Vol. 4 Num 269 Sat. February 28, 2004  

Book Review
The gambit of politics, history and international hegemony
Dominating our state of affairs

A comparatively young scholar looks into the governance of a country where legal order is destroyed and a condition is created through weak or no enforcement either because of no intention to enforce, or incapability to enforce, law and justice. Over time various national and international situations ultimately turn such a state into a 'troubled state,' 'weak state,' 'disabled state,' 'quasi state,' 'marginal state,' 'arbitrary state,' and finally appears as a 'Compromised Republic.' In such a situation, the state like Bangladesh fails to fulfil the basic needs of the majority of the population and the citizens lose interest in the state.

The author explains the behaviour of different institutions and actors within and outside the state boundary. He very aptly studies the 'status politics' in Bangladesh and shows how different actors, groups and institutions draw special rights and enforce conditions for legislation to sustain gains of these extra privileges even at the cost of priorities of the Republic. He further tells how extra legislation the gains accrue to these groups in the form of tax evasion, rent seeking and all types of government regulated honours and privileges. Because of this phenomenon, according to the author, the enforcement of legal rights becomes expensive and remains in many cases, unenforced. In this situation the legal order is destroyed, good laws cease to have validity.

A situation is further created where not only the domestic forces, but forces and institutions outside the legal political boundary of the country take advantage and dictate the Republic and she accepts all kinds of such dictations and further becomes a 'compromised republic'. He has rightly pointed out the process of international capital operation with its institutions both in the national and international arena with its various actors such as World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organisation, multinationals and local collaborators in the grab of private sectors and also politicians and bureaucrats. He has not forgotten to mention, specially, the recent trend to grab the natural resources of small states by the hegemonic greed of giant nations.

In confronting the ailing leviathan, the author makes an eye opening observation in the opening chapter that reads, "When a society does not prevent actions whose allowance yields as a net loss to each of its members, the society has taken away liberty to a point where it becomes counter-productive." This may be caused for lack of security as well as instability generated externally, either regionally, or globally. Moreover, domestic instability not only distorts the economic and political equity, but also encourages all kinds of privileged people to jump out of the legal system and acquire resources through illegal means and sustain that wealth from regime to regime. When the government wants to stabilize the legal system to attain a better situation it has no other option but to resort to coercion and ultimately ends in a coercive stability (such as Operation Clean Heart). This type of coercive stability through coercion is justified once again because protected and privileged people commit heinous crime and get away and the weak state cannot take action otherwise. But the 'hearts' are cleaned only to be reappearing again as the vicious circle starts operating.

Why should such a state exist that cannot guarantee protection of law and property? The author honestly answers that it is because they are recognised to exist by other governments. In fact, these weak states exist so that big wicked states can exploit and get away with mild or any protest from their voters. Their sovereignty is again quasi and the state becomes as the author terms 'quasi states'.

While the international capital has its friends and supporters in the international and national institutions, the domestic capital, however weak it may be, has its own way of working to gain maximum at the cost of common people. The author in the second chapter talks about the hegemony and the development of underdevelopment of small states like Bangladesh. He describes the process of capital accumulation in both the national and international arenas. He deals with the process with historical development and the complex working of WTO, OECD, WB, US's role, the hegemony, privatisation prescription, tariff, etc. He has very nicely explained the various linkages that are established by the different institutions, agents, instruments, etc to sustain this situation. He also came up with a valid explanation of shrinkages of central authority of the state, a natural consequence of a weak state. He then describes how "with poor governance or shrinking central authority of the state, international aid players and their sister donor organisations tend to compensate for lack of central authority of the state by dealing with local strong men: politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, military, and other so-called civil society touts."

