There was a time when an outbreak of small pox could and would wipe out a family, a neighbourhood or an entire village. In Sylhet there was an unmentionable horrific curse, “Moile Nito tore”, which my grandma used to utter rather freely and frequently. Fortunately, she did not have a direct line to Allah like the current day mullahs, so we are still alive and kicking. Moile means a disease (typically small pox) and “nito tore” means to take you away. These days after the January 5 elections and the continued economic insatiability because of the lingering political turmoil in Bangladesh brings me back to the days of “moile nito” somewhat fondly. I want my grandma to come out of the kitchen and point her spatula towards the sky and call for a pox on both the houses of Awami League and BNP. We really have had enough!
Why such a thing to ask for you may wonder? First, look at the economic slowdown and projected 2014 slowdown since the days of non-stop “Oborodh” and strike in the name of democracy. It seems that democracy is the floozy everyone wants to use without regard to what does democracy really wants herself. More on that later. Let us get the facts out first. In the singularly important garments sector the days of “Oborodhs”, murders and mayhem are beginning show the results of the poison fruit:
1. According to BGMEA and Bangladesh Bank reports, some 500 to 1,000 factories (smallish and medium sized ones) have closed their doors. Thus getting rid of thousands of people from their jobs. This is direct result of 22 days of “Oborodhs” and 71 days of total shut down.
2. The RMG sector relies on a projection (forecast) of the order volume for their hiring and capital expenditures. The 2014 procurement forecast is running some 25% below what the industry expected. True there are factors outside Bangladesh’s control such as realignment of the retail sector in the US and Europe, but most of the downturn can be attributed to murders and mayhem that was visited upon Bangladesh and spooked the buyers.
3. The data of FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) is not quite available but anecdotally we know that is in precipitous decline. A Chinese friend of mine who has done all the work to invest about $750, 000 has just put everything on pause and waiting to see if things get better.
All these trauma and destruction have come about because of simple ego of the two Begums. There cannot be any rational explanation as to what has taken place and what ills will take place in the future months. By all account Khaleda Zia and her BNP may very well have had won the elections if they bothered to participate. But, she was smarting from the tactics followed by the Awami League in invalidating the national elections that was held under her regime. So, she is following the tribal rule of an eye for an eye. As we all know in the land where they follow the rule of an eye for an eye, the one pretty soon finds everyone is blind. The PM decided that she is not going to let Khaleda dictate the modalities of elections, come hell or high water. So what if this brings about a one-party rule and unabated corruption which she and her son turn blind eyes to and redefines who qualifies as family members! Currently the visibly corrupt nephews and cousins are no longer family. I am betting they will get back to becoming “family” as the heat of the one-party elections cools down.
The problem is the economic engine that has brought the braggarts out among the ruling party members can evaporate quickly by the political instability and uncertainty. To look at how that can happen we do not have to go very far to the past. We all have heard of the Asian Tigers like Taiwan, Korea and China. But the original Asian tiger was, are you ready for it, none other than Pakistan! During the reign of Ayub Khan the growth rate in West Pakistan ranged from 5.1 to 7.2 in East Pakistan the growth hovered from 1.7% to 5.1%. The disparity was due to outright theft in terms of allocating the foreign exchange earned by jute exports. But, the country was rapidly industrialising and it was on par with countries such as Thailand.
Then came desires of the military to hold onto power and not let the “darkies” from Bengal rule the whole country. This desire to rule radicalised the Bengali politicians including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who put forward the 6-point demands. The 6-point demands were still working within the framework of a federated Pakistan. But, even that was too much for the military. The net result of the “all or nothing” mindset was the bloodshed of 1971 and eventual independence of Bangladesh.
Why am I telling you ancient history? Because I think the fools who forget history are condemned to repeat it. There is a deep vein of exclusionary impulse among the people that are in power or aspire to be in power. Even back in the dark days of the 1971 war, Sheikh Fazlul Huq Moni and his cohorts formed a close alliance with Indian R&AW (the Indian CIA for a shorthand) formed Mujib Bahini which was better armed but not necessarily better trained. I still remember the purity tests they administered. One could not join the Mujib Bahini if one was not a true blue Awami League or Chattra League member. At the end, Indira Ghandi had to put in her trusted senior advisor DP Dhar to rein in the exclusionary impulses. He did an admirable job that lasted till Bangladesh became independent. After that we went back to norm. I am afraid that exclusionary impulse still rules.
Maybe it is lack of maturity in a new(ish) democracy but I contend it is the kleptomania that informs the impulse. Both the BNP and the AL want to exclude each other and have the booty of power and money to themselves. We know from history that simply does not work. The exclusionary impulse of Mujib Bahini gave rise to Rakkhi Bahini and the eventual coups by various armed elements and the shameful assassination of Sheikh Mujib and most of his family. The exclusionary tactics by Begum Zia caused her to lose total control of the government and led to the lingering animosity between the two Begums.
The real fear I have is that the exclusionary zeal of the Begums will result in an economic meltdown, a la, Pakistan. We can go from say 5.6% growth to say 2% growth and the poverty and deprivation will return with a vengeance. We know it is possible. Look at Pakistan going from the first Asian Tiger to now a mangy cat with leprosy! We need political stability and security of movement in order to maintain the growth of the country. None of this is feasible while the political instability goes on, when there is utter uncertainty if one will make it back home in the evening after work and when the business people cannot quantify risks.
Let not the people of the country seek in silence, ‘let there be a pox on both the Begum’s houses’ …
Kayes Ahmed lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA with his three dogs. He runs a small yet global apparel and design business based in Boulder.