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Awami League in Bangladesh

By: Kazi Anwarul Masud
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(The author is former Secretary and ambassador of Bangladesh)

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Perhaps for the good of the world, in the two extremes, one developed and the other least developed country, fate has given the reins of governance to Barak Obama and Sheikh Hasina at a time when many politicians would have been hesitant to take up the challenges which are daunting at the first flush and seemingly impossible to solve in the short term. Indeed both the leaders appear to have not only courage but confident of the confidence of the people that in case of Obama has brought about the crossing of the Rubicon and the completion of an impossible dream of a preacher dreamt decades ago and in case of Sheikh Hasina outburst of the populace against the kleptocracy of the BNP-Jamaat combine that deepened poverty in one of the poorest countries of the world. As both the leaders are finding out it may be easier to win public affection but to deliver socio-economic and political goods in the face of global meltdown is not an easy task. Ruling Awami League promised Vision 2021 of a digital Bangladesh that gives hope to a desperately poor but impatient people who would like to see the fruits of development today and not wait for another decade to reap the benefits. To curb unnecessary criticism the Awami League manifesto published before the election gave details of incremental governmental program from 2010 t0 2021. The fundamental contingency for the success of the plan remains uninterrupted practice of democracy as only democracy can provide accountability from the governors. In early last century a prominent US politician had remarked that democracy deficit can only be met with greater democracy. Free and fair expression of the will of the people is non-negotiable. To quote German political theorist Jurgen Habermas: " The State"s raison d"etre does not lie primarily in the protection of equal individual rights but in the guarantee of an inclusive process of opinion and will-formation in which free and equal citizens reach an understanding on which goals and norms lie in equal interest of all". Taking practice of democracy as given Awami League led Sheikh Hasina government will have to decide on the path to be taken to bring the country out of the morass.

But for the global meltdown the world would have been satisfied with Alan Greenspan"s claim that the long standing debate between the virtues of the economies of free market and those governed by centrally planned socialism is over. The present administration would have to face with the choice of taking a path between political and developmental approach to democracy promotion. Political approach proceeds from a relatively narrow conception of democracy focused on the election and political liberty and a society in which democrats have an upper hand over non-democrats. Developmental approach rests on a broader notion of democracy encompassing concern for equality and justice. It favors democratization as a process of long term political and socio-economic development. Democracy is valuable in its own right but is secondary to a core developmental rationale.

Economic development, as it is understood now, really started in 1930s though Adam Smith and Schumpeter did not ignore the developmental aspects of economics. Early concept of economic development basically put emphasis on growth and industrialization. Europe and the US were considered as developed and the other areas of the world were considered as primitive versions of European nations that would develop by stages. Walt W Rostow"s Stages of Economic Development stressed that Europe and North America were at a linear stage of development that the underdeveloped countries would eventually catch up with. He argued all countries must develop through a number of stages starting with traditional agrarian society and culminating in a modern industrialized society. The key to this transformation was seen to be mobilization of domestic and foreign resources for investment in economic growth. Capital formation was considered as crucial to accelerate development. High savings leading to high growth as a "virtuous circle" and low savings leading to low growth and the reverse as a "vicious circle" that could be changed through governmental intervention. This robotic development presupposed fruits of growth to trickle through from the top to the lower parts of society that ignored the concept of equity and justice that every society demands. The 1974 Cocoyoc Declaration asserted that the purpose of "a growth strategy that benefits only the wealthiest minority or even increases disparity between and within a country is no development at all. It is exploitation". This should naturally bring up the question of the type of economic philosophy that the Bangladesh government should follow. If there were supporters of unbridled capitalism who doubted the social democracy practiced by Scandinavian countries and held on to Adam Smith"s minimalist role of the government for economic prosperity, the present global meltdown should have convinced that their brand of economic philosophy just does not work. Since the essence of Awami League"s political philosophy is to provide a better way of life to the down trodden people it the economic philosophy of the ruling combine has already been defined by the Prime Minister with a warning to her cabinet colleagues that their retention in the cabinet will be performance based.

The party that for the more than fifty years had been fighting against the exploitation of the Bengalis by then rulers of West Pakistan went through a transformation from Socialist Party to one of left of center. Awami League"s post-independence advocacy of socialism was influenced by the unstinted support extended by then Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc apart from India in the United Nations and beyond at a time when the US under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State for US" own strategic reasons totally opposed the creation of Bangladesh. Stalinist authoritarian communism having been obliterated from global governance some would favor British Prime Minister Clement Atlee"s "transformative democratic socialism" that provided a strong welfare state, fiscal redistribution, and selective nationalization as a model. British Labor Minister Anthony Crosland felt that it was possible to achieve greater social equality without the need for fundamental economic transformation. He favored fruits of accelerated growth to be invested in pro-poor public services than in fiscal redistribution. A complementary view has been expressed by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz"s support of an economic development where, in his words, there will be : "moral growth­growth that is sustainable, that increases living standard not just today but for future generations as well, and that leads to a more tolerant, open society". The idea is to avoid a situation as in the US today where 20% of the wealth is possessed by only one percent of the population. Since God in His infinite wisdom has capped the extent of consumption by an individual, despite his proclivity towards wastage, the surfeit of wealth has been channeled mostly into productive areas creating employment generating multiplier income effect. But the recession in the Western economies that is expected to continue for a few years, despite billions of dollars/pounds being injected by the governments, has not been able to regenerate Western economies. The developing world, particularly the least developed among them, being mostly open economies and consequently being dependant on the West for aid and trade would be adversely affected. Our main export earners are export of ready made garments that is likely to lose market. Besides remittance of Bangladeshi expatriates working abroad, is likely to shrink. Mahajot government will have to take measures to extend tax net, apprehend tax dodgers, widen the export basket, widen the war on corruption in all areas etc ( the list is not exhaustive) to make up for the expected loss of external revenue. Bangladesh has one of the lowest tax-GDP ratios in the world. Another way of state earning could be to expeditiously bring back into the country the money illegally stashed away by the rich and the powerful during BNP-Jamaat rule (2001-2005).

In sum the global meltdown has brought about an opportunity for the people to rethink whether neo-liberalism of the past decades that was based on orthodox developmental theory that production, distribution, and consumption of all commodities should be left to market forces without governmental intervention for an economy to reach the heights of progress is the best way. This approach had ignored the problem of "a silent crisis­a crisis of underdevelopment, of global poverty, or ever mounting population pressure, of thoughtless degradation". Given the expectations of the people commitment and wisdom in crafting socio-economic policies are called for.

Kazi Anwarul Masud

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