Friday, January 25, 2013

On The Guardian’s forecast about Bangladesh

The Independent
26 December, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

At a time when good news about the country has become almost a sparse commodity, it was very heartening to read what has been written in The Guardian about the future of the Bangladesh economy. It is no longer a matter of becoming a middle income country anymore. If we are to believe in the article in The Guardian that appeared in its December 18th issue, Banagladesh may be a first world country by the year 2050 and that is not all. Bangladesh may also overtake some of the first world economies.

The year 2050 is unfortunately in the distant future, still nearly four decades away.  Nevertheless this news about Bangladesh is what may be described as the substance of a dream. Economics is not my subject. I would like to see the economists of the country debate on this projection of The Guardian because the news has appeared before us very suddenly and the article has not really come up with arguments, statistics, facts that would rest the case beyond being the subject of a dream. History and politics do not convince me seriously enough to believe in the story of The Guardian the way I would love to.

Bangladesh emerged in 1971 as an independent and sovereign nation under the impact of further reshaping of nations that had emerged in the aftermath of the First and Second World War as a consequence of decolonization. Pakistan was created hurriedly in 1947 because the British knew that the forces of decolonization were too strong for them to stay in India any longer. In their hurry, they divided India and created Pakistan as a homeland for the Muslims who were convinced as a consequence of their (British) policy of divide and rule, they had no future in an undivided India. While history has given its verdict that there was no alternative to dividing India in 1947; subsequent history has also established that Pakistan was created for solution of one problem but ended in creating another.

Pakistan was created on issue of religion that made sense in 1947. Nevertheless, it was also an attempt of creating a state out of two different and divergent peoples and that too with an enemy territory dividing its two parts. The mindset of the Pakistani rulers brought out the differences quicker than what many expected. An attempt to treat East Pakistan as a colony of West Pakistan polarized the two wings politically bringing into the forefront Bengali nationalism. The decision of the Pakistani rulers to deal with this rising nationalism by brute force and ultimate genocide was thwarted as the nation came together under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Bangladesh’s emergence in 1971 was a head start that it got compared to other states that were created after the first and Second World War that were eventually broken; like for instance the former USSR and the former Yugoslavia. Many new states also emerged in East Europe as a consequence. Compared to these new states, Bangladesh was what can aptly be described as a nation builder’s dream. All the factors that create a successful nation state were present when Bangladesh started its journey in 1971. Its only divide was it had a 10% Hindu population but that factor too was irrelevant because of the liberal Islam that was present in Bangladesh at the time of its emergence, its liberal Islam being the result of the influence of Sufism. Over everything, the people of Bangladesh had emerged like no other nation emerged in history; a nation united like a monolith. In Sheikh Mujibur Rahman it had a leader to whom the people gave loyalty that no leader, not even Nelson Mandela, Mao Tse Tung, had received for their respective peoples.

It is a matter of a sad refection into history that the country that had come together united by the blood and sacrifices of millions did not achieve the possibilities that is emergence with a head start over states that emerged as a breakdown of imperfect states in the post Second World War had opened up. True the country was war ravaged to the rulers of the first Bangladesh government. Nevertheless, it was the breakdown in the unity that was achieved in 1971 that held back Bangladesh from achieving the potentials that its independence brought to its people. The establishment of the one party rule in 1974 was the anti-thesis of the very spirit that had brought Bangladesh together. International conspiracy also was responsible for what happened in Bangladesh in the tumultuous years of 1975; for taking Bangladesh in the opposite course from the reasons why it became independent.

The rest is history. Bangladesh is still searching that unity and in that search, becoming more and more disunited. A vibrant private sector and the efforts of the NGOs have brought about a transformation in the economy and society. In society, in what Noble Laureate Amarta Sen has said many times, Bangladesh is years ahead of India in the social indicators of economic development. Its economy is now over US$ 100 billion making it a country worth taking note even in economic terms. It is in a way a slap in the face of Dr. Henry Kissinger who had said Bangladesh would be an “international basket case” at the time of its emergence.

Nevertheless, Bangladesh is still a LDC and in economic terms; its per capita income still in the low US$ 700s. Its growth rate of slightly over 6% is good enough to keep it floating but not enough for the breakthrough it needs to become middle income group for which it would need a growth rate close to the double digit. Over all these possibilities and prospects, including the distant prediction of The Guardian, the politics of the country hangs literally like the Sword of Damocles over its future. The ruling party still insists that it would hold the next general elections under its supervision with Sheikh Hasina as the interim Prime Minister as this is the constitutional necessity. The BNP opposes this stand and says it is determined to force the government to accept its demand.

There is apprehension everywhere in the country that serious threats to the nation would emerge if the issue of the next elections is not resolved satisfactorily. The ruling party’s General Secretary has said that the country is moving towards a civil war. These are serious issues against which the dream prediction of The Guardian becomes abstract; like one is even afraid to consider such a dream for temporary relief from the dangers that many, even the ruling party by its SG’s public utterances, are alluding. Unless this great danger ahead is resolved satisfactorily and the lost unity of 1971 in some form is regained, the dream that The Guardian has raised would remain just a dream.

For setting its politics in order that is the key to its future, Bangladesh should take a leaf out of Egypt where the politicians are letting the people decide if the political process is moving in the right direction. In particular, the Bangladesh ruling party should follow the move by the Egyptian ruling party to let the people decide by referendum the validity of the constitution it drafted. The Bangladesh ruling party should also go for a referendum to find out whether the people want the next elections to be held under a neutral caretaker government or under an interim government headed by incumbent Prime Minister. For the moment, the people of the country are too worried about their immediate future to have the luxury of dreaming on The Guardian’s report.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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