In chapter three, the author has rightly pointed out that in the absence of law and governance, unregulated free markets inherently become self-destructive of freedom. While talking about the ready targets for abused reforms, he points out the easy targets for abused reforms and its possible outcomes in a state most of which are enforced by international donor agencies. One such easy reform is privatisation. The author finds the process of privatisation as a route towards market and capital movement for the West. He also discussed the mechanism by which the so-called privatisation is done at the cost of the domestic economy and even sovereignty. He has rightly observed that the privatisation is the quickest and simplest way for the concentration of wealth and through it the power as has happened and still happening in Bangladesh.

This process of abused transition survives through non-competitive political environment where the politicians frame rules not only to maintain power, but also profiting from the rents generated by partial reform. This defeats the optimum social benefit and the cost is transferred to the society at large against a few privileged. Non-competitive political situation forces voters to prefer the exit of old rulers rather than vote on political and economic programmes.

While talking about the Bangladeshi institutions, the author says that the groups who control political power choose the institutions that maximise their own rents, and in most cases the institutions fail to maximise total surplus. Quoting from other studies he further supports his thesis that bureaucracy, military, political leadership and a 'silent partner from the countryside' virtually rule these institutions.

Chapter six takes a close look to an interesting area that bothers every citizen of Bangladesh -- violence. This chapter deals with different kinds of violence and shows how over time it grew due to the constitutional and institutional failures. He opines that Bangladesh sovereignty is tinted with the ordinance of indemnifying taking of Bangladeshi lives without 'due' process of law.

Though he is in favour of democracy and free speech is a vital and indispensable foundation, yet he considers it not an absolute right. According to him the free speech should in no way violate the vital social interests, basic framework of the society and the existence of society. With this belief he describes how according to him on many occasions speeches were made that violated these norms. He prefers to call these violations as 'leaks'.

He observed that there is widespread disjunctions between political and consumption choices. He questions the traditional theory of public choices through political process, especially when the politics itself is self-seeking and domination of large states loom over the small states. He also did not miss the issue of the long-term use natural resources and especially gas. He prefers to strike a balance between the present and future. He has warned that international market order and trade is inherently hegemonic and oppressive.

This is an interesting book covering the entire gambit of politics, history and international hegemony in dominating our state of affairs as it prevails in Bangladesh and in many other weak small states of the world and how over the years Bangladesh had to compromise its governance by force and also by choice. He has very carefully explained how Bangladesh became a compromised republic with continuously weakening of central authority. The factors that created this situation both within and outside the country have been appropriately explained. He is very honest in pointing out the role of various actors and institutions in pushing Bangladesh to a compromised republic.

The book communicates uniquely the insight process of a compromised republic like Bangladesh: the political corruption and inefficiency, institutional failures and limitations, collusion among bureaucracy, politicians and business people in rent-seeking, the silent and fractured civil society, domination of international agencies and western countries that results in partial loss of sovereignty, inability of voters to choose political voting in a non-competitive situation of politics, abused and prescribed reforms, and other important factors that lead to the weakening of central authority of the state and result in a 'compromised republic'. He is very critical about the role of various actors and institutions. No one escapes unscathed.

The author has not formally suggested any prescription to come out of the morasses that exist today in Bangladesh. A careful reader can easily prune some suggestions made in the thicket of politics and society that he described. In text, he writes (to quote some) that 'the people of Bangladesh must possess the alienable human right' and 'regular employment and homeownership reduce the level of social instability and violent crime'.

The summary in the jacket of the book does not cover all the rich contents inside. The graphics could be better and hope that the author will take care of graphics in a latter edition. Any reader would prefer to see some of his observations supported by facts and figures.

Some of his ideas, observations and explanations may be controversial; everyone is also not expected to agree with the author, but it is very difficult to ignore and avoid reading the book. It is a fascinating reading. This thoughtful and insightful book is recommended for academics and people in politics, bureaucracy, army, business and above all people in policy frameworks.

Amirul Islam Chowdhury is former Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Economics, Jahangirnagar University

The Compromised Republic: An Inquiry Into The Development of UnderdevelopmentBy Chowdhury Irad Ahmed SiddikyOriental KAS Publishers, DhakaPages 160+XV, 2003, Price Taka 300.00 and US$25.00.