Back to BAKSAL?

Bangladesh has clearly crossed the midline on the continuum between full democracy and closed autocracy, writes William Milam

Back to BAKSAL?
According to a report carried in a Bangladeshi news service, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ruminated about Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL) in an address at an award ceremony on March 25, Bangladesh Independence Day, which also marks the anniversary of the military crackdown on East Pakistan which culminated nine months later in the independence of Bangladesh.

The context is one where her father, Sheikh Mujib, is usually eulogised as the founding father of Bangladesh. But BAKSAL was probably not on Sheikh Mujib’s mind on that day in March 1971, with the Pakistan Army beginning a very bloody crackdown on his people and on its way to arrest him and transport him to West Pakistan for trial.

All Bangladeshis and many observers of Bangladesh will recognise the acronym BAKSAL. But for those not steeped in Bangladesh history, BAKSAL was the acronym given to Sheikh Mujib’s one-party state. This came at the end of his reign and lasted for the first six months of 1975. It was the culmination of his repeated failure to find policies that could address the serious problems his government inherited in a war-torn, new, and fractious state. Perhaps, for those who know only vaguely the history of the first few years of Bangladesh’s independence, a short review will be helpful.

Bangladesh’s early days were exceedingly difficult. Mujib had taken the reins of government with over whelming public support and inherited a country in shambles, shattered physically, economically dysfunctional, infrastructure and transport system badly damaged, severe law and order problems with armed gangs roaming the countryside, and an easy availability of weapons to any who felt the need to resort to unlawful measures to ensure their security or their ability to feed themselves.

World Bank inspectors wrote that the cities looked like they had suffered a nuclear attack. Six million homes were destroyed and well over a million farmers had no tools or animals for their work. Most industry had been owned and operated by West Pakistanis, who left nothing but shells of their industrial buildings behind when they departed. In other words, an economy that was weak before the war given the unequal division of resources by the West Pakistanis elites was far weaker, drained of much of its human capital and without the immediate use of much of its physical capital. At the end of the war, the country lacked almost every resource it needed for rapid recovery.

The situation was made worse not only by policies of the new government, which were driven often more by the ideology of revolution than the desperate reality the government faced, but also by an explosion of corruption. Moreover, in such situations, charisma (which had served Mujib well as the leader of a movement) was not enough; a leader needs toughness of mind to mold a country from the chaotic situation he had inherited. In his third year of leadership, 1974, a serious famine occurred in a time of dwindling hope. Over one million people are believed to have died from hunger or its aftereffects. The political situation continued to worsen as the economy worsened and the number elite groups who demanded access to resources and had power to cause trouble increased. Mujib’s policies led to important members of his government, leaders who had been with him since the 1960s, to break with him. BAKSAL was the major cause of most of those breaks.

BAKSAL was his response to the political pressures, most of which were caused by the wretched economy—his last desperate attempt—to bring all power elites under one big tent so as to bring discipline to the politics of the country, especially to the allocation of access to the meagre economic rents produced by the feeble economy of a very poor country in its initial years and still recovering from the devastating war of separation. It failed, however, to find a way to include all power brokers in the allocation of economic rents and led instead to the assassination of Mujib by a contingent of army officers in August 1975, in which, cruelly, most of his family, except for Sheikh Hasina and her sister who were out of the country, were also killed.

Many blame BAKSAL for his bloody assassination, but I think the long view would be that the blame lay in three years of faulty governance, not all of it by any means the fault of Mujib. The war had produced an array of radicalised groups which had served the cause of liberation, of various left-wing persuasions, and he was whipsawed by their competing demands. And the advice he was getting from some of his advisors was also coloured by ideology or (perish the thought) self-aggrandisement. Nor do I think that Sheikh Mujib understood the management and organisational skills needed to meet the profound needs of the country.

Whether Sheikh Hasina in her ruminations last week was looking to chart a course toward a formal one-party state for the Awami League government is unclear, and likely will remain so for some time. Even if she is thinking seriously of imitating her father’s creation of a one-party state, her style is much more cautious. She will try something out in sort of informal remarks that can be explained as informal and private ruminations for a year or so before deciding to move forward on it, or to drop it. We will see.

Readers will remember my article two weeks ago describing a new study which provides new and important insights into what is called the third wave of autocratization. The most important of these, in my view, is the most common component of this third wave is that it is a gradual, almost-clandestine erosion by design of the institutions that protect democracy by power-hungry leaders. There are few sudden breakdowns by coup d’état or something equivalent like a stolen election. In every way, except for the elections of 2014 and 2018, Sheikh Hasina has operated in the ways of the third wave of autocratization. She removed the Caretaker Amendment, and only the political opposition (and a few of the more jaundiced observers) noticed. I am not sure Western democratic governments even mentioned it to the PM. Since 2014, the government has slowly but effectively dismantled the opposition through intimidation, cases in court, putting leaders in jail (where Begum Zia has been for the best part of a year). It now has the judiciary cowed. It owns the police and has the paramilitary RAB for less formal enforcement tasks, and the youth civilian paramilitary groups for the completely informal enforcement and intimidation. The press is still active, but self-censorship masks a government that throttles information that displeases it or is critical.

By the definition the authors of the new study use for democracy, which comes from Robert Dahl’s “polyarchy,” meaning literally many rulers, Bangladesh with only one ruler, Sheikh Hasina, clearly does not qualify. On most of the essential qualities of democracy, as defined by the authors of the new study—regular free and fair elections, a democratically elected executive and legislature, complete freedom of association, freedom of expression, and alternative sources of information—Bangladesh does not qualify. But it still has universal suffrage even if people can’t vote freely. And in these days of the internet, despite efforts to limit access to alternative sources such as the recent comprehensive act that gives the government significant power over the media, alternative information, though harder to find, is still available in Bangladesh. The government doesn’t like that, however, and will continue to find ways to restrict access to information.

It seems to me that Bangladesh has clearly crossed the midline on the continuum between full democracy and closed autocracy. As I mentioned last time, Freedom House ranks it below 50 on its 1-100 scale. After the December 30 election last year, I believe it has taken a long leap forward and is now well ensconced in the electoral autocracy category. That would be sealed for certain if Sheikh Hasina endeavors to imitate her father. However, she has the country almost fully locked up, so has no political need to do so. That would be giving in to pure nostalgia, and I have yet to see her do that in her public life.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.