By Tariq Mahmud
Dr M Adil Khan, a Bangladesh-born Australian and former senior policy manager at the United Nations and currently an Adjunct Professor at the School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia, has written an insightful and comprehensive 50-year history of Bangladesh’s development and governance.
In his seminal work, Dr Adil takes the reader through ‘seven’ eventful ‘governance periods’ in the country’s history in chronological order with narratives that are informative and succinct.
Khan has delineated as to how during the past fifty years, the South Asian nation has made laudable progress in many fields, especially in the economic development, while at the same time, experienced significant and repeated governance missteps in the form of what he calls, the “Constants of Bad Governance (CoBGs).”
Dr Adil has argued that these CoBGs have marred Bangladesh’s enviable economic progress and more worryingly, are threatening to undo the economic gains the country has made during the last five decades.
While narrating Bangladesh’s history in governance, Dr. Adil pointed out that initially, the new born country opted for parliamentary democracy (February 1972-January 1975) as its governing arrangement and a socialistic system to develop the economy.
According to Khan, in foreign relations, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s bold decision to attend the historic inaugural summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Lahore, Pakistan in 1974 forged abiding links with the rest of the world, especially the Muslim Ummah.
However, by early 1975, Bangladesh had taken a U-turn and transited from parliamentary democracy to a one-party presidential authoritarian rule – a move that was antithetical to the aspirations of the people of the new-born nation.
Concurrently, the raising of the ‘Bahinis’ – government militias – the vigilantes composed of the ruling party loyalists was not viewed favourably by the Bangladesh’s young army officers, who had also grown restive at the scale and range of corruption in the government that pervaded the society at the time.
The army, the young Turks rebelled and staged a bloody coup on August 15, 1975, in which Sheikh Mujib, and his family members who were present with him at the time at the house, were assassinated.
In the aftermath of the coup and during a brief interlude following Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, socialism was abandoned in favour of market economy and shifts were also made from secularism towards the country’s Muslim majority heritage, the Islamic identity.
In January 1976, after a series of coups and countercoups, General Ziaur Rehman, the then army chief, took over the country’s reigns as president. He dismantled the one-party system, introduced a multiparty presidential system, and established his own political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP.
After assuming power Ziaur Rahman went about fulfilling two interconnected mission – bring order to the army and the administration and more importantly, build the nation. To engage and empower the grassroots in his nation building mission, Ziaur Rahman initiated the idea of Gram Sarkar, or village government, where villages were given modest funds to pursue local level development through elected councils. Zia’s main thrust in development of Bangladesh was on the primacy of the market economy as an engine of growth and in foreign relations, he focused on deepening ties with Middle Eastern countries, something which Sheikh Mujib had pioneered through his participation at the OIC in Lahore a few years earlier. The latter paid significant dividents as since then the Middle East has emerged as one of the main sources of employment and second largest source of foreign exchange earnings, in the form of remmittances.
Dr Adil notes that in terms of national identity, General Zia honed Bengali nationalism into Bangladeshi nationalism, an identity which was based on Bangladesh’s territorial, cultural and religious heritage, something which he saw as unique and different from that of the Bengalis living in the Indian West Bengal. General Zia remained president for five years until he was killed in a gruesome coup in May 1981, ending his transformative rule.
The next phase in Bangladesh’s governance involved a military takeover by General Ershad who ruled the country until 1990. During his 1982-90 tenure, he prioritised decentralised governance and encouraged privatisation. His rule saw the economy flourishing, but there was also widespread favouritism, nepotism, and corruption, which dulled much of his accomplishments.
Begum Khaleda Zia, wife of the slain General Zia, who had taken up BNP’s leadership after her husband’s death, launched a fierce campaign against the military rule of General Ershad, and eventually partnering with other opposition forces, including the Awami League, successfully toppled the military ruler, Ershad in 1990.
In 1990, Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy, with Khaleda Zia at the helm as the prime minister.
From 1991 till 2006, apart from a military-backed interlude of two years, during 2007-08, in the form of a caretaker government, power has alternated between Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the daughter of Sheikh Mujib, the leaders of Bangladesh’s two main parties namely, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League, respectively.
During the Khaleda/Hasina alternating governing periods, significant progress has been made in economic development, health and education, especially in educating the girl child.
Since 2009, Sheikh Hasina has been in power and is now all set to contest the 2024 general elections for another four-year term. Dr Adil has noted that during Sheikh Hasina’s current tenure, Bangladesh has experienced accelerated economic growth, reduced poverty, and increased foreign exchange earnings through growing remittances from Bangladeshi expatriate workers and from the export of readymade garments. There has been remarkable progress in women empowerment with the number of women employed in both the formal and informal sectors, swelling. Of late, mega projects, such as the construction of the Padma bridge, and the fast-moving metro rail in Dhaka, have become Sheikh Hasina’s and her party, the Awami League’s proud signposts of ‘development.’
