Is Bangladesh a successful low-income
democracy or a failing state? A secular Muslim exemplar or a fundamentalist
seedbed? A liberal society, or one beset by corruption and political violence? A
crucial component of South Asian geopolitics, or a weak and irrelevant adjunct
All these descriptions contain elements
of truth - except irrelevance. Bangladesh matters not just because it has 130
million people, mostly Muslim, or because it is the most densely populated
country on earth, but because its Bengali identity makes it the most homogenous
nation on the subcontinent.
The country's image has suffered from an
upsurge of violence. In February a senior but uncontroversial opposition party
figure, A.M.S. Kibria, was killed in a bomb blast. Last August the opposition
Awami League leader, Sheik Hasina, escaped from a bomb attack that killed
Concern is growing that a democratic
system that has enabled three elections and two changes of government since the
overthrow of the military in 1991 will be endangered if one party or the other
refuses to accept its conventions and institutions. Opposition boycotts of
Parliament, and the use of strikes and street demonstrations to harry the
government, have long been part of politics as Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, widow
of one assassinated president, has battled former Prime Minister Hasina,
daughter of another.
Hasina is currently threatening to
boycott the next election, expected by early 2007, unless rules for a caretaker
administration to oversee the elections - which the Awami League once supported
- are changed. The Awami League fears it cannot win while the BNP maintains its
alliance with Muslim parties, which command 10 percent of the vote.
Apart from divergent attitudes toward
India and the history of the birth of Bangladesh, the parties are divided not by
ideology but by a contest for the spoils of office. That is normal in democratic
politics, but it has been taken to extremes here.
The politicization of administrative
posts sharpens the battle for spoils and contributes to much corruption and big
delays in project implementation. Both parties have a tendency, when out of
office, to take their grievances to an international audience - which, together
with Indian propaganda, has helped earn the nation a much-exaggerated reputation
for religious extremism.
It is hard to know whether either party
could hold together without its hereditary leader, and there is reasonable
concern that however damaging their mutual antipathy, the alternatives to them
might be either a return of the military - currently busy with lucrative UN
peacekeeping duties - or the rise of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, a part of the
BNP-led governing alliance.
While the main parties are firmly
secularist, the Jamaat is using its swing position effectively to acquire more
influence in government than its numbers suggest. The Jamaat has not pressed an
Islamic agenda too overtly, but its ministers have acquired a reputation for
being competent and uncorrupt, which could serve it well if disillusion with the
major parties spreads.
It is all too easy, however, to
overemphasize the dangers of radical Islam here. As in India, there is little
history of Islamic violence - more of leftist violence and general political
thuggery. The bedrock identity of Bangladesh is being Bengali first, Muslim
second. Surrounded by non-Muslim states and far from the Middle East, Bangladesh
is closer in spirit to Southeast Asia than to Pakistan or the Arab world.
Instances of intolerance are the exception not the rule and have been widely
condemned by the news media.
Meanwhile there are also some positive
signs. Although a crackdown on organized crime has led to human rights abuses
and killings of alleged thugs in "crossfires" by the new, quasi military Rapid
Action Battalion, it has been popular and crime has decreased. The news media
remain very free and the economy continues to chalk up 5 percent annual growth
despite natural calamities, the inefficiencies of the government and the
obstructions of business and trade unions with political links.
Aid dependence has fallen steadily and
nongovernmental organizations continue to play a major role in compensating for
official failures. The overall standard of governance leaves much to be desired
but compares favorably with that of at least four of the five Indian states with
which Bangladesh shares its border. Despite recent blemishes, the country's
record of communal peace is far better than that of India. The elite is probably
still capable of enough compromises to prevent it from breaking down.
Politics in Bangladesh does give slightly
more cause for concern than a couple of years ago. The prime minister could make
an extra effort to fight the enemies of pluralism and secularism, to tone down
anti-India rhetoric - which contributes to domestic tensions and incites New
Delhi to play its own politics here - and to rein in the money politics of her
party, whose joint senior secretary is her son Tarique.
But the bottom line is that Bangladesh
remains, with some blemishes, a plural, secular, open and democratic nation
whose virtues are seldom credited and whose problems stem in part from the
electoral arithmetic and financing needs of party politics.
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