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The dichotomy in Bangladesh: Democracy or development

By narrowing the space for dissent and dichotomizing values, the ruling Awami League has effectively defanged the opposition, media as well as ordinary people writes Rishija Singh for South Asia Monitor

Rishija Singh Mar 25, 2019
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Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (File)

A look at Indian media coverage of Bangladesh shows that while the pre-election coverage focused on alleged undemocratic practices of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and concomitant apprehensions regarding the fair conduct of elections, the post-election coverage mostly attributed her victory to her economic policies that lifted the country from the category of least developed nations to a developing one, while simultaneously leaving behind all South Asian nations in various social indicators.

It’s not difficult to guess what the analyses would have been had she lost the elections. The dichotomy runs deep in Bangladesh. To assume that this dichotomization of goals, where the Bangladeshi people get to choose one out of two options, is a new phenomenon would be missing the point. Bangladeshi scholar Rounaq Jahan has argued that soon after attaining independence, most Asian leaders started dichotomizing values and goals, i.e. political democracy vs. economic development, political participation vs. national integration and liberty vs. equality, in order to ensure regime stability.

Moreover, this rejection of the liberal democratic model was done in the name of economic goals rather than regime stability. Extrapolation of this argument into present day Bangladesh shows that the same methods, more or less, are still deployed to extract the exact same benefits. However, how much of this dichotomization is the necessity of circumstances and how much of it is deliberate political choice is debatable.

Bangladesh, however, has confused its admirers as well as critics. On the one hand, its poor democratic records, evident through various curbs on freedom of speech and expression and subjugation of institutions, have tarnished its image internationally; on the other hand, its performance on economic as well as social indicators has taken everyone by surprise. Bangladesh has outperformed various South Asian nations in several social indicators, for instance its total fertility rate in 2016 stands at 2.1, which is lower than India’s, its success in population control goes hand in hand with a massive decline in infant mortality rate. Similarly, human rights violations on the domestic front go hand in hand with its humanitarian gesture toward Rohingya refugees, despite massive strain on its own resources.  This election was supposed to be a verdict on all this and much more.

However, attributing all the reasons behind the election verdict on the ruling party would be like giving it too much agency while depriving the opposition of any agency whatsoever. But the situation in Bangladesh does indicate a continuous and constant emasculation of opposition, which is mostly if not wholly of its own doing.

First of all, boycotting the 2014 election proved to be disastrous for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); the decision compromised its organizational structure and threw it out of touch with the ground realities to the extent that the two big movements - quota movement as well as the road safety movement - did not see any leadership from the opposition. It put all its energy and focus on getting back the provision of “caretaker government,” which was a ludicrous idea to begin with, given that the party in power had amended the constitution to remove the provision.

Additionally, recruitment of Jamaat leaders as candidates of BNP not only displeased the common secular people, but also its allies. The overall picture of united opposition was indeed a farce and it remained a house divided.

Awami League survived anti-incumbency amidst huge controversy over managed elections and poll rigging. The days leading up to elections were full of violence. The democratic space was scuttled and the opposition and media were denied space to critique and question the government. The Digital Security law is one such example. Its draconian measures made it possible for the government to arrest people on flimsy grounds.

Interestingly, the word that was doing the rounds in Bangladeshi politics was “liberation”. Now that the rivalry between “Bengali” and “Bangladeshi” has lost its previous luster, Hasina has managed to bring liberation into today’s politics through Digital Security Laws, sending war criminals to the gallows and banning Jamaat-i-Islami and keeping the pro-liberation and anti-liberation dichotomy alive. The reason the Awami League keeps revisiting the liberation movement is precisely because it wants to continue its extant policies of dichotomizing goals and prioritizing one over another, thereby prolonging its stay in power.

By narrowing the space for dissent and dichotomizing values, the ruling party has effectively defanged the opposition, media as well as ordinary people. The binary vocabulary of “pro-liberation” and “anti-liberation” has entitled the government to differentiate the real patriot from the fake ones, while simultaneously avoiding closer international scrutiny through its various economic achievements.

The major takeaway from the Bangladesh elections is that people inside as well as outside Bangladesh have to make do with one of the two options; either democracy or economic development, and that is a choice they can’t make for it has already been decided.

(The writer is pursuing her PhD in South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at rishijasingh24@gmail.com)

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