Bangladesh has one constant: the country is consistently inconsistent when it comes to its political climate. The economic scenarios, as a result, range from one of high hopes to high levels of uncertainty. There is talk of double-digit growth and then suddenly nothing is moving, much like its terrible traffic in the capital.
Just think of 2013. Even some of the staunchest of supporters of the governing Awami League were skeptical of survival beyond the election in early 2014. Some of them had even sent themselves packing to destinations they deemed safe. Barely three months after the 5 Jan 2014 vote, the challengers lost their steam and the incumbents regained their confidence. ‘Wait another five years for another election’ was the statement released in no time that defined the body language and the daily dose of rhetoric from the politicians in power. For much of 2014 and all of 2015, it’s been all quiet on the political front.
Ironically, even when the world powers suffered and frantically groped for ways of coming out of their dark economic abyss, Bangladesh cruised on comfortably. Exports were steady, plus a comfortable balance of payments thanks largely to Bangladesh nationals toiling hard overseas, inflation within means, dream infrastructure projects getting off the ground and everything else that gave rise to argument at the end of 2015 that a somewhat poor quality of democracy was an acceptable price for development.
Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, is a great survivor. Her absence helped in 1975; the years after her return in 1981 were not easy with occasional attempts on her life; her party’s return to power after 21 years ensured that the biggest political outfit by popular endorsement had retained its ranking; the dismal showing at the 2001 polls and the August 2004 attempts could have wiped her off politically and physically; the 11 months in solitary confinement in a bungalow-turned-prison and a travesty of a trial that went with it on the most ludicrous of charges were a time for reflection.
Unfortunately, much of what characterised the days of military-controlled caretakers is still there; many of those who hobnobbed with the men in uniform in 2007-8 and their cronies are in comfortable positions.
The threat is still there – on her life, as well as on her government. Her style of pursuing her political agenda will continue to come under attack –in some cases justifiably – in the days to come. That portends ill for Bangladesh’s stability, key to growth and the dream of development. We sought to ask her how she proposed to deal with all that. There was simply not enough time, before this publication went to press, to get her answers.
The finance minister, at 82, known to be the oldest in the world at the moment for such a crucial job, continues to sound confident after seven straight years in office. He reasons why, in an exhaustive conversation, and how the government agenda is on track.
Khaleda Zia has her points too. The former prime minister asserts why and how she remains relevant and still offers hope and better options. The defiance and fiery image that have crucially marked her political career are noticeably dimming. What could really be a rare interview of the leader of the second largest political party did not eventually materialise; the blame was put squarely on her health.
Why did we even decide to put a part of the spotlight on Hussein Muhammad Ershad, the general who was so ignominiously ousted from office in December 1990? A quarter of a century on, he does create ripples in Bangladesh politics and continues to remain true to his old reputation as CMLA – the acronym that defined his peculiar official title that is known or practised only in this part of the world; in the early 1980s, his civil servants – although in awe of him in public – would in private jokingly use the acronym for ‘Cancel My Last Announcement’. An interview was planned, but as one of his top advisers confided in us, this was not the right time for the 85-year-old to face a grueling question-answer session.
But for all the issues and the crises that this densely-populated delta – housing 160 million in just 55 thousand square miles – struggles to deal with, the daily business for quite a few million is designed to find a couple of meals of any kind. Their number is decreasing, fortunately, not as fast as one would expect though.
From climate refugees to bridging one of the mightiest rivers, from reforming public services to reducing (removing is an absurd idea) corruption, from trying the 1971 war criminals to facilitating harmony in a society faced with deadly radicalisation orchestrated by local religious zealots and their cohorts in mainstream politics, the results have been mixed so far. Will 2016, the third year of Hasina’s second term of her second stint as prime minister, be different?
Anti-poverty fighters such as Sir Fazle Hasan Abed continue to ignite the spark of hope. He seeks to draw a road map to development, and fellow fighter Khushi Kabir throws light on women and climate challenges.
The head of the central bank and pioneers in such areas as mobile financial services remain upbeat, while giant-killing national cricketers remained a source of pride in the past 12 months. So what’s gone wrong with the once-soccer-mad millions?
The global agenda is best left to those who deal with it best.