I have just finished my three-week long Dhaka visit. I returned to Dhaka after nearly three years. During this period a lot seemed to have happened.
There are new flyovers, new nicely paved roads that embarrass the old pot-holed ones that still exist and bear signs of neglect; less traffic jams (relatively, that is) and same if not more pollution but remarkably, no power cuts. Bangladesh seems to be evolving as a country of many islands – economically, socially and culturally!
Most people appear busy and have something to be busy about and earning. There is more show of affluence at posh restaurants where many spendthrift Bangladeshis frequent. Weddings are lavish but there is less diversity in food (same old kachchi biryiani – the wedding staple); wedding guests are the same and they repeat same old stories of diabetes, blood pressure, plundering local hospitals etc. etc.) in every occasion they grace. Also thanks to proliferating membership of facebook (FB) and newly acquired skills in mobile phone photography and instant FB posting, selfies have assumed a new art form! I am aware that Modi loves selfies too but let us not blame Indians for everything.
However, what I also found quite significant this time around is that the ruling government that looked visibly shaky in 2014 is now fully in control so much so that ministers these days compose poems caricaturing the opposition and recite them at cabinet meetings, not as obscene as Nero's fiddling in burning Rome but inane as kicking balls into a goalkeeper-less net.
Another noticeable thing - although the economy is not exactly booming it is recording a healthy growth rate of 6.2 percent per annum and with opposition virtually diminished some semblance of stability is in place but remarkably, not the investor's confidence. To appreciate this one has to simply look at many unfinished buildings that dot the present day Dhaka city. These investors have either ran out of capital or are refusing to sink more money into investments that show poor prospect of profit.
What is also remarkable is that many of the lounge room discussions that I have had the privilege of attending, many – mainly from the better-off and professional class – ask how long and what next, virtually saying we are rich and privileged but we are not happy. I have also had the opportunity of talking to one or two ordinary people such as taxi drivers – they echo same frustration.
Seems to me that even though people are better off economically it is the political deprivation that they resent most and this is also intruding on the economy.
The argument that Bangladesh needs 'development' before democracy and thus controlled democracy is not only desirable but a sin qua non does not seem to be gaining much popularity with the rank and file. On the other hand, with suppression and diminishing of liberal and open opposition, the real opposition may have gone underground and if indeed this is true then Bangladesh has much to worry about.
Many believe that a spectre of seething discontent that is brewing underneath is being worked on by extremist/ fundamentalist opposition. Furthermore, with the weakening of open opposition and thus accountability, another scenario may also be emerging and on the rise. Corruption and thuggery are likely to become more intense in the context of the culture of patronage based politics that Bangladeshi politics is known for. There may also be a proliferation of intra-party infighting (the rise in the number of rival candidates against the party nominations in the recently held local government election indicates this as an emerging trend) in the ruling party, that in the end may promote opposition from within, prompting some to seek strange bedfellows.
Indeed, given the number of dynamics that are currently raging both within and across the nation it is difficult to predict exactly how things would shape up in the coming years but one thing has to be ensured which is that whatever happens, Bangladeshis simply cannot allow extremists to triumph over liberalism and the way to defeat extremism is neither through dagger nor through 'development' but through unadulterated democracy. There should be no illusion that development is the panacea to all ills. It is not.
In fact when development is pursued within the frameworks of corruption and authoritarianism, it breeds inequality, embeds injustices and spreads frustrations that fill the ranks of militants – in case of Bangladesh by the Islamist fundamentalists/extremists that sanctify themselves as crusaders of truth!
The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and a retired senior policy manager of the United Nations.