Bangladesh 2021:Whose Vision?

Dhaka Tribune 30 May 2017

Much ado about a statue. Then it gets removed.

Told you so, the refrains pipe up. Soon they’ll ask for more. On cue, “they” do.

Straight away.

But then, they do that, don’t they? Haven’t religious fundamentalists in Bangladesh always had strands calling for this sort of thing? And wouldn’t some of them push for more if they could?

Afsan Chowdhury’s prediction that the statue would go as soon as the prime minister said she didn’t like it came to pass more quickly than some thought.

It’s far more about politics and the 2018 election, he says, not tectonic shifts in ideology. I tend to agree and think the key date is actually more like four years away.

The 50th anniversary of independence.

Being in power in 2021 is the prize that really motivates Sheikh Hasina. You don’t have to be an AL member (I’m not even an AL voter) to see why or share her sentiment.

The basket case that came good (sort of). See how far we have come, look how exports have grown, etc.

It seemed a long shot at the turn of the millennium.

Since the end of military rule after the uprisings of 1990, a “kick the incumbent out” see-saw has held sway at elections, at least when they are contested. The economy, with consistent decades old c6% growth regardless of who’s in charge, hasn’t been the decisive factor it would be elsewhere.

Yet, it may well be that the BNP’s boycott of the 2014 election has broken the see-saw cycle. And the prime minister is banking on this being the case.

Because so much of Bangladesh’s political culture and debate is linked to and often dominated by the past — 1971 and all that — it is easy to resist this possibility; imagine nothing has changed and the old cycle will reassert itself.

After all, neutrals will say, are not AL and BNP two sides of the same coin?

Few real economic differences, however loudly their partisans may shout, shared inclinations towards cronyism and nepotism. Why should there not be a see-saw between AL-BNP?

By four to one or more, the public at large agrees and is content to back the big two brands in elections. Third forces and Islamist parties don’t get a look in — and as the caretaker interregnum reminded everyone — Bangladeshis overwhelmingly want genuine democracy.

It’s not as if there will be many manifesto surprises, is it?

Whoever is the serving prime minister holds the ultimate trump card. All they need to do to win the verdict of history is to retire from office and hand over to a non-family member at a moment of their own choosing

AL — more of the same. Behold our authority.

BNP — more of the same, mostly. Constitutional reform by 2030, if we’re still around. Behold our return to authority.

Most of the rest — some of the same, some not. Behold our principles.

Religious right — no women in public life. Behold our piety.

I know. Given all the missteps and abuses of power incumbents always make in Bangladesh, there are reasons enough to assume the see-saw will start up again.

But I think that day may be more than half a decade away — the cycle is already broken.

Better the PM you know and a still rising economy have altered the landscape, and we don’t want to admit it. Of course, the economy grew consistently under previous governments as well, with much the same charge — GDP would be a couple of points higher were it not for political corruption — levelled at the powers that be.

The difference now is the power of compound interest over time. 6% of Bangladesh’s economy now is worth a lot more than 6% of the economy 15 years ago, or for that matter, even three years ago.

With 7% growth and a demographic dividend, that’s a lot more votes available for the incumbent to tie up.

Last time round, the BNP miscalculated. The AL reaped the reward and gained in authority at home and abroad.

In her long chess game of rivalry with Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina is already somewhat ahead.

Promises of stability and development are making continuity more attractive than before, even if far from ideal, given the dysfunctional state of Bangladesh’s democracy.

Moreover, whoever is the serving prime minister holds the ultimate trump card. All they need to do to win the verdict of history is to retire from office and hand over to a non-family member at a moment of their own choosing, without being forced to do so.

That will be enough. She decisively beats her nemesis. Once and for all.

What key factor is holding Sheikh Hasina, the first without equals, back from doing so already?

It has to be the year 2021 I reckon. It’s getting closer all the time, why not hang around, health permitting? The other side would.

With alternatives seemingly so dismal or defeated, the thought of Bangabandhu’s daughter being feted in power on the 50th anniversary is not so far-fetched now.

By then, some months before 2021, half the population of Bangladesh will have been born after 9/11 and the vast majority after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Whoever is in power in 2021 will have the power to help shape the next 50 years of the nation’s history.

For the sake of that half of the population not old enough to vote in 2021, we better hope their vision is up to the job.