The present government of Bangladesh has proved itself to be the most powerful government of all times in the country’s history by establishing total control over all institutions. After the one-sided election of 2014, the manner in which it has monopolised power over the past five years has broken all past records. It has projected the picture of ‘development’ to justify its sweeping powers, control, oppression and repression.
The development model projected by the government is nothing new. It has been continuing over the past few decades, having taken tangible shape in the eighties. This model of capital growth is globally known as the ‘neo-liberal model’. Ironically, it is only liberal where capital is concerned, but invasive when it comes to people and nature, and is strongly conservative in stance. This model opens up the world for a handful of people to boost their profits. Places, forests, rivers, hills, education, medical treatment, agriculture, land, everything becomes their means to make profit, regardless o the consequences to life, livelihoods, lives, nature, air, water and security. The responsibility of the state of government towards the people is extensively diminished and various business enterprises take priority instead.
The corporate community at home and abroad has nothing but applause for the present government’s unabashed march ahead to fulfill all these agendas with little or no regard for public opinion, laws and consequences for the country. And it is with the same determination that the ruling party and others have nominated Bangladesh’s biggest loan defaulters, bank looters, people who have robbed their public through share market scams, killers, drug lords, forest and river grabbers and the likes, as candidates in the coming election. All of these people are the protagonists, beneficiaries and drivers of this development model. The election is a means to further their power, through which this trend of ‘development’ will strengthen further too. We will soon see more of more public resources going to private hands, the destruction of forests and rivers, increase in the cost of living and more people being marginalised.
This model stimulates fast financial growth, increases affluence. It spurs on multifaceted corruption. It trickles down and creates a new wealthy class among a section of the middle class beneficiaries who lap up the dregs. For instance, the commercialisation of education and healthcare not only boosts the earnings of the businesspersons, but also of a section of teachers and physicians. In the frenzy of land grabbing, land prices have shot up, creating an illusion of development.
With no accountability in investment, it grows at the risk of the people. It creates opportunities for shady enterprise. In the meantime, the tax net spreads to increase government revenue, public service costs go up. This enhanced income spreads by various means to the educated middle class who mobilize public opinion. They become the main supporters and advocates of this model.
International capital is quite comfortable with this model. It is easier and cheaper to enter. And they are even more enthusiastic to invest if the government of the concerned country has little regard for environmental or social concerns and if they can do as they please, siphoning off their profits abroad in exchange for a commission or other such favours.
A multitude of environmentally harmful projects of India, China, Japan, Russia and the US, such as the Rampal coal-fired power plant or the Rooppur nuclear power plant, are being implemented in Bangladesh. India has ample political clout, China’s power lies in its funds. Every project has a large number of financial ‘beneficiaries’ and the demands of the powerful has increased manifold. And that is why construction costs of roads, bridges and other projects in Bangladesh are higher than anywhere else in the world.
The government is now propagating a concept of ‘development democracy’. The government is celebrating the success of its unprecedented authoritarian rule as a decade of development. We have seen twice before in the past such decades of autocracy and development. One was during the sixties under the rule of General Ayub Khan, the other as in the eighties under general Ershad.
There is similarity between those two decades, but differences too. The similarity is in the sheer volume of infrastructure projects and the lack of transparency in the finance. The main difference between the present decade and those two of the past is that the former two autocrats did not have organised public support. In both of those instances, after ascending to power though martial law, the autocrats tried to use state power to establish public support. Ayub Khan’s ‘basic democracy’ was used to spread the power net to the union level. Ershad made similar attends through the upazila system. But the present government came to power along with strong and organised public support. In those past two decades, no large political party was at the centre, the parties had to be formed later.
This time the oldest active and largest political party in the history of Bangladesh is at the centre of state activities. This government’s support base extends to the remote areas of the country. Huge mass uprisings were generated against those past two autocratic rules. No such public resistance has been forged against the present government, as it has considerable public support. According to political theory, when autocracy is buoyed by public support, a propensity towards fascist politics and culture emerges.
The present development trend has also made the election into a ‘market election’. The vote trade, even buying and selling candidates, is not new. But in the past this was an exception to the rule, it was considered reprehensible. At present it is very common and socially accepted. From the onset of the election onwards, it’s all about financial transactions, profits, trading and so on. This form of market election is unprecedented. Many veterans, tried and tested leaders and workers of the ruling party, have fallen to one side, ousted by this market competition. They have been replaced by those who successful in the market competition.
The ceiling of expenditure in the election has been set at 2.5 million taka. Even if this is multiplied by a hundred, it is still less than the actual expenditure of many. One spends even more on just expressing interest to contest in the polls. Huge amounts are spent on creating the possibility to be nominated, on creating the horde of supporters and associates when going to buy the nomination papers. It takes time, efforts an ample amount of money to be nominated. A large number of candidates contribute to their respective parties to ensure their nomination. Only then does the actual expenditure begin.
How much is spent? No less than 10 million taka for sure, with perhaps a few zeroes added at the end? Nowadays in just a union parishad election you hear of 10 million taka being spent. This will naturally multiply many times over when it comes to the parliamentary polls. It will not be possible to tally this expenditure with income sources. In common terms this is called black money, politely referred to as ‘undisclosed’ sums. Bluntly speaking, this is stolen money earned through corrupt means and is the main driving force of the election. Needless to say, this money is just an investment to be retrieved multiple times over. The present development trend has generated this money and is expedient for multiplying this many times more.
* Anu Muhammad is an economist and professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University. This piece appeared in print in Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir
Source: Prothom Alo.