26 March 2014.
By Binayak Sen.
Bangladesh’s experience of the last two decades suggests that decent long-term economic development can take place under political regimes engaged in a mimicry of democracy. In other contexts, arguably, such a mismatch between economic and political moments (unstable political equilibrium) would not have lasted long: it would lead either to authoritarian rule or to a more acceptable order of inclusive democracy. What is it in our past development that makes democratic mimicry persistent? There must be some structural factors that underline such democratic mimicry: in fact, the very factors that gave rise to our economic success also contained elements that contributed to democratic underdevelopment or even backtracking, marked by a dysfunctionality of political institutions with negative spill-overs on the society at large through sporadic uncontrolled outbreaks of extremist violence.
The basic narrative of Bangladeshi economic success is well known, but like most stories of success it can be told differently, especially tracing how these economic successes impacted the economic lives of the poor. The four main economic drivers of growth and development in the past two decades have been improvements in agriculture, rural non-farm sector, export-led industrialisation, and remittances. Bangladesh’s efforts in giving impetus to its poor through these four economic drivers was supported by simultaneous social investments in basic health and human development, such as providing decent coverage of preventive health care and primary through secondary education, especially for the female population and the poor. The truly striking facet in this story of transformation is the crucial role of relatively unskilled labour – noticeably including female labour from the 2000s onwards – in the agriculture, rural non-farm, export-led industries, and construction sectors.
While this story is well known to close economic observers of Bangladesh, there is less discussion about the impact of “poor” economics on other aspects of economic, social and political lives. The virtual lack of rapid and mass public transport in urban areas is perhaps one of the most striking economic expressions of the inadequacies of democratic culture in Bangladesh. The poor as citizens have simply lacked the voice to demand decent public transport, both in terms of intra-city travel and inter-city connectivity. Such absence of citizen voice has been a general problem afflicting the entire range of public services. Had the middle class been the driving force of economic development, the likelihood is that it would have been more successful in extracting better-quality public services from the state. The corollary question is: Why have the voices of the non-poor not been strong enough either to extract better public services in Bangladesh?
There is an analytical gap between crossing the poverty line and becoming part of the middle class: in the case of Bangladesh, rapid movement out of poverty was not matched by an equally rapid increase in the population share of the middle class. In a sense, the success of poor economics came as part of a Faustian bargain: while poverty was reduced, inequality in the distribution of income, assets and power rose sharply. The ultimate consequence of this sharp rise in inequality was the diversion of focus of the politically influential upper and upper middle classes away from improving public services by holding state actors accountable. Inequality enabled these privileged classes to rely more on private exclusive services (such as private transport, private security services, private clinics and private schools) to form an enclave of their own, with little traction with the system of distribution of public services.
This political elitism in Bangladesh was different from similar situations in Africa, in that it also permitted a considerable degree of economic mobility for the poor. In this implicit social contract, the poor benefit but the middle class and upper class benefit much more on the backs of the poor. Tolerance for inequality depends on the durable success of this covenant, on which the Bangladeshi democracy has rested up until now.
Poor economics have had significant footprints on the entire ensemble of relations that contribute to the low quality of Bangladeshi political culture: the choice of political candidates, the relationship between the major political parties, the degree of inner-party democracy, the pattern of personal loyalty to the leaders and leader-worship, the rhetoric of political leaders, and, in general, the level of political discourse. Democratic mimicry is apparent in all of these.
As long as the political class regards the poor to be the median voter, the leaders do not feel enough electoral pressure to change the existing political and administrative practices, both within the parties and within various branches of the state. Not only have social dynamics – seen through the angle of the changing median voter – failed to create sufficient political pressure for political reform, they may have become an excuse for political leaders to evade and postpone institutional changes that are being demanded of them. For example, the need for modernisation in politics (campaign finance reform and inner-party democracy, for instance) has been indefinitely postponed by invoking the argument that such reforms, while desirable, are not practical given the stage of economic development.
The failures of the poor and vulnerable non-poor in this regard are perhaps understandable, but why was the middle class not able to change the political culture? The answer lies in the fact that the formation of an economic middle class per se did not mean the growth of a political middle class willing to fight for the modernist ideals of political democracy. The middle class itself has also been a beneficiary of the system of poor economics – especially through urban property development, exports and remittances – and enjoyed their share of the spoils from corruption and rent-seeking. Ultimately, this has subdued and defused their reformist potential to take on both parties of the political equation (the government and the opposition alliance), even on basic libertarian issues such as political repression by the state and opposition violence against ordinary citizens, including ethnic and religious minorities.
Perry Anderson once noted that the economic causes underlying the dynamics of Tahrir Square movement were linked to vast educated unemployment along with rural distress. The Bangladeshi scenario has been different (so far) from that context because of the success of poor economics. Eventually, the sustainability of democratic mimicry could be challenged by the very process of development: the dialectics of poverty reduction contain the seeds for such change; as education and literacy increase, the first generation out of poverty, who have relied on the four economic drivers of poor economics, will graduate into the category of English-educated salaried middle class in a more industrialised and urbanised setting. Alternatively, the current middle class could become more active in demanding political change. Regardless, the evolutionary path of transition from poor economics to middle-class economics will not be devoid of tensions, slippages, conflicts and revolutions.