The dominance of business elites in the political economy
The term "neopatrimonialism" is defined by political scientist Christopher Clapham as a system in which "relationships of a broadly patrimonial type pervade a political and administrative system, which is formally constructed on rational-legal lines". In other words, such is a structure where individuals with connections to power—through avenues of wealth and financial capital—carry superior socio-political precedence over those in constitutional posts. The increasing role of business elites in constructing the economic and political narratives of countries, including that of Bangladesh, has resulted in the institutional dependence of politics on the private sector. This has resulted in a system where business, rather than politics, is increasingly playing the most prominent role in defining the policymaking aspect of governance in our country.
Ever since the re-institutionalisation of parliamentary practices in Bangladesh in 1991, the country has witnessed widespread enhancements in its socio-economic capacities, leading to increased growth and higher aggregate wealth. With GDP growth rate hovering around eight percent, it is important to ascertain whether the quantitative increases in national income are benefitting the citizens of the nation equitably. The answer, if looked at deeply, is that it is clearly not.
According to a 2019 report released by the New York-based research firm Wealth-X, Bangladesh will witness the third quickest growth in the number of high-net-worth individuals in the world. The country's high-net-worth population, defined as having a net worth between USD 1 million and USD 30 million, is expected to increase by a compound annual rate of 11.4 percent up until 2023.
These figures, when considered in relation to the 2019 Household Income and Expenditure Survey of the Bangladeshi Bureau of Statistics (BBS), paint a difficult picture. At a time when Bangladesh is considered the toast of the development world, the BBS survey indicates that increased GDP figures have simultaneously navigated the nation towards witnessing its highest levels of income inequality across its independent history. Therefore, it begs the question whether those who construe policies in this country are concerned about enhancing the scope for sustainable growth or, on the contrary, growth which benefits the richest in society. The answer to this question lies yet again in understanding the prominence of business elites in the country.
The private sector has played a unique role in lifting Bangladeshis out of poverty. In the past two decades, the role of investors has gone beyond entrepreneurship and employment generation. Author Jalal Firoj, in his study titled Forty Years of Bangladesh Parliament: Trends, Achievements and Challenges, analyses the occupational backgrounds of Members of Parliament (MP) across parliaments; the seventh parliament (1996 to 2001) witnessed 47.8 percent of MPs being businessmen, with the percentage increasing consistently since then. The current parliament boasts a whopping 61 percent of businesspersons as elected MPs—the increasing dominance of business elites indicates the power of wealth in defining political decisions in the country, a point repeated by even President Abdul Hamid over his tenure in Bangabhaban.
Even across smaller electoral platforms such as the upcoming Dhaka North mayoral elections, it is important to recognise that both the Awami League and the BNP have fielded veteran business elites for the key post. Mayor Atiqul Islam and his rival Tabith Awal come from the very heart of the industrial leadership in the country. In fact, after analysing affidavits of about 740 candidates competing from both Dhaka North and South City Corporation elections, civil society platform Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan) found that 73 percent candidates from Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) and about 74 percent from Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) are businesspersons. Therefore, it is safe to suggest that businesspersons feature front and centre within the governance structure of the country.
Now, some may ask what the problem is in businessmen being involved in politics. And it is a logical question, especially given the fact that Bangladesh has reaped the benefits of industrialists investing their capital in sectors such as textiles and pharmaceuticals. Nevertheless, trends across electoral platforms indicate the primacy of money in acquiring political success, from campaign donations to hefty promises of investing in local infrastructure, wealthy elites have become a decisive interest group in party politics. In other words, politics is seen as a business investment. Therefore, political parties have been more than willing to allow business leaders to get party nominations and influence political policy, thereby energising a system of neopatrimonialism which benefits only the richest in society. By investing time and money in politics, elite stakeholders such as entrepreneurs have both the tacit and tangible authority to determine policies which continue benefitting them, creating an intense relationship between money, wealth, power and politics.
A classic example of the problems arising from this structure can be seen across the banking sector of the country. Business elites with direct links to state power have successfully created a system where businesses acquire loans from public and private institutions, but are unable to repay the borrowed funds. Currently, this has led to a substantial increase in the number of loan defaulters across Bangladesh, resulting in an unstable banking system. The negative repercussions of this has primarily fallen on the working class, resulting in poor debt recovery within the banking sector and a constant culture of fragility within a growing financial system.
The increasing structural power of the business community has also resulted in the weakening of politics in general. Unlike the past, political movements nowadays stem not from philosophies to enact change, but rather from funds being diverted towards demonstrations, rallies, and protests. And the money for these activities comes from the very business elites closest to political power. Therefore, it is important to recognise that the key to politics and political activities lies not with the leadership of the country, but rather with individuals with wealth—in other words, with unchecked and unaccountable power.
It is positive to witness Bangladesh re-defining its journey towards economic success. However, if this success creates a structure where the wealthiest in society define the direction of the country, then no level of economic growth can support the civic development of the mass population. Military regimes such as that of the 1960s Ayub Khan-led Pakistan or the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt had indeed overseen periods of rapid growth and income generation but the benefits of this so-called progress went only to those closest to state power and not the people. If business elites are solely allowed to determine the direction of the country, then that nation's development is defined in the eyes of the wealthiest in society—and as such cannot be a driver of equitable growth. Therefore, it is important for the political leadership in Bangladesh to re-engage and prioritise the interests of the working class, and empower these groups to create a more equitable state-society relationship, truly recognising the meaning of a democracy.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed graduated in Economics and International Relations from the University of Toronto.