Dr Adil, however, notes that notwithstanding these admirable accomplishments, Sheikh Hasina’s tenure has also been mired by allegations of rampant corruption, crony capitalism and democracy deficits where dissent is rising but brutally suppressed, and forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, detentions, custodial torture, and disruption of opposition rallies are common occurrences as have been the pre-engineered electoral results, which seem to have become more the norm than the exception. These all are the hallmarks of an illiberal democracy, a system that has all the trappings of a democracy but not the substance.
Currently, with the aging and ailing opposition leader, Khaleda Zia under house arrest and the opposition in disarray and with the general elections due in early 2024, and with there being no evidence of a level playing field, many are despairing and as does Dr Adil that the chances of free and fair elections in 2024 under the supervision of Sheikh Hasina are not just doubtful but remote.
Dr. Adil may be right. Furthermore, as available evidence suggest that Sheikh Hasina has complete control over the levers of power and at the same time, as she appears to sustain herself through some not-so-invisible external support, challenging her grip on power through means other than free and fair elections is out of question. In this regard, the notable Indian journalist, Shekhar Gupta has argued that as India is no more the favourites of neighbours such as Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal nor with China and Pakistan, it would be keen to bet on Sheikh Hasina, a mutually convenient ally, who has already extended, ex-gratia, to India transit and port facilities and is likely to give more in exchange of the guarantee of her remaining in power.
Summing up Bangladesh’s 50-year accomplishments which are no doubt astounding, and its cumulative challenges, the CoBGs, that are also no less daunting, Dr Adil has argued that presently Bangladesh is in a situation where lack of balance between sustained economic growth and good governance and on the conrary, abundance of the latter is endangering the former, the gains Bangladesh has accomplished during the last five decades.
Dr Adil has further pointed out that despite introducing innovations such as non-party neutral caretaker governments during elections, which did ensure free and fair elections in the past, an arrangement from which the Awami League itself benefitted once and secured an overwhelming majority in the 2009 elections.
though once in power, the party used its parliamentary dominance and scrapped the very system it had once introduced and benefited from. The result of this misstep is that the party has since never ‘lost’ an election, a testimony to the limitations of democracy as is currently practiced, more particularly in Bangladesh.
Citing these examples Dr Adil has suggested that democratic reforms in Bangladesh, where democracy has been used to “kill democracy,” must introduce measures that prevent abuse and help “democratising democracy.”
The author has also emphasised that strengthening moral values and bolstering as well as the qualities of empathy and promotion of sense of morality among citizens are as important if not key to enhancing accountability and transparency in governance and more importantly, in controlling corruption and abuse, which are currently rampant in the country.
Dr Adil has also suggested that promotion of citizenship values, which irrespective of their political choices, empower citizens to make governments accountable, something which is currently missing, must also be taken up as an important aspect of democratic reform.
In sum, recounting Bangladesh’s five decades long trajectory of development and governance and by summarising the journey as a phenomenon of ‘one step forward’ and ‘two-stpes bac’, Dr. Adil has suggested that to create better balance between sustainable development and good governance, a set of urgent “resets” that include but not limited to restoration of democracy and good governance norms such as the rule of law, transparency, and accountability in the government are urgently required.
As Dr. Adil suggests that the time is ripe for change in Bangladesh, his book may also be good marker for the sub-continent itself the phenomenon of ‘one-step forward’ and ‘two-step back’ is not too unfailiar either. Thus time may have come for the sub-continent to take a deep breath and reflect inwardly and mend the ‘Constants of Bad Governance’ to stop pushing them backwards.
Indeed, Dr. Adil’s book on Bangladesh could very well be a reminder to the Sub-continent to appreciate its own CoBGs are deterring if from achieving its unattained potential and stopping it from growing as a democratic, peaceful, and economically mightiest region of the world, together.
This may sound like a tall order but by no means an undoable one. As CoBGs –governance missteps – continue to plague our nations and have trapped us in a vicious cycle of ‘one step forward,’ ‘two steps back’.
Time has come to remind ourselves as Dr Adil has aptly done in his book by quoting the great Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz that:
“This was not the dawn we longed for,
Move on, as we still have a long way to go”!
We must commend Dr M. Adil Khan for his bold and timely discourse on development and governance in Bangladesh that has raised awareness of policies that stimulate growth and about governance missteps that push back a society and in one form or the other, this has been the scenario in Sub-Continent as well. Khan’s comprehensive reset agenda is a helpful roadmap to rectify the ‘Constants of Bad Governance,’ restore democracy, morality and ‘democratise democracy’ in a bid to move forward, together.