By Farid Bakht
December 9, 2014
Today’s Bengali middle class has an elite that is as indifferent to their needs as the Urdu-speaking Pakistani elite of the 50s and 60s
Some are mourning the death of democracy. When did you last spot that thing called democracy cruising the streets of Dhaka? Before democracy can die, it must first be born, so I shed no tears for the death of something that never truly existed.
A free and fair election where the contest is between two dynasties with near identical economic policies is no choice at all. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the tragedies of 1971 is returning as farce as political parties trade insults on which leader was supposed to be working for Pakistani imperialism. Leave them be! Move on!
Seen Through ‘Their’ Eyes
To the millions of present and past garments workers, the definition of a member of parliament is “Garment Factory Owner.” Parliament means “Business Lobby.” How will that MP represent workers’ rights? Why are we surprised that they drag their feet over compensation for the victims of Tazreen and Rana Plaza for years? Wrong class living in the wrong end of town.
To the millions of landless labourers, the title of local party leader is “Landowner.” Just how will a lifetime of accumulating land at low prices square with representing the interests of the poorest of the poor?
To the millions of migrant workers, the politician is a “Manpower Exporter.” How will he care for poor workers in Dubai when he is too busy hobnobbing with agents, scheming over deals and commissions where the underlying principle is Profit before People?
To the millions of poor women, the meaning of politician is “Rich Man,” or at best “Rich Woman,” where the only currency that matters is royal blood.
Is our representative democracy … representative? The self-styled Democrats do not represent the people in terms of class, gender, or occupation. In this market, the vast majority is priced out. Literally.
How About Dictatorship Then?
Well, we tried that with Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ur Rahman, HM Ershad, and finally Moeen Ahmed. Ask yourself if those were the years of economic prosperity, national development, or spectacular success. I have met many successful businessmen who will tell anyone who cares to listen, that: “We don’t need democracy, we need a strongman. And then we can become an Asian Tiger.”
Sounds Plausible Except For A Couple Of Points:
(a) Why haven’t military dictatorships produced the goods in Pakistan or Bangladesh? How about Myanmar since 1962? Suharto in Indonesia was a kleptocracy. If you think Thailand is a model, then please up your levels of aspiration. North Korea? The catalogue of failures in the Middle East are legion. Air force man Mubarak in Egypt? Iraq, Algeria, and more do not make a good case for Muslim Military despots. Shall we even mention the countless catastrophes in Africa and Latin America?
(b) In contrast, some authoritarian rulers as well as revolutionary regimes (with no multi-party plebiscites) have overseen spectacular growth in much of the Asian Tigers. General Park in South Korea comes to mind. Taiwan? Japan, with an effectively one-party state since the late 1800s, barring an occasional hiccup. Then we have Communist Party regimes overseeing the rise in Vietnam and China. The countries named have a population of nearly 1,750 million.
By cherry-picking through history and ignoring inconvenient truths, that businessman in Dhaka will point to (b). Key difference is: He doesn’t want to follow the state-led policies of the Tigers. He just wants no one but his class to have rights. He wants the uniforms to crush strikes. We know it seems to boil down to this: Do you have a plan? Is it the right plan? Is it based on experience and context that makes sense to your country and the present time? Can you make it work?
How you get to power matters less than what you actually do with it. The dirty little secret is that successful East Asian countries demonstrate that prosperity in Asia doesn’t need Westminster parliaments but needs a Big Idea, smart planning, and dogged determination. Ouch!
This may be anathema to many who see this as a slippery slope to totalitarianism. So, for the avoidance of any doubt, I abhor and condemn the putsches and takeovers ever since 1947. I was against 1/11. I will be against the next foreign-instigated military takeover too, Why? Because the army, navy, and air forces should be defending the borders, not taking over the capital. And, they never have a proper plan.
The situation therefore equates to: Corrupt politics OR directionless drift of military regimes = misery. I don’t blame the Social Media Generation if they think of giving up. Surely they want to a) press delete, b) send to Trash Bin, and c) press the reset button. If they do, I will retweet and push their like button too.
Is This The Utopia We Really Want?
Being more South Asian than East Asian, far from Shanghai and Seoul, most of us would like a free and fair election between a series of non-dynastic parties with candidates from all parts of society where there is a realistic chance of winning. Moreover, this democracy would not go into a coma for five years until the following election. It would remain vibrant by regularly engaging with the people with annual referendums on key issues.
As examples, they could be decisions on:
• How do we use vital national resources – export to Delhi or use for Bangladeshi industries?
• Corridors or transhipment in return for the just use of river water?
• Equitable investment in the districts or, as always, in Dhaka?
• Reframing the relationship with aid agencies.
Put It another Way: World Bank or ADB money with lectures on good governance or Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) money with no sermons?
We would expect genuine deep decentralisation of powers and budgets in small towns where ordinary people are asked to state their priorities, and monitor how they are used. We probably want the best of both worlds. Freedom of speech, security, respect for our rights, democratic decision-making, as well as a Tiger economy where economic growth is 10% and more for the first decade.
We could go on, but let’s not. It isn’t going to happen this decade, and you probably won’t see it in the next decade either. Utopia will carry on gathering dust. Unless there is a Reset. Therein lies the problem. We do not have an elite that is even prepared to learn the lessons of East Asia. As the politicians continue their revisionist rewriting of national history, they might press the pause button.
Beyond the always despised lower rural and poor urban classes, we do not have a middle class that has any group batting for them. It has been abandoned.
Today’s Bengali middle class in independent Bangladesh has elite that is as indifferent to their needs as the Urdu-speaking Pakistani elite of the 50s and 60s.
Think about that for a moment. Who’s the Razakar now?