Bangladesh: costing dynastic quarrels and knee-jerk nationalism

by Philip Bowring

Dhaka: Donor countries are meeting in Paris April 20 to
discuss aid for Bangladesh. But they are as likely to be
talking about Bangladeshi politics as about aid to the ninth
most populous nation. Donors have become so exasperated with
the impact of local political warfare on the economy, and with
government misuse of its powers, that last month they took the
unusual step of making a joint written complaint to the Prime
Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, copied it to her rival and
predecessor, Begum Khaleda Zia.

The struggle between the two ladies is an old story, but the
political climate has been deteriorating just when Bangladesh
needs to take big decisions if potentially good prospects for
economic advance are not to be frustrated by infighting by
leaders who avow a commitment to liberal democracy but conduct
affairs as a personal feud. 
Political rivalries are at the root of three evils: 
* A decline in law and order, spasmodic political violence and 
resort to hartals (general strikes) as a political weapon.
* Enhanced levels of political and bureaucatic corruption.
* Government unwillingnmess to take economic decisions which
would hand some short term benefits to the opposition.

The democratic system is under stress as the opposition has
resorted to hartal and boycotts of parliament and local polls
in response to the ruling Awami League's abuses of power. BNP
activists have been harassassed by police and magistracy, and
parliamentary procedures distorted. Recent bomb incidents
indicate increased resort to political violence. A February US
Human Rights report was highly critical, noting many
extrajudicial killings and abuse of power by the police. 

There is concern too that Awami League has the same
authoritarian tendencies it showed when last in power -- from
independence to the assassination of Sheikh Hasina's father,
Sheikh Mujib, in 1975. The daughter has gone to great lenghts
to build Mujib into a cult figure as "father of the nation".

There is probably scant danger of a return to those days.
Hasina has faced two challenges from the Supreme Court to her
high handed use of executive power. The BNP and other
opposition parties are too strong to be marginalised. Voices
of moderation are many in a society without major ideological
rifts. At the BNP, a few, including former finance minister
Saifur Rahman, have been critical of hartal -- the weapon
Hasina previously used against Khaleda -- as the right
respomse to Awami League strong-arm tactics. Others worry
about Khaleda's opportunistic criticism of settlement of the
Chittagong Hill Tracts problem as a sell-out to India.
However, both parties follow their leader obsequiously so
there is little prospect of new leaders.

Bureaucratic corruption and overlapping fiefdoms have delayed
investment decisions such as power and oil/gas exploration
projects and held up privatisation. Large amounts of foreign
aid is unused because of government inertia or infighting over
the spoils.  

But most damaging is the distortion of key policies. BNP
fanning of paranoia about India is preventing exploitation of
two major resources -- gas and geography. The one thing both
ladies agree on is that Bangladesh should not export its
natural gas, though experts contend, and many in the
government privately concede, there is more than enough for
local needs. Large scale gas export to India would pay for
badly needed infrastructure. But the Awami League is worried
about being branded anti-national and pro-Indian by the BNP. 

Likewise, urgently needed development of Bangladesh's port at
Chittagong is bedevilled by politically motivated strikes. Use
of Bangladesh as a transhipment corridor to Northeast India is
also frustrated by "security" considerations.

These failings are holding back the dynamic parts of a nation
which is compact, homogenous, secular and little touched by
religious fanaticism. It enjoys international goodwill and
strong non-governmental organisations offset some government
failings. Bangladesh has shown more commitment to  social
issues like family planning and women's education than its
neighbours. The private sector, which had remarkable success
in developing the garment and leather industries, is
constrained by hartals, corruption, and infrastructure costs.
Agriculture has been resilient in the face of last year's
record floods but the potential to make the most densely
populated nation a food exporter cannot be realised without
power and roads. 

So Bangladesh stands at a crossroads. Bold decisions could
lead to an economy which would amaze those who believed that
it could never be viable. But continued bad governance will
bring electoral democracy into disrepute and leave Bangladesh
a nation of marginal importance dependent on aid. Will the
ladies ever listen?



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