Calling Generation Bangladesh: Is there an Obama in the house?
Faisal Salahuddin argues the ingredients are in place for us to have an Obama of our own
Barack Obama, with his compelling life story, is inspiring America like nobody has since John F. Kennedy. The child of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, and raised by his grandparents, Obama started his political life at the bottom of the food chain as a community organiser in Chicago, and is now reaching for the US presidency.
As a curious outsider, I have watched Obama with polarised emotions over the last couple of months. I have alternated between inspiration and depression; inspired by his magnetic promise for the American youth and saddened by the lack of such leaders at home.
What does Obama mean in the Bangladeshi context? He represents a breed of bottom-up politicians who can inspire and unite the younger generation to dream of tomorrow -- and then deliver (Obama is not at this point yet, agreed).
Can we have our own Obamas who can voice the dreams of our youth? I argue that the evolving math, physics and chemistry of our own society suggests: Yes, we can. At the very least, we have many of the right ingredients.
Leaders do not fall from heaven (although recently in our land, they tend to assertively drop from the chosen family trees). Since leaders grow in domestic soil, they reflect ground realities and the unpredictable mixture of "inevitability" and "randomness" of history and society.
In Bangladesh's case, the brewing "inevitability" of our history and society is bound to shape future policies and politics. The chemistry of changing times can set off political reactions, catalysing the fierce urgency of the present. Let's see how.
The mathematics: Demography is destiny
A nation can be viewed as a mathematical distribution of people -- different generations with their own unique experiences.
Based on each generation's formative years, ours can be broadly split into three:
i) Generation Pakistan (P)
ii) Generation Middle (M)
iii) Generation Bangladesh (B)
Generation Pakistan (P)
60 years and older. Made in Pakistan. Spent their formative years in turbulent Pakistan and came of age politically during the 1960s. Produced the Last of the Mohicans of our independence movement, autocratic rulers and the collaborators. Also blessed us with institutions that are the pride our country, like Brac and the Grameen Bank. Politicians of this generation developed their specialty in independence movements and protests.
Generation Middle (M)
40-60 years. Manufactured in Pakistan and assembled in Bangladesh. Straddled crumbling Pakistan and post-conflict Bangladesh in their formative years. Traumatised (in some cases, titillated) by the chaos of the 1970s, the autocratic governance of the 1980s, and the partisan politics of the 1990s. Consists of the inheritance-driven politicians (with confusing training and from colourful backgrounds) who privatised politics but also the great entrepreneurs in manufacturing (e.g. garments) and service sectors (e.g. media, telecom, banking). Overall, a very schizophrenic generation -- simultaneously reminding us of the potential (e.g. rapid economic growth since the 1990s) and the pathology (e.g. confrontational politics) of our nation. They are now in the nation's driving seat, with mixed records and some DUIs (driving under the influence) -- confusing us with the dreams and nightmares they have created.
Generation Bangladesh (B)
Under 40 years. Made in Bangladesh. Lack the ideological baggage or traumas of Generation M. Like children from a bitterly broken family, a large majority of them are disenchanted with political bickering and tired of taking sides. This is also the IT generation, and the most well-connected by mobile phones, internet and cable television, silently watching Asia rise, India shine and China boom. They are increasingly impatient for the time when Bangladesh will bloom. Also much more globally connected in views and experience due to labour migrations for the rural segment, and a movement to media, trade and education for the urban segment.
To summarise, the big picture headlines are: Generation P is near the exit. Generation M is still running the show. Generation B is here and rising.
But the big picture is full of ironies. At over 100 million, and by far the largest group (see graph on right), Generation B, as of now, has been helplessly sitting in the backseat looking ahead. In the meantime, ironically, politicians and, more generally, powerbrokers from Generation M have been busy with partisan politics and driving the bus off the road by stubbornly looking in the rearview mirror.
Naturally, as simple election arithmetic suggests, Bangladesh's political and policy-making centre of gravity will need to shift very rapidly in the coming years to address the dreams and aspirations of Generation B. In terms of sheer numbers, Generation B seems mathematically poised to take the positive vision of Generation P and the positive aspect of Generation M and create a new Bangladesh. These forces can only be delayed, but not denied.
Political leaders in a democracy cannot afford to behave like ostriches for long, and ignore these deeper forces of demographics with their heads in the sand. If they do (which they currently seem to be doing), they will do so at their own peril, especially given the changing architecture of our society.
The Changing Architecture and Physics of Our Society
Not only is our nation young, with over 50 per cent of its people under 25, its very architecture is also in an unprecedented flux.
At the macro-level, forces like urbanisation and industrialisation are rapidly rewriting the social fabric of this crowded nation.
At the micro-level, communication technology such as mobile phones, internet and media are rapidly transforming how we relate to and communicate with each other, which in turn will inevitably dictate the terms of political control and accountability, amplify any social discontent, and spread localised hopes.
Structurally, two key forces are quietly revolutionising the social architecture: i) mobile phones and ii) media growth.
From 1995-2005, mobile phone coverage as a percentage of population shot up from almost zero to 80 per cent (possibly even higher now, see chart below based on the World Bank data). This is a sea of change.
One small example captures the magnitude of this migration of power to common citizens. In the late 1980s, Ershad had to try hard to get three mobile sets for personal use (he spent about a million dollars -- over three crores taka then). Now 35 million mobile phones are in the hands of common citizens.
