Bangladesh: Give me back my country

When Tahmima Anam went home to Dhaka to cast her vote in the now-postponed election, she found a nat

On 10 January 1972, my father came home to his country for the first time. It was three weeks after the end of the Bangladesh war, and he was making his way back from India, where he had enlisted with the newly formed Bangladesh army. When I think about that day, I always wonder what country my father thought he was returning to. Surely it was a thing of his imagination, born out of the years marching against the Pakistani occupation, the months touring India to gain support for the war, the gruelling training at the officers' camp in West Bengal. I can picture the shock that he and his fellow freedom fighters must have felt when they finally did cross that border, seeing their imagined country and their real country meet for the first time.

The Bengali phrase desh-prem means "love for the country". Like many expatriate Bangladeshis, my desh-prem makes me believe there will come a day when I pack my bags and leave London for good. My desh-prem is a long-distance affair, full of passion and misunderstanding; often, my heart is broken. Many Bangladeshis never actually return home; it is more of an idea, something to turn over in our hearts before we go to sleep, but for me the prospect of returning is real. In 1990, after 14 years abroad, my parents left their jobs with the United Nations and moved back to Bangladesh. So many of their friends told them they were foolish to return to a country that had so little to offer, but in the latter months of that year, Hossain Mohammad Ershad's military dictatorship was toppled by massive public action of a kind not seen since the days of the independence movement. So the country my family returned to was bathed in hope, and, almost two decades after the birth of Bangladesh, we finally seemed on the brink of becoming a functioning democracy.

Sixteen years after Ershad's dramatic fall, Bangladesh is a very different place. We have had three national elections, and our two main political parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League, have handed power back and forth to each other like a baton in a relay, each election becoming successively more bitter, and each five-year term bringing dramatic increases in corruption and partisan politics. Amazingly, when the Awami League was in power, the BNP refused to attend parliament; when the BNP was in power, the Awami League refused to attend. As a result, the people we mandated to represent us in government failed to discharge their responsibilities, instead taking to the streets and announcing that their defeat was engineered and not willed by the voting public.

In Bangladesh, elections come hand in hand with claims of vote-rigging. Where there is an election and a transfer of power, there will inevitably be rumours of conspiracy, of stolen ballot boxes and hijacked polling stations. Whether and to what degree these rumours are true is almost less important than the assumption that a sitting government cannot hold a fair election. Therefore, in 1995, the constitution was amended to include a peculiar and rather clever system of handing power to a caretaker government that is responsible for holding a fair election. According to the constitution, the last retired chief justice of the Bangladesh Supreme Court becomes chief adviser to the caretaker government. He has the authority of a prime minister, and is given the responsibility of appointing a cabinet, together with which he will govern the country for no more than 90 days. During this time his main tasks will be to oversee fair and non-partisan elections and to hand over power to the newly elected government.

So far, so good. But as plans go, this one is not foolproof. Although the arrangement worked on the first two occasions, this time around the BNP felt it could not afford to lose the election. All the signs indicated that if the election was free and fair, the BNP would be defeated by the Awami League. After five years of alleged corruption, theft and autocracy, it was faced with the possibility that it would actually have to be accountable for the crimes it had committed during its tenure. The excesses of previous regimes were mild compared with those perpetrated during those five years, which saw an alliance between the BNP and the most powerful of the Islamic parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The BNP formed this strategic partnership in 2001, and over the past five years the Jamaat's influence has spread throughout the bureaucracy and district governments, enabling the party to build grass-roots support and gain crucial political and public recognition.

As well as giving power and legitimacy to the Islamic right, the BNP alliance committed severe abuses of power. It politicised the police force and formed the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special branch that was responsible for hundreds of killings in the name of "law and order". This force signed contracts for bridges that were never built, bought television channels, appointed biased judges, jailed and harassed the opposition, and placed RAB people into every post that might influence the election. The alliance invented 14 million false voters. By the same stroke, it wiped most Bangladeshis from a religious or ethnic minority from the electoral register.

