Yesterday many protestors were injured in the pitched battles that took place when the opposition Awami League tried to surround the PM’s office. Today there is an opposition general strike again with potential for more violence, and indeed there has been violence today. And because of the police action yesterday, AL has called for yet another general strike on sunday ( a working day in Bangladesh). This is now pretty much a permanent fixture in the political landscape in Bangladesh. For the uninitiated blog reader I have put together some questions and brief answers to help explain this vicious cycle Bangladeshis find themselves in. I can’t be exhaustive in this post but no doubt I shall blog further… I am not claiming to be impartial - I have never been much of a fence sitter but in case you are wondering I don’t subscribe to any political party.

What is this latest turmoil all about?

The pretext is the reform of the election process (caretaker government system) and reform of the election commission. The issues raised by the opposition are real and justified.

So why don’t the government and the opposition sit down and thrash it out?

The pretext is this - Hasina, the leader of the opposition, says that she can’t possibly sit down with the government if they include their coalition partners. The Jamaat-e-Islami are the coalition partners in question. It is a party with a very dubious role in the formation of Bangladesh.

Wouldn’t you find it difficult to sit with Jamaat?

Thankfully I don’t have to. But Hasina Wajed has done it in the past. In the 1990s, she had an informal alliance with Jamaat in order to topple the BNP. And lets not forget that it was Hasina’s father - Sheikh Mujib - who pardoned Jamaat’s supporters in 1973 despite their heinous role in the liberation war.

Ok let’s leave the history for a bit. You keep going on about pretexts. What the hell is all this really about?

How long have you got? It is about flexing destructive power. It is about readying the people for a fight to capture power. The ritual of elections has come to provide an opportunity for these parties to capture public resources. This capture permits the winner to engage in corruption and to immediately enrich their own faction. The outcome for the country of this “clientelist surplus appropriation” is that social and economic transformation is jeopardised.

So its just a fight to capture resources? Nothing ideological? No principles? And what’s this about factions?

Lemme explain. The two main political parties in Bangladesh do not represent different economic interests. They do not represent different social classes. Their supporters come from an array of classes - from the university educated to the peasants in the countryside, small businessmen, big businessmen etc. You can think of them as multi-class factions. Each has its own motley crew of supporters drawn from across the social spectrum. The leaders of the competing factions are similar to each other in class terms. And the people they mobilise are also similar in background to each other. Certainly they may engage in ideological debates but that is just a side show - the real thing is about the interests of the faction. Indeed ideological positions are easily changed in response to changing alignments of factional power ( as above with Hasina and Jamaat, and many other instances of party-hopping, and only today I see that Hasina is now welcoming senior members of the Jatiya Party - once a bitter foe - to her fold).

Hmm. Where can I read more?

You can’t do better than read Professor Mushtaq Khan’s seminal article “The Political Ecomomy of Secularism and Religion in Bangladesh.” His article appears in my mate’s book (plug, plug) Electoral Politics in South Asia, Edited by Subho Basu and Suranjan Das. ( Subho, if you are reading - are you still alive or what?! I didn’t die…) Professor Khan is at the Department of Economics, SOAS, University of London. That article should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the election process in Bangladesh and indeed the issue of religion as it has played out over the years.

So we can expect a lot more of this violence in the coming months ?

Not only the coming months but indeed the forseeable future - is my pessimistic take. To paraphrase Prof Khan - the construction of viable alternatives which can convince the poor majority that they will do better by supporting class politics rather than factional politics is the most important challenge facing progressives in Bangladesh. But as Prof Khan points out “belonging to a faction and participating in the gamble” is a hell of a lot easier and indeed is attended by less opportunity costs than building another kind of politics.

  • this post was slightly changed and cross-posted to Drishtipat