Ideas in Bangladeshi politics

Jyoti Rahman

Published by the New Age on 16 Dec 2008.

A Bangladeshi identity has gathered ground since the 1970’s. Does identity politics have a role in today’s Bangladesh?

‘ …the ideas of … philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. …I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval … the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.’
   That’s how John Maynard Keynes finishes his General Theory. This piece discusses ideas that have shaped political alignments in Bangladesh in the past few decades.
   Some might scoff at the very notion that ideas have shaped our politics. There are, after all, ample examples of the basest, most opportunistic political manoeuvrings devoid of any idea other than the naked pursuit of money and power.
   Accepting this, I contend that underlying all else, key differences of ideas have shaped our political alignments. I contend that General Ziaur Rahman built his majority coalition in the late 1970’s on a set of ideas, and another set of ideas provided the basis to the political opposition to his rule. A lot of water has flowed under the Hardinge Bridge in the past three decades, but these ideas are still relevant to our politics. I contend that regardless of what happens on December 29, it is these ideas that will determine our politics in the next decade.
   Differences of ideas that are the easiest to exploit politically are those around ethnic, religious or cultural identity — rallying a group against some ‘other’ group on the basis of identity politics can often trump all else. Bengal’s Hindus and Muslims rallied against each other under communal banners in the 1940’s because each perceived grave threats from the other. East Pakistanis rallied under the Bengali identity in the 1960’s. And a Bangladeshi identity has gathered ground since the 1970’s. Does identity politics have a role in today’s Bangladesh?
   As most Bangladeshis are Bengali Muslims, wedging politics along ethnic or communal lines probably won’t sway the average voter. However, ethnic or religious minorities may mobilise to a degree not seen in the past because, as a result of education and increased awareness, these groups have become much more assertive against their past marginalisation.
   The politics of culture is more complicated. Culture is always evolving, often in unexpected and contradictory ways. The generation that supported the twonation theory is also the generation that refused to relinquish our claim on Tagore as our own. In our own time, Bollywood looms large over the popular culture, and through satellite television and the internet global trends affect us now more than ever before. There was once a debate about our ‘traditional culture’. That debate may or may not have been resolved, but it has most likely been bypassed. As a result of regional and global developments, our culture has evolved in ways unimaginable a generation ago. To use Rushdie’s phrase, we live in a chutneyfied world where cultural purity is a difficult, if not unsustainable, concept.
   This chutneyfication is a result of globalisation. Globalisation — freer flows of goods, people, finance and ideas across international borders — has lifted material standards of living of millions of people around the world. The garments sector and remittances from the émigrés are examples of two benefits of globalisation for Bangladesh. But globalisation, and the market economy as such, do not benefit everyone equally. Globalisation also means that crises are also global, as we have been finding out in recent weeks. And for many, no amount of material gains can compensate for the loss of traditional values and ideals — the chutneyfication — caused by globalisation.
   These criticisms of globalisation are, however, not new. An earlier era of globalisation led to Marx and his revolutionary ideology. Traditionalists in Europe and elsewhere eschewed liberalism, the ideology behind market economy and globalisation, for extreme nationalism that ended in Fascism. In our own time, reactions against globalisation have led to the election of socialist or social democratic parties to power in Latin America and India. And the whole capitalist project has come into question, again, in the past few months.
   Bangladesh doesn’t have any socialist party to speak of, but one can imagine that there are many looking for an alternative to the market economy. Can they mobilise politically? Further, different regions of Bangladesh have not grown evenly in the past quarter century, and if such trends continue, regional disparity can play a major role.
   In today’s Bangladesh, globalisation makes economic integration with India immensely profitable. There have been many, particularly in the corporate sector, supporting a ‘tilt towards India’. And we have witnessed the expression of this in the actions, if not words, of the current and past governments. But there are many for whom anything Indian is anathema. A reflexive antipathy towards our neighbour remains a rallying force for them. Therefore, attitudes towards India will continue to be a major factor, as it has been in the past.
   Some of the reflexive Indophobes espouse radical or fundamentalist Islamist ideologies. In fact, across the Muslim world and among the Muslim diaspora, political Islam provides a potent mix of a promised egalitarian society and cultural purity that appeal to many disaffected by globalisation. Some Islamist factions have chosen violent jihad over electoral democracy. Those who renounce peaceful politics for violent revolution will be primarily confronted by state violence. But political Islamist fundamentalism will remain a force in Bangladesh.
   Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Market economy or socialism, pro-India or anti-India, dealing with political Islam, integrating the minority communities — our politics faced these ideological issues three decades ago. Various pro-market, antiIndia and Islampasand factions supported General Zia. Awami League and other opposition parties drew support from socialists, Indophiles and the minority communities. Since then, these dividing lines may have become blurred, but the underlying questions posed by these ideas remain.
   What could happen in the future?
   Socialism may or may not be a plausible option in Bangladesh, but opposition to globalisationinduced social injustices can be a potent force. An alliance between regionalist and/or populist anti-globalisation factions and Islamists is possible. But ideological incompatibilities make any alliance between social reformers and Islamists difficult. Meanwhile, the past alliance between Indophobes (Islamists and non-Islamists) and the corporate sector will come under pressure given the gains to be made from opening up to India.
   If the corporate supporters of globalisation are willing to address social justice issues through sustained and balanced economic growth, then that may provide the basis for a stable coalition. One can interpret the political experiments of the recent years as a search for such a coalition. But if this coalition cannot win popular support, and deliver social and material progress, then a populist backlash will be inevitable.


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