Bangladesh at 50: Some reflections

March 26, 2021

For our generation, who grew up when the Bengali nationalist movement was gaining momentum and witnessed the genocide and National Liberation War of 1971, the golden jubilee celebration of Bangladesh is a time for both celebration and reflection. We celebrate our successes and try to identify the reasons behind them. We reflect on our failures and try to understand our mistakes. As we celebrate we need to draw lessons from our achievements as well as shortfalls so that we are better prepared in charting our future path.  

At the time of our independence we were cognizant of the huge challenges we faced in building a new state, consolidating a new nation, rebuilding infrastructure and reviving the economy. But the challenges could not dampen our spirit. After all we had realised an impossible dream; Bangladesh was the first nationalist movement to gain the status of a sovereign independent state in the post-colonial world. We were confident that we would be able to build Sonar Bangla through our own efforts. We were young, our leadership in all sectors were also young.

Steady path of socio-economic development

At that time our greatest worry was about the prospects of our socio-economic development, how we would feed and educate our people, provide health care and other basic necessities with our limited resources, how we would reduce poverty and prosper economically.

Surprisingly in the last 50 years we have made steady progress in all key indicators of socio- economic development. Life expectancy which was 46 years in 1971 is now 72 years. Per capita income which was $120 is now over $2000. We are self-sufficient in food production and we are no longer dependent on foreign assistance. Our achievements in reducing poverty, improving education and health and closing gender gaps are now being analysed and projected in international media.

There is a general consensus that many actions we took early on and continued throughout successive regimes bore fruit. From the beginning we focused on reducing poverty, empowering women, reaching social and financial services to people's doorsteps and allowing people to take their own initiatives in improving their conditions. The cooperation and collaboration between state and non-state actors and our home grown solutions to address our own problems played an important role in driving our achievements.

Breakdowns and renewals in politics

In contrast to steady socio-economic development, our political trajectory has been uneven. After independence we began our journey as a multi-party parliamentary democracy. Within a year Bangladesh adopted a constitution which enshrined four fundamental principles of state, nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism. But in the last 50 years we have faltered in making a steady progress along the path of the founding principles. There have been deviations and breakdown but also renewals.

Democracy was the first foundational principle that came under assault. Within four years post-independence, the state moved in an authoritarian direction and Bangladesh fell under military rule in 1975 which continued for 15 years.

The initial constitutional commitment to two other foundational principles, secularism and socialism were negated when the military took power. Through martial law ordinances the first military ruler removed secularism as a fundamental principle of state, withdrew prohibition on religion-based organisations thus again creating opportunities for abuse of religion for political purposes.

He redefined socialism as "economic and social justice", reversed policies of public ownership over financial institutions and industries and initiated market-friendly policies. These policies were sustained by successive regimes and our mainstream political parties stopped talking about socialism. The second military ruler made Islam the state religion and further widened opportunities for the growth of the private sector. 

A people's movement finally overthrew military rule in 1990. We thought we had been given a second chance to renew our democratic journey. For the next 16 years power rotated between two major political parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) through four elections which were organised by non-party caretaker governments, a system which we devised to ensure fairness of elections and participation of all political parties.

But regular elections and rotation of power did not improve the quality of our democracy. The opposition faced repression and attempts were made to control the media and civil society. The parliament became non-functional as the opposition chose to boycott its sessions and instead resorted to street agitations, hartal and blockades which hurt the economy and peoples' everyday life.  

In 2007 our fragile electoral democracy again broke down and the military intervened when the two major parties failed to agree on the composition of the poll-time government. A military-backed civilian government ruled for two years. It finally organised an election in 2008 which was won by the AL-led Grand Alliance. The victorious Alliance made electoral promises to improve the quality of our democracy. We again hoped that we would have a third chance for democratic renewal.

But in 2011 the poll-time non-party caretaker government system was abolished and since then the AL and the BNP could not agree on a mutually acceptable formula for participating in elections. The BNP led alliance boycotted the 2014 elections where the majority of seats were won uncontested by members of the ruling alliance. In the 2018 elections the BNP and the other opposition parties contested the elections at the last moment but there were allegations of widespread vote abnormalities. Since 2014 our elections have lost credibility.

Undemocratic practices in electoral democracy

Since the return of electoral democracy in 1990 Bangladesh had consistently scored low in all global surveys of democracy. Our scores had been particularly low in the 'rule of law' indicator. The independence of what is known as horizontal accountability institutions which means government institutions that are mandated to demand accountability of the executive branch such as the parliament, judiciary, ACC, EC, Human Rights Commission etc. are important in establishing checks and balances and ensuring rule of law. The low score on 'rule of law' underscores not only the weakness of our democratic institutions, it also highlights the lack of security of our citizens who cannot be sure that their basic human rights will be guaranteed by the state.

In contrast to low score in the rule of law, the 'voice' indicator, which measures the strength of the vertical accountability institutions, which means accountability of the government to the citizens was showing steady progress since 1991. Vertical accountability is measured by freedom of the media and civil society, free and fair elections etc. But in recent years the 'voice' indicator is also showing a declining trend. The flawed elections, repression of political opposition and measures to control the media have raised concerns about the democratic future of Bangladesh.

Looking forward

Bangladesh has made significant strides in social and economic development. The state is now much stronger than it was 50 years ago. Our economy is also now on a much stronger footing. This should enable us to feel more confident and prioritise the task of building stable democratic institutions which will sustain our ambition of long-term development and becoming a developed country in another 20 years.

The challenges of building and strengthening democratic institutions are many and we need actions on various fronts. Here I will prioritise work on three areas. First, our media and civil society organisations should be given full freedom to work independently so that they can perform their role as accountability institutions. The Digital Security Act which has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression needs to be revised in consultation with relevant stakeholders.

Second we need to restore the credibility of our electoral process. We have demonstrated in the past that we are capable of organising free, fair, peaceful and participatory elections. What we now need is the political will to organise such credible elections again. To achieve that goal all political parties need to come to an understanding that they will give up the practice of 'winner takes all' culture that had made our politics confrontational and exclusionary, and marginalised the loser thus making our political discourse intolerant with little space for public reasoning.

Third, we will need to work to reestablish citizens' trust in the rule of law where one law for all will prevail without partisan application of law enforcement. It is a difficult task but we need to shift from an access-based to a rule-based system.

Rounaq Jahan is a Political Scientist, Writer and Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD)

Reprinted from The Daily Star