Measuring Bangladesh’s democratic health by the index of electoral fairness will not break the perennial five-year cycle of electing monarchs, for the people remain irrelevant in such calculations.
The so-called general election held in Bangladesh on 7 January 2024 should have laid bare certain irrefutable truths about Bangladeshi politics. However, the aftermath has merely reiterated wilful delusions. On the one hand, there are the vainglorious and hubristic celebrations of the Awami League party and government, complete with rituals: parliamentary taking of oaths, pre-approved statements by foreign governments and organisations, laying of wreaths at national monuments, speeches aplenty to the populace and sundry.
On the other, there are the discussions about democracy – whether it is dead or alive, how alive or dead is it, when was it alive and when did it or will it die, and similar obfuscations by pseudo-pontifications – and development – how much unquantifiable amounts of it the people have been fortunate to see, how much more unimaginable amounts the people will be even more fortunate to see, how none of it would be possible without Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League, guided by the principles of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. These harmful precedents of going through the motions are as laughable as they are disingenuous, if not outright dishonest.
Bangladeshi politics adheres strictly to a gospel. It is an anomalous gospel, for unlike religious texts that survive on proselytisation, this one thrives because it is kept hidden from the public domain. The public is fed a litany of lies from all quarters, every one of which feigns empathy to boldly proclaim it speaks for the good of the people. The public may have become more cynical, but, in the absence of truth, it opts for some of the lies in order to fend off the others.
If the US did, in fact, bring about political change in Bangladesh, the nation would neither gain democracy – viewed by the US as the tool that it is in reality – nor the welfare of the Bangladeshi people. Rather, it would be to serve the US empire’s interests over the interchangeable Awami League and BNP kingdoms’. People, their will, their rights and freedoms, mean naught, especially when those people are brown.
The battle between lies and counter-lies not only entraps the people in subjugation, it also makes Bangladeshi politics seem far more complex in theory than it is in practice. This benefits the rent-seeking class of intellectually bankrupt commentators who eke out a living – paid in the plummeting taka and social media fame – by discussing it to death, resuscitating it and killing it again and again, without ever revealing the gospel. That, in turn, benefits those in power, for they can quietly accrue more power by abiding by the gospel, shielded by the white noise of meaningless political discourse conducted by the commentators. Freedom lies in accepting, then subverting that elusive gospel.
The debates about democracy and the claims about development are fallacies in their entirety. Democracy as is known and practised in the world today is a tool, a means to the ultimate end: power. Bangladeshi politics is a history of cults seeking to establish absolute power, to rule forever and not serve even a day. In other words, the correct way to view Bangladeshi politics is to accept that, since independence, it has been a monarchy. The two Rahmans, Mujib and Zia, may have been too vacuous to have any principles, but both understood and plagiarised from the handbook of absolute power by divine right. Bangladeshi leaders have been paraded as kings and queens – untouchable, let alone unchallengeable personalities surrounding whom mythologies and cults have been built.
The queens who came later deified the kings who preceded them, solidifying them in the public conscience as greater than mere mortals. At the nation’s birth, democracy was a useful tool for the major dynasty, Awami League, to achieve power, which it then sought to make absolute. Equally, it was a useful tool for the contesting minor dynasty, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to launder coups d’état. When an upstart dynasty, the Jatiya Party, aspired to absolute power, democracy was wielded by the two establishment dynasties, to usurp it. The status quo of aspiring to absolute power returned once the Jatiya Party was ousted.
When viewed through the clear-eyed lens of monarchical politics and court intrigue, history attests to the fact that, when multiple actors are vying for the throne, the survival of one is only possible with the death of the others. Therefore, both the Awami League and the BNP see the survival of the other as an existential threat. For as long as the Awami League dynasty remains on the throne, there can never be any way for the BNP – with that name, in that guise, championing that cult – to be included in its court, and vice versa. Monarchs require pageantry, and the occasional feigning of a common touch and appearance of distribution of wealth, to legitimise their power. General elections in Bangladesh are no more than this. The ring is kissed in the aftermath, as it must be. Autocracy is the default state.
The development fallacy is an equally harmful one. There is no doubt that Bangladesh has had several cosmetic surgeries, keeping pace with superficial global trends. Confusing these materialistic improvements for development is the pseudo-scientific folly of neoliberal economics deployed to lethal effect. The Bangladeshi economy is built on exploitation veiled as empowerment by thieves and murderers championed as activists.
From micro-credit and traditional banking, pharmaceuticals and mass-scale corporate farming to readymade garment and migrant labour, every single vaunted industry exists by forcing people and the environment into indentured servitude. The rags to riches story in Bangladesh is about how the rags of the hundreds of millions make the riches of the few hundred thousand. The glass ceiling is bulletproof and reinforced with concrete, the leash is surer than Cerberus’ chain. The nationwide states of education and healthcare are dire. The former has been reduced to little more than vocational training and supplication to serve the existing exploitative industries, God and country. The latter has been rendered as a synonym for Big Pharma rather than real initiatives for sustainable better health.