Mobile phones have united 150 million Bangladeshis, who are no longer 150 million isolated islands but one connected continent. Echoes of their dreams and despair can now travel at the speed of electro-magnetic waves through their mobile phones. Dreams are, thus, increasingly more transferable, despair more violently contagious.
The second revolution has been in media access, especially the rise of private television channels in the last decade. Surely, media does not operate outside the gravitational pull of traditional political forces and vested interests. Powerbrokers everywhere, therefore, appreciate the power of media and naturally try to control them through their invisible hands.
But the television and print media in Bangladesh are becoming increasingly diverse and large enough that remote control with reliable precision by any rulers -- be they democratic or autocratic -- for an extended period has become virtually impossible, unlike in the 1970s or 1980s, or even as recently the early 1990s. The invisible and sometimes (or often?) dirty hands of the rulers cannot remain invisible for very long, given the increasingly diverse channels of media access (see chart, source: Bangladesh Media and Demographic Survey, AC Nielson, 2005).
Information is power. Power now is bound to be more democratic.
Let me give another evidence of the power of the structural change at play. It took many years for Ershad's corruption sagas to trickle down to the level of common citizens in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In contrast, all the CNG drivers during the past regime knew about the major players associated with CNG-gate (the tale of rent-seeking behaviour associated with importing CNGs) within a span of months, if not weeks.
This reflects how quickly information can now trickle down and sideways. This fundamental change is bound to increase the speed of political accountability. Moore's Law, which states that the processing speed of computers will double every two years might now even be applicable to governance in Bangladesh; the people's ability to process the implications of the politician's policies and actions will double every two years.
You can still steal and then run or even hide, but not for long. The time you have to hide is made even shorter due to the united orchestra of the internet, mobile phones and television. Information and people are only separated by a couple of keystrokes in your cell phone or a few seconds of live television. Powerbrokers will find it increasingly difficult to customise and edit their versions of realities.
Among the three generations, Generation B has been the dominant participant in this revolution of mobile phones, internet, and media. Naturally, compared with the previous generations, their appetite for global dreams are increasingly pronounced, as is their lack of tolerance for the dysfunctional status quo.
As a result, there is an apparent and growing disconnect between the accumulated political disappointment of this generation and the self-serving behaviour of the earlier generation of politicians. Political leaders have not constructively realised this gap, and Generation B has not produced many leaders yet. The result is an unsustainable vacuum of young, inspiring political leaders. In the language of economics, there is strong demand but short supply.
But why is the market not responding to this shortage of supply? The answer is perhaps complicated and multi-faceted.
Generation M is now behaving like classic monopolists by creating barriers to entry through dynastic and inherited politics -- where your last name matters more than your last action. Politicians and policy-makers in the past could get away with this business model of running the country as their beneficiaries enforced their own partisan version of reality.
The rapidly changing demographic balance, combined with a shifting power balance from the rapidly growing media, is bound to change the chemistry of political negotiations. But why?
The Chemistry of Change
Our nation is blessed with two chemical properties -- homogeneity and volatility.
The beauty of homogeneity is that you cannot segregate your people for too long, unlike in Africa or the Middle East with rigid tribal identities.
The beauty of volatility is that you cannot create blind political loyalties for long. All partisan political identities in Bangladesh can easily fade like lines in the sand, especially for generations without much political baggage and with clean slates.
Both are bad news for the old business model of politics. Media and technology are bound to trigger Schumpeterian creative destruction process in our politics. Ultimately, politicians, out of self-interest, will have to move toward the new business model; serving the common good of the majority. And the new business model may attract new entrepreneurs -- the Obamas.
Let's aggregate the above discussion:
-The demographic tectonic shift underway is bound to transform our politics.
-This shift is inevitable due to rising flow of information through the media and mobile phones.
-The inevitability is ensured by the chemistry of our psyche, history and identity.
My prediction is that the demographic tsunami of Generation B is bound to create large political waves in Bangladesh in the next five to ten years. With 75 per cent of the population, they will be by far the strongest political force since independence.
Politics, politicians, and institutions are often local and backward-looking, influenced by their own background and training. That's why Generation B's needs and views will need their own genre of politicians -- the Obamas, who will be able to inspire and address their issues.
The demand for a new generation of leaders is high. A hundred million people is a large enough pool for the future supply of Obamas. We just need a system that can promote new leaders by creating political space for them. One possible solution is to nominate new entrants through the primary system.
Americans would not have learnt about Barack Obama if they did not have a primary system. Without the primary system, Hillary Clinton and her convenient last name would be the uncontested democratic nominee. The very system of primary elections allowed Obama the mobility to move from the bottom of the food chain to the front-runner.
I realise this analogy has its limitations and applicability. But my point is simple -- if we allow intra-party competition, new leaders will emerge. We have a vibrant media and an increasingly connected and politically aware people who are waiting to be inspired for a hopeful tomorrow and who wants a bigger menu of leaders.
Generation B is coming to the forefront of politics with the inevitability of an avalanche. The very demand from them will encourage the supply of our future Obamas, most likely from Generation B, as long as we can ensure sufficient political competition and transparency.
Let's all think and debate how.
Generation Bangladesh, are you listening?
Faisal Salahuddin is trained as an actuary and macroeconomist.