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As the eleventh national parliamentary election grows ever closer, people at home and abroad have begun to wonder how the political landscape will look in a few months. Will the Awami League maintain its dominance? Will the BNP regain a position in government? Will violence prevent ordinary citizens from making use of that most inalienable right – the right to vote? Only time can tell. But, sometimes, I wonder if we are missing the forest for the trees. As a decades-long participant in this country’s politics, I feel I have enough grounding to make a bold claim: I believe that our country will continue to develop no matter which political party is in power.
Some will say that this is sheer optimism. And, yes, I have often been accused of being an optimist. But we must also step back and realise the degree and swiftness with which our world is changing around us.
Then there are the ride-sharing services that have undercut the CNG drivers’ monopoly, easing the burden of transport on residents of major cities. Consider the online stores that allow customers to browse, select, customise and pay for their needs and have them delivered to their doorstep when convenient. Or the activists who speak out and coordinate over social media. And the teachers are using online platforms to continue education outside the classroom – coordinating groups for school projects on social media, sharing learning materials and taking exams. Let us not forget the students themselves who now have access to more knowledge than ever before with virtual troves of books and academic papers and other learning materials. Our Digital Bangladesh is simply brimming the opportunity and potential.
And this potential is being realised by the young people, who build upon the successes they see elsewhere and tailor their solutions to the needs of the people in Bangladesh. To give just one example – I hear many young men in Dhaka say they use Pathao, a homegrown service that uses motorcycles as zippy ways to avoid the traffic. And those of a more adventurous and hardy nature take to the road on their bicycles, getting their daily exercise while excising the tedium of long commutes.
The young people have already transformed Bangladesh. They have ingenuity and a hunger for innovation. They are the most educated generation this country has ever seen. They will be the ones to realise our dreams for the country. And I do not believe any political party or faction will be able to stand in their way.
This does not absolve old-timers of all responsibility. We must do our best to facilitate this progress.
Our first step must be to get out of the way. As a foreign friend once told me: “The biggest problem with this country is that no one knows how to retire.” Those of our generation who were forged in the fires of 1971 have always felt a duty to help bring about the nation our freedom fighters had dreamt of. Our success is that we have made a Bangladesh where the nation owns what it has built. It is that we have spent the income of the people to develop our economy.
But we are coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of our independence. Perhaps some of us have clung on too long.
I do not exclude myself from this advice. Though I have been blessed to receive the respect and support of my constituency’s leaders for decades, they must also have ambitions of, one day, moving further up in the world. It is difficult, though, to let go when one feels the pull of public service.
But our country deserves fresh leadership, a young leadership that understands and supports change, that is efficient and that operates on a post-independence paradigm that can help us overcome our growing pains. They will be the generation that not only completes our goal of eliminating poverty, but moves past it to ensure that all our citizens have a good quality of life. They will form a liberated post-colonial state that does not rely on old, outdated laws, but instead forges them anew for the new world in which they live.
To do this we must also bring about a structural change in our way of governance. At present everyone is reliant on the central government. All local government leaders look to the centre because it has the funds and control of all major projects. Such a system cannot adequately address local needs because the vast majority of undertakings, even at the upazila level, have to receive support from Dhaka. We must encourage self-reliance and decentralisation of power and decision-making. We can either have a pluralistic system that is broad, diverse and responsive to the needs of the local population, or one that is controlled and operated from the central government. This must also apply to private enterprise, freeing up opportunity and facilitating further economic through the construction of infrastructure and the removal of unnecessary regulation.
It applies to another fundamental freedom – the freedom of speech. This freedom cannot simply be in the books, but must be realised in such a way that people’s thoughts and opinions are not curtailed, but expressed. Our country must be one where people can live free of fear despite their views and disagreements. A system must be developed that allows ordinary citizens to challenge power and corruption. A democracy can only address its central problems if it leaves itself the space for discussion and debate. I believe this change will come eventually. The younger generation is intelligent, innovative and indomitable. They will find a way to assert their independence, even if we do not assist them.
Implementing these suggestions will mean change. But our leaders must not be afraid of change. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus said, change is the only constant. They must work with it, and take advantage of it. This is what our younger generation is doing. It is what drives their success. It is what will lead to Bangladesh’s development. I do not think it is possible to stop it. But it is possible for us to help them realise that dream faster, fairer and more efficiently.
Anwar Hossain Manju is the Minister of Water Resources for the government of Bangladesh and has served in several administrations over the course of a decades-long political career.