‘Development:’ Rhetoric for Authoritarian Rule | Anu Muhammad

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We are living in the digital age of globalization under a neoliberal model of capitalism. This phase can be described as development on steroids, growth with environmental disaster, affluence with poverty, digitalization and financialization, growth with high inequality and vulnerability. This phase is also characterised by authoritarianism in different colours. Rising religious-ethnic-racial hatred and strengthening extremist politics in different parts of the world are very much an integral part of this global (dis)order.

Today, we witness the depletion of human and material resources on war and surveillance, unprecedented expansion of repressive technology, and high growth of private (in)security business. This model of governance trickled down to different corners of the globe. Intolerance, hatred, and violence appear as guiding principles of today’s ‘rule of law’ in different countries and on a global scale.

Bangladesh is no exception. Here we see a form of development that is highly dependent on widespread corruption; illicit business of arms, drug and human trafficking; grabbing of common property; commission-based bad deals with big foreign and local companies; and high levels of bank loan default and resource outflow. There is no doubt that all these practices contribute to GDP growth. Moreover, wholesale privatization of education, health care, and natural resources; grabbing common property including rivers, forests, open space; dismantling national capabilities; and implementing projects of mass destruction have become priority development agendas. In the present development path, people’s ownership over common properties is practically denied, lack of worker’s rights is severe, and the environment is neglected. They manufacture myths to rationalize harmful foreign ‘aid,’ and/or investment projects as part of development advertisements. Institutions serve only ruling groups and lack accountability and transparency.

As a consequence of these practices in Bangladesh, we see growing resources but increasing deprivation, dazzling cities with larger slums, worsening levels of pollution, high rise buildings with poor safety records, big projects destroying ecological balances, as well as increasing inequality and vulnerability. Conditions of public services, i.e., public health care, public education, safe drinking water, public transport, public security are growing poorer due to increasingly expensive supplies. State responsibility for providing these services to citizens is not recognized in this model.

This development model has environmental, political, and cultural consequences. Obviously, this nature of ‘development’ suppresses democratic rights, denying public criticism and scrutiny. The state machine’s coercive forces become the crude instrument of super rich bank-land-forest-river grabbers. In the process demo(n)cracy, instead of democracy, becomes the rule, and (mal)development and demo(n)cracy grow together. Here lies the source of authoritarianism. Present dominant forms of global capital accumulation and waves of authoritarianism give strong moral and physical support to this.

Periodic elections cannot change this scenario, especially when the state machine is under total control by a single party or a group. Even elections can be a tool for strengthening authoritarian rule. Andreas Schedler examines the logic of ‘electoral authoritarianism.’ He showed that, ‘electoral authoritarian regimes play the game of multiparty elections by holding regular elections for the chief executive and a national legislative assembly. Yet they violate the liberal-democratic principles of freedom and fairness so profoundly and systematically as to render elections instruments of authoritarian rule rather than “instruments of democracy” (Powell 2000).’ He also explained that, ‘rulers may devise discriminatory electoral rules, exclude opposition parties and candidates from entering the electoral arena, infringe upon their political rights and civil liberties, restrict their access to mass media and campaign finance, impose formal or informal suffrage restrictions on their supporters, coerce or corrupt them into deserting the opposition camp, or simply redistribute votes and seats through electoral fraud.’ (See for details: https://www.ethiomedia.com/accent/ea_schedler.pdf )

The present government of Bangladesh has proven itself to be the most powerful regime in the country’s history by establishing total control over all institutions. After the one-sided election of 2014, the manner in which it has monopolised power over the past five years has broken all past records. The national election in 2018 was controlled and manipulated in a manner unprecedented in the country’s history.

It is obvious that the election procedure had been carefully planned for quite some time. PR agencies and many local and foreign groups worked on implementing this plan. But the most despicable incident occurred on the night before the election. Eyewitness accounts, news reports, and written complaints reveal that in many centres the ballot boxes were stuffed on the night before the polls.

Stealing an election by using state power does not prove the ruling party’s strength. It proves, on the contrary, that the party felt extremely insecure about people’s support. However, the government and the ruling party are hardly bothered. After all, to the government and its partners at home and abroad, power is all that matters. There is very little consideration as to whether the ways and means were legitimate or not, ethical or unethical, or what the long-term consequences will be to the development of the democratic process and institutions.