When any combination of breathable air, potable water, fresh food and reliable shelter remain unattained for the majority of the population, including the workers of the vaunted industries who ensure that the wheels of the national economy remain greased, no amount of new roads, flashy lightbulbs and smartphones – which often exacerbate pre-existing problems and create new avenues of exploitation – should be mistaken for development. Moreover, any upward-trending economic indicators are nullified by the widening wealth gap. This exposes not only the fallacy of development, but also the one about the country being a kleptocracy. In the absence of any manner of accountability, real or fictional, meaningful or token, the mystical entrepreneurial genius of Bangladesh is thieves and robbers operating with impunity.
From the prime minister and her extended family, ministers and members of parliament, to the tens of thousands of millionaires and billionaires who are captains of the myriad exploitative industries and fierce supporters of the regime, every single one is a criminal, stealing from the people, never punished. These are not even criminal masterminds, the brightest of the damned. They are lazy, greedy and shameless, safe in the knowledge that they will never have to account for the ill-gotten manner of their gains nor face any consequences.
A kleptocratic autocracy cannot be undone overnight via an election. Yet, that is precisely what certain delusional segments of the population have believed in or attempted for three general elections, expecting a different result every time. It is not insanity, but stupidity of the highest order. The script has been thus: four or four and half years of indifferent drift, followed by six to twelve months of trying to supplant Awami League with the BNP through demands of a “free and fair election” – during which time the BNP and its allies suffer at the hands of Awami League’s violent suppressive measures while bloodying a nose or two themselves – followed by boycotting the general election in some ham-fisted manner when it takes place, followed by the smorgasbord of “democracy warriors” licking their wounds as the “international community” that they had hoped would tilt things in their favour, if not directly put them in power, abandons them in favour of celebrating or begrudgingly accepting another five years of Awami League.
Just as “free and fair election” is shorthand for regime change and “democracy warriors” is a fickle label worn by dethroned monarchs in search of a kingdom, “international community” is shorthand for the West, primarily the US, for an anglophone elite class whose members are either part of the ruling class or harbour ambitions of becoming so. It tests the elasticity of incredulity that a people so familiar with the sadism of Kissinger – identified correctly in Bangladesh as one of the worst war criminals of the past century – fail to truly grasp American military and foreign policy. Kissinger neither created military or foreign policy for the US nor had an original thought in his life, but came to embody it by brazenly setting out to behave as an empire should. Empires only have self-serving interests, not morals.
If the US did, in fact, bring about political change in Bangladesh, the nation would neither gain democracy – viewed by the US as the tool that it is in reality – nor the welfare of the Bangladeshi people. Rather, it would be to serve the US empire’s interests over the interchangeable Awami League and BNP kingdoms’. People, their will, their rights and freedoms, mean naught, especially when those people are brown. Bangladesh’s own history, as with the history of kingdoms and empires, testifies to this. That the US has continued and will continue, to work with Awami League speaks to their interests being met or at least not being seriously threatened. Those seeking change will do well to dig deeper into how Awami League has parlayed that into prolonging its rule rather than hoping to strike their own Faustian pacts with the empire.
A common mistake is readily made at this juncture once every half a decade, born of frustration and exasperation. Myopia prevents Bangladeshis from seeing the hope inherent in and inseparable from the realities of Bangladeshi politics. If the populace is viewed as oppressed serfs instead of disenfranchised voters, those altruistic souls truly invested in bringing about positive change in Bangladesh can begin to eradicate the commonplace apathy that is the real enemy of change.
The history of monarchies informs that every last one of them ends. Colonialism robbed the Bengal region of the organic transition from being ruled by divine right towards a total divestment of power to the people, who are served, via the detour of limited divestment that sees the people have rights but be governed. As a result, national independence merely saw feudal fealty sworn to a new crown. Global empires of the existing and the rising variety can implement a two-party system in Bangladesh by pitting the Awami League and BNP dynasties against the military, with the assistance of Bangladesh’s opportunistic elite class.
That was attempted as recently as 2006. Equating democracy to elections and votes rather than people’s rights allows them to make such top-down changes. The people of Bangladesh are irrelevant in these calculations, and will, therefore, be better served by abolishing monarchy altogether. The difficult, nearly impossible process of empowering the people begins with acknowledging that fifteen years have been largely wasted by refusing to accept the reality of historical autocracy. Only then can a meaningful engagement happen with and amongst the most vulnerable, yet most valuable proletariat majority of the population. Before a movement can metamorphose into a revolution, ideals need to reach the critical mass of becoming a movement.
Bangladesh is simultaneously far away from that and closer than it realises. Understanding the gospel of Bangladeshi politics is at once the first and the five hundredth step of a thousand-step journey. Breaking the system starts with breaking the perennial five-year cycle of the last decade and a half, and building something robust and sustainable regardless of how long it takes or how difficult it is in the face of the concurrent authoritarianisms of kingdoms and empires. Anything less is dishonest.