January 2, 2024
DHAKA – Rehman Sobhan, one of the most respected public intellectuals of Bangladesh and ever an optimist, seemed ambivalent in predicting what our future holds while speaking on the theme of the “The Continuing War of Liberation” on December 23 in Bangla Academy. Prof Sobhan said that the political consensus unravelled soon after liberation, and for a second time when democracy was supposed to have been “restored” after public upheaval in 1990, when the common understanding among politicians fell apart. The economy has done better than predicted, belying the epithet of “the basket case,” he said. But disparity has increased, with 10 percent of the population owning 40 percent of the national income. Social injustice was on the rise as institutions were undermined. “We won independence, but not freedom,” Prof Sobhan said.
A crony economy (or, crony capitalism) is a situation in which businesses profit from a close relationship with state power through an anti-competitive regulatory environment, direct government largesse, and outright corruption. Businesses thrive not as a result of free enterprise, but through collusion between a business class and the political class. Money is made not merely from making a profit in the market, but by profiteering through rent-seeking using one’s monopoly or oligopoly power. Crony capitalism spills over into the government, politics, and the media. This nexus then distorts the economy and affects society to an extent that it corrupts economic, political, and social ideals and practices.
Bangladesh has turned into a textbook case of crony capitalism. Two-thirds of the members in the outgoing parliament are businessmen who buy nominations and contest elections as a business investment. The concept of conflict of interest for parliament members and government ministers does not exist. This is evident from the astronomical growth of wealth and income of parliament members and ministers as stated in their declaration of nomination papers. Loan defaulting has increased exponentially during the rule of the present regime. Only a week ago, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) reported that Tk 92,000 crore has been looted via bank scams over the last 15 years. The law named Quick Enhancement of Electricity and Energy Supply (Special Provisions) Act, 2010 is even better known as the indemnity act because the law itself states it cannot be challenged in court. It is under this law that Tk 1.05 trillion were paid to 73 independent power plants over the last 14 years as capacity charges only, and not even for the plants to produce or supply power.
Five decades after liberation, a credible electoral process allowing citizens to exercise their choice regarding who represents them in the legislative body has not been worked out. Politics has been captured by the nexus of an oligopoly of business interests and the willingly colluding political class. The hijacking of the political process at the local, municipal, and national level has been smoothly accomplished by all stripes of politicians, represented by major parties Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Jatiya Party, and a motley collection of leftist and religious parties. The principal opposition to the regime, led by BNP, being an accomplice of the oligopolic capture of the political process, has not been able to mobilise strong enough public support for challenging the Awami League for the last three parliamentary terms. The demand for the regime stepping down as a condition for participating in elections by BNP has not offered an authentic vision of change from the captive politics that prevails in the country. Nor has it offered an alternative to the degradation and politicisation of major state institutions, such as public administration, law enforcement, and the legal system, as well as the statutory institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission, Anti-Corruption Commission, and the Election Commission.
Despite the criticisms, the general perception about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s handling of the growth performance of the economy, launching and completing major infrastructure projects, and her geopolitical balancing in the region against the postures of global powers has helped garner public support for her. The sentiment among many still seems to be, “If not Sheikh Hasina, then who?”
The 12th parliamentary election set to be held on January 7 is not predicted to bring about a change of government. The character of the contenders from the ruling party, the so-called king’s parties, the sundry independents, the announced election manifestos, and the nature of the campaign do not portend a post-election change in the contours of the prevailing captive politics and the crony economy.
The only way the future scenario for the country and the long-suffering common people can change is if Sheikh Hasina concedes the untenability of the course of present politics and the economy. And if she sees the need for genuine change that would lead us back to the vision that inspired the declaration of independence and the principles of the constitution—building a society and a nation guided by democracy, socialism, nationalism, and secularism.
These generic principles have to be given contemporary interpretation and turned into practical actions from mere rhetoric. An important step in this direction, post-election, would be for the prime minister of the new government to announce a constitution commission that will bring about amendments to the constitution, which has been mangled opportunistically several times. A referendum could be held on amendments for proportional representation, decentralisation of administration (including creation of provinces with their own legislatures), greater balancing of power between the executive and the legislature, and protecting the independence of the judiciary and of the statutory bodies.
Other measures to which the prime minister could commit would be to bring about democracy in their party to allow leadership to emerge from the grassroots (via democratic choices), take the economy back from the clutches of the oligopoly by letting the regulatory and financial institutions function independently (without political interference), allow the educational system and institutions to be led by educationists (free from political influence), promote genuine tolerance of freedom of expression, and not use the law enforcers for political control.
One may ask: why would Sheikh Hasina have such a radical change of heart? She would if she considered the legacy she would wish to leave behind. Should it be a legacy of kleptocracy and oligopoly control over the economy, that lets a small group hold the future of the nation hostage? Or a legacy that puts the true vision of the liberation struggle back on track, perhaps in 2024?