MUCH more is at stake in Bangladeshi politics than fooling ourselves by fooling the United States. Both The Daily Star articles, by Mahfuz Anam (December 13) and Mirza Azizul Islam (December 15) correctly highlight the economic toll that incessant hartals and stoppages have been exacting. Much more than our pockets are being victimised.
With politics as the art of negotiation becoming too zero-sum, a dangerous political transformation is unfolding: even the international mediation that Anam's editorial elaborated could not resuscitate quid pro quo (give-and-take) bargaining, leaving as residue a sine qua non (the if, and only if, approach) alternative. Similar examples immediately come to mind: George W. Bush's “with us” or “against us” dictum; the Cold War atmosphere of being “better dead than red;” and more pertinently to our own lives, the failed 1975 Baksal initiative.
By sugar-coating and insulating the “us” component of the political equation, such an outlook faults the “them” counterpart for all mistakes, real or false, related or unrelated. Among the consequences: lost diversity, dialectics, and innovation -- the very hallmarks of globalisation and advancement -- in turn eroding our competitive advantage in other sectors. Anam and Islam expose this on the economic front (stunted textiles production shifting supply chains elsewhere), but the social and political sectors also beg attention: the extraordinary global recognition our microfinance breakthroughs brought us, for example, vanishes, leaving us an ordinary country; and the potential political benefit that a third South Asian power might be able to exert and extract, through balancing strategies, on the first and second powers (India and Pakistan), haven't even see the light of day.
Future historians might identify Bangladesh's deadliest political moment today, not as the Jamaat-Shibir attacks against state institutions, interests, and individuals, but an unintended consequence of the Manichean institutionalism of our two dominant parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP): a vicious political cycle in which any action by one is compounded by the reaction of the other, ultimately driving discourse away.
In the final analysis, the AL argument that a majority government does not need an electoral caretaker and the BNP response of an election boycott yielding the highest pay-off depicts precisely that same binary “with us” or “against us” Bush postulation. Driving away of the other parties from the political map either by a combination of seduction and coercion (Jatiya Party) or elimination (Jamaat) seems to be a revival of the Baksal ghost that we thought a quarter-century of democratic experiments would bury.
As we ordinary citizens recall the historical/social/political/religious trust we took for granted in our relationship with each other, we helplessly see a community collapse and diplomatic isolation that is so incompatible with democracy. This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow for those who forged that community and won international recognition collectively in the heady pre-independence years.
Tragedy beckons without trust. Since zero-sum politics is not uniquely Bangladeshi (witness the US Tea Party holding the Obama administration hostage through the October 2013 shutdown), Bangladesh alone seems to be not only without an exit strategy but also increasingly and deliberately uninterested in one at the institutional level. Social movements can catalyse corrections, but may find their tasks too uphill in the emerging deadly atmosphere. A check-list of consequences should remind us of missed opportunities and how we could have played our cards differently with better results: the biggest global forum, the United Nations, could blow the Quader Mollah execution out of proportion when it barely whimpered against the unabated murderous US drone attacks against innocent Pakistani and Afghani citizens, not to mention the flagrantly illegal Guantanamo justice system; countries as diverse as China and Turkey could take an isolated local event like that execution to challenge Bangladesh's legitimacy -- China economically through the perceived consequences of post-execution riots in the country, Erdogan's Turkey historically by elevating the religious Jamaati roots, which, in 1971, resisted the country's independence; and so forth.
The upshot of finger-pointing is simply this: if the external perception that our stalemated politics will have detrimental and deadly consequences is correct, then we are losing our credibility and capability to change that perception; but if that perception is not correct, we have no one else to blame but ourselves, thus reinforcing that very zero-sum mentality that brought us here in the first place. Either way we remain where we were in 1971 -- if not as an economic basket-case, then as a moral one.
The writer is Professor Emeritus, International Relations, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.