The development model projected by the government is nothing new. It has been continuing over the past few decades, having taken tangible shape in the eighties. The corporate groups from home and abroad seem to be very happy with this authoritarian rule. They applaud the present government’s unabashed march ahead to fulfill all these agendas with little or no regard for public opinion, laws, and consequences for the country. Global capital and its managers (the World bank, IMF, ADB et al) are the driving force of this model. It is easier and cheaper for them to make space in authoritarian rule. They benefit from a government that is coercive and indifferent to the interest of people and environment. Then they can do as they please, siphoning off their profits abroad in exchange for a commission or other such favours without any accountability.

A multitude of environmentally dangerous projects from India, China, Japan, Russia and the US, such as the Rampal coal-fired power plant and the Rooppur nuclear power plant, are being implemented in Bangladesh. India has ample political clout, and China’s power lies in its big funds. Every project has a number of financial beneficiaries among ruling elites. In the absence of accountability, greed for profit has increased exponentially. That is why construction costs of roads, bridges, and other projects in Bangladesh are the highest in the world.

The government is now propagating a concept of ‘development democracy’ and celebrating a decade of development. But we have seen twice in the past that such decades of autocracy and ‘development’ combine. One was during the sixties under the rule of General Ayub Khan, the other as in the eighties under General Ershad.

There are similarities between those two decades and the current one, but differences too. The similarities lie in the sheer volume of infrastructure projects, the lack of financial transparency, and high levels of corruption. The main difference between the present decade and those two of the past is that the former two autocrats did not have organised political parties and support base. In both of those instances, after ascending to power through martial law, the autocrats tried to use state power to establish their own party and gain public support. Ayub Khan’s ‘basic democracy’ was used to spread the power net to the union level. Ershad made similar attempts through the upazila system. But the present government came to power with an organised party and a huge electoral victory. The present ruling party is the oldest and largest political party in the country, but it has exploited the credibility it earned for leading liberation war in 1971 by doing things opposite to the spirit of the liberation war. We know that when autocracy is buoyed by public support, a propensity towards fascist politics and culture emerges.

The imperial fascist sermon¾‘either with us or against us,’ with the declaration of war on (read: of) terror, an eternal war—has been shaping present global (dis)order. This mantra has been used to provoke hate politics and racist communal right-wing politics in different parts of the world. Moreover, governments in different countries have taken the mantra as a justification to curtail democratic rights and usurp political power, giving free authority to public resource grabbers and corporate lords. The present regimes in countries like Bangladesh and India are taking full advantage of this global fascist environment for strengthening their authoritarian rule.

Given the situation, how can we create conditions for people, youth in particular, to become a strong force to fight extremism in any form? In this context, one question remains crucial: how can it be done when the state itself becomes extremist, when the law enforcement agencies become unregulated instruments of coercion, when the judicial process becomes redundant, when people are deprived of free expression of opinion? If this scenario remains, then other forms of extremism will surely flourish.

Breathing space can only be created by people, especially the youth, who, despite repression and fear, continue questioning the hegemonic power, continue thinking with open minds, and remain active in fighting injustice and discrimination to support human rights, resources, and the environment. I know ruling classes at home and abroad, despite their rhetoric, would be content if religious extremists and drug addicts destroyed the hope of contemporary youth.

At the present moment, nevertheless, I find hope with those who stand to demand justice for Twaki, Tonu, Afsana, Dipon, Avijit, Sagor-Runi…; who stand to save the Sundarbans against a disastrous mad project; who stand against repressive laws and coercive actions by law enforcing agencies; who stand with workers for their rights and security; who stand against ethnic, religious, and gender-based violence and discrimination; and who stand against extremist attacks on the public by different groups, including the state. I find hope in those who are still capable of dreaming about a country of free people, a society without discrimination and oppression.

Illustration: Yafiz Siddiqui

Anu Muhammad is a Bangladeshi economist, public intellectual, and political activist. He is a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University since 1982. He was a visiting professor at the University of Winnipeg, the University of Manitoba, and visiting scholar at Columbia University. His work focuses on current economic and political problems in Bangladesh, political economy, globalization, social transformation, gender issues, non-governmental organization, environment, and energy. He is the member-secretary of the citizen’s movement platform called National Committee to Protect Oil-Gas-Mineral Resources-Power and Ports.

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