropriated common resources and turned them into private property, which according to David Harvey, continues till today in global scale as ‘accumulation by dispossession’. There are, of course, major differences between the then European rising business class and most of the present Bangladeshi ones. While the first did its major accumulation in colonies outside Europe and brought that wealth mostly into Europe, the Bangladeshi ones do it inside the country and send most of the accumulated resources abroad. In fact, huge corruption and drainage of resources by the ruling elite from the countries like Bangladesh has been a consistent flow that enriches the global financial empire.
This ideological wave of neo-liberalism has demonised the state’s responsibility and, therefore, opened the space for different forms of privatisation and financialisation. The gradual withdrawal of the state responsibilities towards its citizens left the majority of the population unprotected from hunger, destitution, job insecurity, and illness. On the other hand the state becomes more repressive to protect the plunderers and rent seekers. Therefore we find strong unity between primitive capital accumulation and the neoliberal reforms; both go together, and help, rationalise and strengthen each other.
People of this country fought for independence, freedom, democracy, a sovereign state with self dignity and justice. But what marked its 42 years is the rise of super rich class at the cost of people’s lives, environment and sovereignty and a repressive state. In this development process, lack of developed institutions and reign of few families have been crucial. We have elected parliament but the constitution does not allow the members of the parliament (MP) to speak anything against the party, in reality the party leader. So, the MPs do not have anything to do except raising hands for the party leader. Moreover, no major policy or international deals wait for discussion in parliament. These are formulated by the unelected local and global bodies. So, parliament and the electoral process becomes ineffective from within and outside. The country, therefore, reduced to autocracy or Zamindari; and also free playground for local and global grabbers.
That the people are still alive is reflected in many glorious people’s struggles in the past decades. The spirit of liberty is also reflected in Geeta or Dabirul’s claim of ownership over their lives and the country. The coming election, whether it is one sided or all party, have all elements to begin another phase of the vicious cycle. Our future, therefore, badly needs peoples capacity to fight for their authority, needs to grow people’s sovereign power to reclaim ownership of their own country.
Anu Muhammad is Professor of Economics, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh