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Volume 2 Issue 9 | November 2007



Original Forum Editorial

Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
The dilemmas of rural finance- - Akbar Ali Khan
On agflation--Jyoti Rahman
Political failure of the state as a chronic infection-- Afsan Chowdhury
Trying to remember, refusing to forget-- Tazreena Sajjad
Of coups and killings, of hope and despair-- Syed Badrul Ahsan
Aristocracy versus meritocracy-- Akhter M. Choudhury
Photo Feature Poverty amidst plenty-- GMB Akash
Inner wheels-- Gazi Nafis Ahmed
Pakistan's mercenary elites -- M. Shahid Alam
Reforming the political parties--A.T. Rafiqur Rahman
Responsible tourism-- Md. Anwarul Islam
Writing Pakistan-- Kamila Shamsie
Long summer nights-- Rumi Ahmed
Science Forum
It's No Joke


Forum Home


Political failure of the state as a chronic infection

Afsan Chowdhury takes a look at the preliminary evidence

It is not considered politically polite to discuss Bangladesh as a potentially failing state. In fact, it's not always safe either. The last time this stumbled into discussion, which was during the last regime, people were accused of being foreign agents, friends of India, US, criminals, etc. Seminars and counter-seminars were mounted by "patriots" to criticise several media outfits by the then government.

What might have been a significant exercise in investigation into the nature of this state and quality of performance of various governments that have ruled Bangladesh since 1971 turned into a typical stone hurling duel between the two major parties and their captive intellectuals. It, however, produced more evidence that we are not really politically mature since we can't even tolerate, let alone sustain, a debate.

This duel continued on to the infamous Iajuddin era when he was both the head of the government and the state. We will be permanently reminded why good professors don't necessarily make good presidents of the interim variety. The chaos that reigned during that period couldn't have provided a better example of displaying the actual state of our political leadership and maturity. There is no alternative to viewing this as a form of political failure.

Its not easily understood what is generally understood by a "failed state" but the state institutions actually don't become dysfunctional at the same time. It seems that some parts of the state fail while some parts do not, and nothing really fails completely, either. It's a mix of success and failure. It seems that way with Bangladesh.

The first decade: In the beginning was the end?
The 1971 war, one is always told, was fought to establish democratic practices. However, the first government's most memorable/can't forget moment in history was the least democratic decision to establish one party rule and ban newspapers and political parties. It was a sad show of what a cornered being will do in a desperate bid to survive. It was not popular, smart, or benevolent, and unfortunately, the fangs of history proved more unforgiving than the teeth of legalised authoritarianism.

The party, its leader and even family members were swallowed by what was in part the by-product of its terrible politics. In the process, callous violence of the extreme variety and the right to kill for political purposes, that began in 1971 and continued after that year, were given a permanent extension. Honestly, Bangladesh hasn't yet recovered from the events set in motion by the 4th amendment which introduced the various programs of one-party rule. It also ensured the acceptability and ultimately the legitimacy of military rule which followed soon after the Sheikh Mujib era came to an end.

It may be useless to discuss the 4th amendment now, but this was a violation of the spirit of the constitution, a manipulation of the documents brought through an amendment of malafide intent. The same process in spirit is followed by military rulers who have to justify their rule through a back-dated coverage amendment of their acts, such as the 5th amendment passed by the Zia regime which followed Sheikh Mujib.

Gen. Zia came to power in November 1975 and for a period was popular. The regime's popularity rested largely on undoing some of the major decisions of the previous government, but the regime will also be remembered for reintroducing communal politics both through practice and constitutional changes.

It allowed in the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami. This was one of the great cynical moves in contemporary history where the party which had directly opposed the independence war was welcomed back only to counter the BKSAL/Awami League political activism. That the person putting the welcome mat out was himself a decorated freedom fighter was not only ironic but a significant sign of political failure. It made political immorality acceptable and introduced the idea that there is noting that can be wrong or criminal if done for the sake of political expediency.

The institutionalising of stealing bank money, development of students as political thugs, and tolerating corruption for the party's cause were a few other points which the Zia regime accelerated in the process of the growth of political tumors which the AL government had kissed into being.

Zia's death at the hands of his fellow warriors of 1971 was not just an internal military matter but a sign of his failure as a military-civil politician. The hanging of the killers by Gen. Ershad who as the army chief soon pushed out an elected President Sattar of the BNP (to whom he had promised constitutional support) again exposed the growing enfeeblement of politics and the strengthening of the criminal-politician-business nexus.

The 1990 syndrome: People as outsiders
Ershad showed remarkable lack of faith in his own words and after declaring a jihad against corruption went on a corruption binge of his own, along with his new and old friends and enemies too. The elections, the backroom deals, and finally, the street movements which ended his rule, while inspiring to many, hid the fact that chances for democracy were slipping away . Sadly, the fall of Ershad made everyone hopeful -- which hope was proven to be disastrously false.

Street agitations, always painted with the legendary colours of 1952 and 1969, two iconic dates in our political life, are better at chucking out rulers and repression, but let's face it, can't deliver politics or governance. Our political imageries of the street as the alternative to the parliament are ingrained not because the street delivers but because they allow public participation in politics or governance which the existing system doesn't. It makes people feel they are in charge for once but also motivates them to understand politics as equations of simple black and white tones. If street politics is emotional and inspirational, it also lacks the maturity that ultimately helps build a successful state. the existing system doesn't. It makes people feel they are in charge for once but also motivates them to understand politics as equations of simple black and white tones. If street politics is emotional and inspirational, it also lacks the maturity that ultimately helps build a successful state.

But our history has shown that we prefer to play politics the way our national team plays cricket. Not only are they inconsistent and unreliable, they are also rewarded for the rashness, lack of responsibility, and what Dav Whatmore called, a problem with the "software." Read temperament.

The post-1990 era not only didn't deliver democracy or equitable development, it strengthened the elite class which married business to politics and institutionalised corruption, totally disregarded democratic practices, and undertook deliberate crippling of the parliament and the judiciary. The executive has always been on the side of the winners so the state players were aligned on one side against an enemy which was the very people they were expected to serve. In fact, the system can't allow people into the structure unless they buy a ticket to ride on the gravy train which implies participation in corruption and power manipulation.

The military: Constant presence in political history
The neutral caretaker government formula is creative and probably the final proof of our political immaturity, suggesting that our political parties are incapable of holding a legal, fair, and meaningful election. If they are incapable of performing this basic task as a party in power, there should be no reason to think they are capable of running a fair, legal, and meaningful government. The chaos of 2006 made January 2007 inevitable, whether one likes the military involved in matters of running the state or not.

The present governing arrangement is a mix not seen before, but it also reflects the return of the military to visibility after 1982. The military see their role as security providers to the state but that becomes a political role as in the present case. Simply by backing this government that they cobbled together, they perform a function not done by conventional uniformed servants of the state. A perusal of their security interventions is politically significant because they constitute the principal political milestones as well.

To say that the military, by choice or otherwise, is an apolitical force would be inaccurate going by history. Indeed, of the three existing ruling parties, two -- BNP and JP -- were established by military rulers entering civilian politics.

However, the nature of the military's political character needs to be analysed to understand where its politics is located. That also means that civilian politicians and the military politicians in he past have often occupied the same space and have also contested each other.

The dispersed state: Indication of the dysfunctional?
Conventional analysis of politics as the exclusive domain of one particular group doesn't apply in Bangladesh. It is distributed among the major shareholders, whether they come from professional, commercial, trade, legal, or uniformed branches of society and state.

Given this dispersal, it is possible that the state, too, has dispersed into several components where the elite class and the rest of the population experience the state in a markedly different manner. Given public role in politics, it doesn't seem that they are party to what goes on in politics. This makes the case for the dispersed state structure stronger, where within Bangladesh parallel histories are developing of various population segments.

Which bring us to the original point raised in the beginning. Is Bangladesh a politically successful state going by the sequential evidence presented here? If the state itself has begun to be dispersed into severalties as a consequence of political behaviour of the state managers, can we argue that significant parts of the state, especially its politics, has failed?

In this dispersed state, some have been more successful than others and there is difficulty in identifying a homogenous or a monolithic state. The conduct of its parts is not a summation of the whole. Informal parts of Bangladesh work, but at least the formal structure would be hard-pressed to prove it is doing a great job.

The people have therefore been forced to become reluctant survivors. Mostly at bay because of state policies, they have evolved coping mechanisms of their own. The best example is working as migrants which is largely unregulated but the most successful part of the economy and has paid the state millions and got almost nothing.

It is largely outside the control and perhaps interest of the state and nor has the state shown any intention to engage with the long and short-term migrants. Of course, the owners of the manpower agencies are part of the state system that the people consider their main cause of misery.

No state fails or succeeds wholly. Given the extremely uneasy situation that politics and the politicians are in, it's worth asking if this is a state where some critical components have failed. Bangladesh history doesn't seem to have a period when politics was functioning in such a way that one could say that it was in a working shape.

The distortions that are manifested in recurring cycles of civil rule and its failure to generate democracy, thereby creating the default situation for military intervention followed by another cycle is the model we seem to be staring at. It looks more like a deadly infection rather than a heart attack, so the chronic nature of the problem is essential to understand the state of the state we are in.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist writing for Bangladeshi and South Asian publications.


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