Vol. 5 Num 1078 Wed. June 13, 2007  

Stereotypes true and false

There is some truth in stereotypes. Take the term "hujuge (impulsive) Bangali" for example. These two little words, in one fell sweep, lampoon our short collective memory, point to our tendency to revise facts on whim, and mock us for our gullibility. Many hujuge Bangalis have been swept off their feet by the campaign to discredit politics altogether. Truethis effort was well orchestrated; the planners deserve credit. Truepolitical parties had become deadlocked in misdeeds, for which only they are to blame. I'll even grant that forceful intervention was the only option left on 1/11.

But what is not true is the claim that politics had given us little, and that all political parties are the same: dishonest, power-grabbing, non-democratic, dynasty-run fiefdoms that have proven ineffective in governance. A quick look at the record between Awami League and BNP in the past three terms reveals the deceit in this claim. Comparison between the two can run for pages, so I'll just take three basic questions. Have they produced economic growth? Have they respected citizens' right to life and liberty? Have they governed democratically?

Between 1991 and 2005, when elected politicians ruled the country, the average annual growth rate in real (inflation-adjusted) GDP was 5.1 percent, compared to 3.9 percent annually between 1975 and 1990, when generals led the country. Politicians, for all their flaws, grew the economy much better than dictators did. There was better reduction of poverty, better management of inflation. How do they fare against their own kind?

During the first BNP administration (1991-1996), real GDP growth rate was 4.4 percent annually. The AL administration (1996-2001) performed better, lifting the real growth rate to 5.2 percent. The second BNP administration (2001-2006) beat that, clocking 5.6 percent annually. On average, real growth attained during all of BNP's years is 5 percent annually.

Three conclusions can be drawn from this. Amazing though it may sound, every elected government performed better than the average non-elected government. Second, each elected government performed progressively better than its predecessor. And finally, yes, there was no significant difference between BNP and AL, at least on economic growth rates.

The differences begin to appear once we cast our gaze at politics, human rights, and quality of governance. On these measures, there's no point in a comparison to earlier military governments, since they did not have a commitment to protect rights or govern democratically. So we will focus on the post-1991 years.

With regard to fundamental rights, let's simply take the most basic measurement:

the right to life. Extra-judicial killing is the worst violation of this right, since it indicates gross abuse by those who are entrusted to protect citizens in the first place.

During BNP's first tenure, government agents killed 41 citizens extra-judicially every year, on average. This figure spiked tremendously in their second tenure, to 143 per year. In stark contrast, during the AL years of 1996-2001, extrajudicial killings amounted to 19 per year on average. The divergent record in human rights between BNP and AL corresponded, in turn, to differences in their respect for democratic institutions. We know that elections were generally free, so the question to ask is: once elected, did the party value the role of public representatives?

Research by Nizam U. Ahmed of Chittagong University shows that between 1991 and 1996, BNP enacted more than one-third of the bills through executive ordinance, rather than through the parliament.

This level of reliance on the executive exposes an underlying temptation to sideline public representatives, especially when compared to the AL tenure, when 97 percent of all laws were passed through the parliament. During BNP's first tenure, despite opposition demands, bills were not submitted to parliamentary committees; in fact, only 7 out of 173 bills passed during this time were scrutinized by committees. AL, to its credit, submitted every parliamentary bill for scrutiny by relevant committees during its 1996-2001 administration.

Data for 2001-2006 on these measurements are not fully available yet. But based on anecdotal evidence, like Kansat, bombings on the opposition, the rise of Hawa Bhaban, election engineering, and the appalling record of human rights, it's probably a safe bet to say that democratic performance deteriorated drastically during BNP's most recent tenure. This period, after all, culminated in the 1/11 takeover, amid "thunderous applause."

With overwhelming public support for the takeover, there was no need to start distorting facts and denigrate all political parties as the same. But, in the name of "balance," the new government chose to vilify both BNP and AL in the same fashionrevisionist history.

There were marked differences in political performance as well as governing culture between the two parties. They were also in different leagues with regard to corruption. To point this out is not a matter of prejudice or imbalance, as some might readily conclude, but a matter of fact and evidence. But the "all-politicians-are-equally-bad" discourse is successfully underway, and people are happily drugged with that "hujug."

So there is some truth to stereotypes like "hujuge Bangali." But there is no truth in typecasting all parties and all politicians as rogues. The sad result of that is, those who performed far better with regard to human rights and democracy are now being made to pay the same price as those who performed much worse.

Jalal Alamgir is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.