Vol. 5 Num 926 Sat. January 06, 2007  

When it comes to economy, AL-BNP play a politics of consensus

The decision of Awami League-led Grand Alliance not to participate in the election has thrown our politics into another round of confusion and antagonism. In many ways, it revealed a profound rupture between the two largest political parties of the country. But in some other ways, there are more similarities between these major political contenders than meet the eye.

Just a while ago, the five-point agreement signed between Awami League and Khelafat Majlish has demonstrated one of those common grounds. The Awami League leadership's attempts at clumsy damage control notwithstanding, the agreement betrayed a deeper crisis of our mainstream political culture, a culture that promotes an "anything goes" ideology as long as it serves narrowly defined interests of a specific party. (From a pragmatic vantage point, how much electoral clout Khilafat Majlish holds that prompted Awami League to make that compromise is an important question in itself).

But there is another important area where the line of demarcation between the two major political parties is quite blurred. I am talking about the concrete differences between Awami League and BNP in regard to the most important economic issues confronted by our nation. If politics is ultimately a practice of social transformation (or maintenance of social status quo, depending on the political context and equation of forces), then there can never be a dividing line between politics and economics. Politics is always, invariably, embedded in economy as economy is unavoidably political in nature.

With all the debates on constitutionality and fairness of election, there is hardly any debate between the major parties on important economic issues. The difference between Awami League and BNP in terms of a spectrum of issues- - recognizing social inequality as a fundamental feature of our political economy, the nature of state-market relations, terms of participation in a globalized market economy, direct foreign investment , terms of trade etc. is minimal. The much needed discussion on land reform is absent in the rhetoric of both parties. There is no serious discussion on labor rights in either party's platform. Neither party has unfolded a serious program for poverty reduction.

The influence of illegitimately accumulated wealth on politics seems to be a given thing in our mainstream bi-partisan politics. The power of both parties is deeply embedded in a vested structure of economic privilege. The nouveau riche has strongholds within both of them. Money, in both parties, plays a central role in getting nomination and running campaigns. While legitimate accusations of election engineering against BNP is raised by Awami League (not that Awami League did not , albeit to a lesser degree, attempted its own share of election engineering under its watch), there is hardly any viable discussion on black money in either parties. Neither party has taken this issue raised by citizens' groups seriously. In spite of their incessant rivalries and power struggles, when it comes to economy, Awami League and BNP seem to have created a strange politics of consensus.

Through its evolution as the vanguard of the nationalist movement, Awami League also articulated a central-left position on economic issues during the sixties. Among others, it was a leader like Tajuddin Ahmed, the unsung hero of our national liberation struggle, who played a major role in the evolution of that position. The leftist turn of part of the young leadership of the party was also an important component of that process. The 1972 constitution of the newly independent country embodied socialism as a central principle. Along with three other core principles--democracy, secularism, and nationalism--incorporating socialism in the constitution was a remarkable recognition of the legacy of our liberation war. The success and failure of that principle in the immediate post-independent Bangladesh, however, is a whole different story.

Through political turmoil and ups and downs, Awami League started taking a central-right direction in the eighties. That drift is due partly to the party's embedment in economic privilege and partly to the crudely defined pragmatism of conventional electoral politics. The collapse of alternative visions in international arena and its domestic ramifications also made social justice a less appealing agenda. The party steadily committed itself to an uncritical acceptance of market economy mixed with rudimentary welfare state rhetoric and policies.

Since its inception, BNP's economic policy has been central right in nature. A major demonstration of that character is the way Ziaur Rahman, through unconstitutional means, jettisoned socialism, along with secularism, as a state principle. But despite its different genealogy, BNP's economic position has not been different from that of Awami League in any substantive way. Like its political nemesis, BNP's economic agenda constitutes a commitment to market economy combined with state-sponsored (no matter how weak and ineffective) welfare measures.

Bangladesh is, of course, not the only country where mainstream political parties do not represent qualitative differences in terms of economic policies. The United States is also an example of a very similar phenomenon. As a range of political critics argue, in the United States, when it comes to basic political-economic and philosophical characters, there is no major difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Both parties are intimately tied with corporate interests, both parties have vested interests in maintaining U.S. hegemony in global economy and politics. Neither party has any substantial vision to change the reality that the United States is the most economically unequal society in the whole industrialized world.

The United States is the only industrialized country without a universal health care. Since the fiasco of Hillary Clinton's health care proposals in the early period of the Clinton administration, there is no bold proposal on the part of the mainstream Democratic leadership to institute a universal health care policy. When it comes to quality of life measures like infant mortality, weight at birth, or per capita hospital bed, the United States is way behind many industrialized nations. It was, after all, under Bill Clinton, the last Democrat in the White House, the so-called welfare reform bill put the welfare system as we had known since the New Deal of FDR to an end. In many respects, the Democrats and the Republicans, like the memorable characters of Lewis Carroll, have become like tweedledee and tweedledum, indistinguishable characters with different names.

But, in spite of this suffocating commonalities, there are still voices within the Democratic party that talk about expansion of welfare measures, the possibility of creating a national health care policy, or a progressive income tax structure. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, Awami League and BNP have failed to define their positions on economic policies even on that sort of basic grounds.

Citizens have the right to serious, substantive debates on issues that have tangible consequences for their everyday lives. Without addressing the bread and butter issues of economic democracy, our democratic political culture remains woefully inadequate. Yet, none of our major parties have lived up to that task. Without that, a major promise of our war of independence continues to be incomplete.

Piash Karim is a freelance contributor.