Vol. 5 Num 994 Sun. March 18, 2007  

Hoping against hope

It had to be done, and it has been. The torch has been passed on to a group of sophisticated technocrats. They appear to be determined to rid the nation of its most corrupt ministers, politicians, and bureaucrats, and to revitalise the country's economy.

The government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed sounded to make every effort and use every means to put the democracy back on the track by ensuring free, fair, and credible election.

Although the overwhelming majority of this country share the view of Winston Churchill who said that democracy would never be a perfect system, but none of the other systems history has known have proven to be better, voters are really dismayed with the corrupt realities of adverse party politics.

Since winning independence in 1971 political parties of Bangladesh have proved themselves master at self-inflicted wounds. Both the Awami League and the BNP governments failed to modernise the economy and secure economic growth comparable to that of our neighbours. Although the government changed hands every five years, for the last fifteen years, and no government was re-elected after serving a full term, but none of the party ruled the country by democratic methods.

In western democracies, the government is just one among several institutions which make up the state, and while the government is the official voice of the state, it is not necessarily its most powerful element. To gain control of the government by winning a general election is no guarantee of gaining control of all the institutions that make up the state.

Here in Bangladesh it is other way around. Once the party is elected, immediately they change all the top administrators and ensure occupancy of key state positions by members of their own party or by others whose outlook is broadly compatible with the interest of their party. They even do not hesitate to use police to protect their own interest.

Some say that a well-educated middle class has to be in place for democracy to take root as is the case in Taiwan and South Korea, but others think democracy in India took root because the country, during the early years of independence, had an elite, strong, and responsible government which believed in democracy.

Despite sizable industrial base and well-educated middle class, democracy in our country is still in a real mess. Perhaps the most spectacular illustration of political demagogy is offered by the BNP government of 2001-2006. Powerful political actors of Begum Zia's government turned a responsible democratic system into an irresponsible elective dictatorship that then governed in such a way as to create an injurious political business cycle that not only hindered the long-term prospects for sustainable economic growth, but also allowed subversive organisations to threaten the survival of the state and the democracy itself.

People were sharply critical of what they saw as the absence of the rule of law.

People do not respect law when the top leadership sadly sets a bad example. When the government ministers and MPs don't respect law themselves, how can we expect civil servants and government officials to do it?

In a courageous initiative, the government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed is taking on corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and industrialists, and is determined to enforce the rule to ensure that everyone, rich or poor, powerful or weak, is equal before the law. The chief adviser Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed produced in his speech a dutiful laundry list of ministers and politicians who raked in big commissions and kick-backs from foreign and domestic investors.

The corruption was so massive and rampant that it was actually hurting the economy. It is widely believed that some of the senior ministers' greed impeded the foreign investment in our power sector. It appears that caretaker government is too well aware that there are so many powerful entrenched people on top who would violently defend their financial interests which are associated with corruption. However, they are not above law. Obviously, there is something of a dilemma in judiciary's position as both upholders of law and order system and protector of the rights of the individual against that very system.

Interestingly, British Supreme Court justice, Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls, once went so far as to say that keeping some innocent people in prison was preferable to undermining confidence in the legal system. In many third world countries, riots and mass unrest have always been dealt with by the armed forces, but deployment of armed forces for domestic law enforcement isn't very popular in the liberal democratic countries. Moreover, military training is geared to fighting battles not to chasing criminals.

So far, the government's crusade against crime and corruption met with a lot of interest and approval from the people at large. Chief Adviser Dr. Fakhruddin is echoing what people seemed to be thinking, commented a western diplomat. But ordinary people also expect the government to monitor price scene carefully. If the past is any guide, unchecked rise in prices of essential goods, shortage of food and fertilizer may easily damage the image of government. Trade, commerce, and business are very important for any country. The government should help and encourage business community to promote bilateral trade with the neighbouring countries.

Leaders of both the BNP and the Awami League governments lacked a clear and sensible idea of their priorities. They were unable to address one of the biggest lacunae in our growth process -- the virtual exclusion of the agriculture sector from the country's increased prosperity. It requires no great insight to realise that still 65 percent of our workforce is dependent on agriculture while agriculture's share in GDP is steadily shrinking. Bulk of our water resources is wasted and government is yet to addresses the problem of irrigation.

Ironically, the vast majority of our farmers still live below the poverty line. According to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington lobby outfit, last year the US doled out more than $12 billion in subsidies to its farmer, while the Europeans paid in subsidies $53 billion to encourage their farmers to produce more.

Strangely enough, many people expect Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed to become a genuine reformer and he should be free to think the unthinkable, and will do necessarily painful things that may upset some people and enrage most politicians, however for the good of our country. This government is probably well placed to make the radical changes the country so badly needs.

Perhaps, the caretaker government realises that Bangladesh Biman needs money from government exchequer to carry passengers while private carriers need passengers to make money. Widespread corruption, high taxes, red tape, continuing subsidies to declining state-owned industries and a reluctance to sell off state assets is needlessly holding back our economic growth.

My little son asks me simply why Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia demand early election? Do they want to preside over the destruction of our country once again? These are the questions I can't answer, and neither, I think, can anyone else.

Anam A Choudhury is a former investment banker.