Popular opposition to the BNP's blatant attempts at manipulating the election has made it terrified of losing power, and so, instead of allowing the caretaker government to fall into the hands of a neutral chief adviser, it encouraged the BNP-appointed president, Iajuddin Ahmed, to take the post. When we first saw the ageing Iajuddin taking the oath to become chief adviser, he appeared harmless enough. People, including the opposition, decided to give him a chance to show his neutrality - his desh-prem. But he proved to be easily manipulated, and after a few weeks he became a hated figure.

In the meantime, the beleaguered Awami League has committed its fair share of mistakes. In order to press its demands it called an indefinite series of strikes, bringing the economy to a halt while it conducted its campaigns of civil disobedience. No one went to work; the classrooms emptied out, the ships were marooned at Chittagong port, and the price of dhal tripled in a matter of months. But by far the most un forgivable blunder it committed was to sign a deal with the far-right Khilafat-e-Majlish. The Awami League has long claimed an ideological advantage over the BNP, branding itself the more secular, progressive party, so for those of us who believed there was a significant difference between the two parties, this was a cynical and heartbreaking manoeuvre. Under the terms of the deal, the Awami League will assist the Khilafat-e-Majlish in legalising fatwas and challenging any laws that contradict "Koranic values". Whether the Islamic right will really gain a foothold in mainstream politics - and the hearts of the public - in Bangladesh remains to be seen; however, that both parties believe they cannot win an election without the endorsement of the right is sign enough that Bangladesh's identity as a moderate Muslim country is under threat.

When I landed in Dhaka a few days ago, the city looked as it so often does in January. The fog was low and woolly on the ground; people were huddled under their shawls; the smell of oranges and roasted peanuts lingered in the air. But, of course, I knew that all was not as it seemed. In these past few months my desh-prem has been under siege, and this time, I arrived in Dhaka in bitter spirits. I had planned this trip so that I would be able to vote; I had spent months looking forward to returning to Bangladesh to exercise my democratic right. Yet as the day drew near, I realised I wouldn't be going home to vote, but rather to witness a sham election. With the Awami League boycotting the elections, and talk of a constitutional crisis, we all began to worry that this year could mark the death of democracy in Bangladesh. The mood was sombre and people seemed resigned; it appeared there was nothing anyone could do to prevent this political charade from going ahead.

But then, just as it appeared there was no solution in sight, the president suddenly declared a state of emergency and postponed the elections indefinitely. He resigned as chief adviser and dissolved the caretaker cabinet. The exact reasons for his about-face are still opaque, but we do know that it happened through a combination of international pressure and army intervention. To what degree the army is now running things is unclear; vague and ominous ordinances have been proposed, some of which hint at restrictions on personal freedom and on the media.

Walter Benjamin famously said that a state of emergency is also always a state of emergence. Can we take this literally in Bangladesh? Will the emergency see us through to a fair election, or will the army consolidate its power and wrest democracy from us indefinitely? And what would happen to my desh-prem then? Could it survive another onslaught?

Whenever I imagine returning to Bangladesh for good, I wonder what kind of country I want to return to. I want, more than anything, to have that feeling of protean possibility that my father must have had when he crossed the border into his new country. I want a country where my gender does not preclude me from being an equal citizen. Where corruption has not touched every facet of public life. Where the children don't sell popcorn on street corners or work in matchstick factories. I want to know that I'm going to show up on polling day and see my name on the voter registration list. I want to stand in a queue, press my thumb into a pad of ink, and put my mark wherever I like. I want my politicians to stop courting the Islamic right. I want the water table to stop rising. I want the government to stop driving the Hindus and the Chakmas and the Santals out of this country. I want someone to count my vote. I want a halt to the steady erosion of civil liberties. I want a country where the army cannot arrest anyone without a warrant. I want our political parties to be democratic, transparent and accountable. I want fair and neutral judges. I want the right to vote. I want there to be no such thing as a legal fatwa. I want the war criminals of the 1971 genocide to be tried, condemned and jailed. I want to vote. I want a country worthy of my desh-prem. I want a country.

Tahmima Anam's debut novel, "A Golden Age", set during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, will be published in March by John Murray (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics