‘Development’: Rhetoric for Authoritarian Rule

Anu Muhammad :
We are living in the digital age of globalization under neo-liberal model of capitalism. This phase can be described as development with steroid, growth with environmental disaster, affluence with poverty, digitalization and financialization, growth with high inequality and vulnerability. This phase is also charecterised by authoritarianism in different colours. Rising religious-ethnic-racial hatred, strengthening of extremist-hatred politics that we are witnessing in different parts of the world are very much integral part of this global (dis)order.
In this age, we are witnessing increasing depletion of human and material resources on war and surveillance, unprecedented expansion of repressive machine and high growth of private (in) security business. This model of governance trickled down well to different corners of the globe. Intolerance, hatred and violence appear as guiding principles of today’s ‘rule of law’ in different countries and in global scale.
Bangladesh is not exception. Here we see the format of development that is highly dependent on primitive forms of accumulation that include widespread corruption, rent seeking, illicit business of arms, drug and human trafficking, grabbing of common property, commission based bad deals with big foreign and local companies, high level of bank loan default and resource outflow and so on. There is no doubt that all these forms of accumulation contribute to GDP growth. Moreover, wholesale privatization of education, health care and natural resources, grabbing common property including river, forests, open space, dismantling national capability and implementing projects of mass destruction have become priority development agenda. In the present development path, people’s ownership over common properties is practically denied, lack of worker’s rights is severe, environmental blindness and structure oriented approach remain dominant in development projects, manufacturing myth to rationalize harmful foreign ‘aid’ed and/or investment projects is part of development advertisements, institutions are made crippled to allow only to serve ruling groups, lack of accountability and transparency become permanent features. As a consequence, we see growing resources but increasing deprivation, dazzling cities with increasing slums, worst level of pollution, high rise buildings with poor safety records, big projects destroying ecological balances, increasing inequality and vulnerability. Conditions of public services, i.e., public health care, public education, safe drinking water, public transport, public security are getting poorer beside increasingly expensive supply of the same. State responsibility for providing these services to the citizens is not recognized in this model.
This development model has environmental, political and cultural consequences. Obviously, this nature of ‘development’ asks for squeezing democratic rights, denying public criticism and scrutiny. The state machine specially coercive forces become the crude instrument of super rich bank-land-forest-river grabbers. In the process demo(n) cracy, instead of democracy, becomes the rule, (mal)development and demo(n) cracy grow together. Here lies the source of authoritarianism. Present dominant forms of global capital accumulation and waves of authoritarianism give strong moral and physical support to this.
Periodic election cannot change this scenario specially when state machine is under total control of a single party or a group. Even elections can be a tool for strengthening authoritarian rule. Andreas Schedler examines the logic of ‘electoral authoritarianism’. He showed that, ‘electoral authoritarian regimes play the game of multiparty elections by holding regular elections for the chief executive and a national legislative assembly. Yet they violate the liberal-democratic principles of freedom and fairness so profoundly and systematically as to render elections instruments of authoritarian rule rather than “instruments of democracy” (Powell 2000).’ He also explained that, ‘rulers may devise discriminatory electoral rules, exclude opposition parties and candidates from entering the electoral arena, infringe upon their political rights and civil liberties, restrict their access to mass media and campaign finance, impose formal or informal suffrage restrictions on their supporters, coerce or corrupt them into deserting the opposition camp, or simply redistribute votes and seats through electoral fraud.'(See for details: https://www.ethiomedia.com/accent/ea_schedler.pdf)
The present government of Bangladesh has proved itself to be the most powerful regime of all times in the country’s history by establishing total control over all institutions. After the one-sided election of 2014, the manner in which it has monopolised power over the five years has broken all past records. The last national election in 2018 was unbelievably controlled and manipulated that is unprecedented in country’s history.
It is obvious that the election procedure had been carefully planned for quite some time. PR agencies and many local and foreign groups worked on implementing this plan. But the most despicable incident occurred on the night before the election. Eye witness accounts, news in the media and written complaints reveal that in many centres the ballot boxes were stuffed on the night before the polls.
Such a horrific nature of election, using all state power to implement this, does not obviously prove the ruling party’s strength. It proves, on the contrary, that the party felt extremely insecure about peoples support. However, the government and the ruling party are hardly bothered. After all, to the government and its partners at home and abroad, power is all that matters. There is very little consideration as to whether the ways and means were legitimate or not, ethical or unethical, or what the long term consequences will be to the development of the democratic process and institutions.
The development model projected by the government is nothing new. It has been continuing over the past few decades, having taken tangible shape in the eighties. The corporate groups from home and abroad seem to be very happy with this authoritarian rule. They highly applause for the present government’s unabashed march ahead to fulfill all these agendas with little or no regard for public opinion, laws and consequences for the country. Global capital and its managers (the World Bank, IMF, ADB et al) are driving force of this model. It is easier and cheaper for them to make space in authoritarian rule. Actually they want to see the government in a country as coercive on the one hand, and indifferent to the interest of people and environment on the other. There they can do as they please, siphoning off their profits abroad in exchange for a commission or other such favours without any accountability.
A multitude of environmentally dangerous projects of India, China, Japan, Russia and the US, such as the Rampal coal-fired power plant and the Rooppur nuclear power plant, are being implemented in Bangladesh. India has ample political clout, China’s power lies in its big funds. Every project has a number of financial beneficiaries among ruling elites. Greed for profit of the powerful groups has increased (beyond any limit in absence of any accountability. That is why construction costs of roads, bridges and other projects in Bangladesh are the highest in the world.
The government is now propagating a concept of ‘development democracy’ and celebrating the success of its unprecedented authoritarian rule as a decade of development. We have seen twice in the past such decades of autocracy and ‘development’ combine. One was during the sixties under the rule of General Ayub Khan, the other as in the eighties under General Ershad.
There is similarity between those two decades and the current one, but differences too. The similarity is in the sheer volume of infrastructure projects and the lack of transparency in the finance along with high level of corruption. The main difference between the present decade and those two of the past is that the former two autocrats did not have organised political party and support base. In both of those instances, after ascending to power through martial law, the autocrats tried to use state power to establish their own party and to pull public support. Ayub Khan’s ‘basic democracy’ was used to spread the power net to the union level. Ershad made similar attempts through the upazila system. But the present government came to power with organised party and with a huge electoral victory. The present ruling party is the oldest and largest political party in the country who successfully exploits its earned credibility for leading Liberation War in 1971 to do things opposite to the spirit of Liberation War. We know that, when autocracy is buoyed by public support, a propensity towards fascist politics and culture merges.
The imperial fascist sermon ‘either with us or against us,’ with the declaration of war on (read: of) terror, an eternal war, has been shaping present global (dis) order. This mantra has been used as clearly a provocation for unfolding hate politics and creating fertile ground for corporate grabbing in association with racist communal right wing politics in different parts of the world. Moreover, governments in different countries have taken the mantra as a justification to curtail democratic rights in extremist way, usurp political power, give free hand authority to public resource grabbers and corporate lords. The present regimes in countries like Bangladesh, India are taking full advantage of this global fascist environment for strengthening their authoritarian rule.
It is a common concern in the country that how can we create space to make a difference, to create a condition for people, youth in particular, to become a strong force to fight extremism in any form? In this context, one question remains crucial that how can it be done when the State itself becomes extremist, when the law enforcement agencies become unregulated instrument of coercion, when the judicial process becomes redundant, when people are deprived of free expression of opinion? If this scenario remains then other extremism will surely flourish.
Only breathing space can be created by the people specially youth who, despite repression and fear, continue questioning the hegemonic power, continue thinking in open mind and remain active to fight injustice and discrimination, remain active and creative in favour of public rights and resources and environment. I know ruling classes at home and abroad, despite their rhetoric, would be happy to embrace religious extremists and drug addicts to destroy the new youth of hope. At the present moment, nevertheless, I find hope with them who stands to demand justice for Twaki, Tonu, Afsana, Dipon, Avijit, Sagor-Runi…; who stands to save Sundarban against a disastrous mad project; who stands against repressive laws and coercive actions by law enforcing agencies; who stand with workers for their rights and security; who stands against ethnic religious gender violence and discrimination; and who stands against extremist attacks on public by the different visible-invisible groups as well as by the state and who still are capable of dreaming a country of free people, a society without discrimination and oppression.

(Anu Muhammad: Professor of Economics, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has been teaching Economics since 1982, also taught in Anthropology from 1991 to 2005. His research interests include: Globalization, Social Justice and transformation, Gender, NGO and Energy. He had been visiting scholar in Columbia University, USA (1993) and Manitoba University, Canada (2001). He also visited Germany, Norway, Venezuela, Cuba, India, Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar to attend seminars and conferences.
Professor Muhammad is the Member Secretary of ‘National Committee to protect oil gas mineral resources, port and power, Bangladesh’ a national alliance for protecting natural resources and public interest. He is the editor of Sarbojonkotha (public voice) a Bangla journal on socio economoic issues, published quarterly since November 2014. He has more than 30 published Books. -Email: [email protected])