The Zia synthesis: society and economy

Posted in economics, history, people, politics by jrahman on January 19, 2012

Had he not been killed in 1981, Ziaur Rahman would have been 76 today.  Despite the twists and turns of politics, over three decades from his death, when things actually work in Bangladesh, they work along the path set by this military strongman turned a very popular politician.  And they work because the politics of synthesis crafted by Zia had continued from the work of his predecessors, and his successors saw the merit in keeping them.

And yet, the discourse about Zia is dominated by lies of various degree.  Even his own political creation, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, doesn’t try to engage in a serious discussion about his synthesis.  In a modest attempt at rectifying this, I started a five-part series last May.  The first part covered politics and governance.  Over the fold is a discussion on various socioeconomic issues.  Future installments will cover sociocultural issues and the foreign policy, while the final post will point out how along one crucial dimension, the Zia synthesis has completely been abandoned.  Not in all aspects does this blog agree with the synthesis — the disapprovals are also pointed out.

Society and economy

In a series of recent articles and media appearances (one example is here), Amartya Sen has noted how Bangladesh has better social indicators than India despite having only half the per capita income.  This theme has been picked up by a number of 40th anniversary pieces that note that Bangladesh has done pretty well when it comes to human development, despite unfriendly nature and dysfunctional politics.  As it happens, the beginning of pretty much all the examples of ‘good results’ recorded by Bangladesh can be traced to the Zia era.

Take population control for example.  In the 1970s, population was growing by 3% a year, and was expected to double to 150 million by the mid-1990s.  That has been delayed by well over a decade, and population growth rate is now between 1-1.5%.  At the time of independence, Bangladeshi women on average had 7 children.  By 2008, according to the World Bank, fertility rate had fallen to 2.3 — close to replacement level that stabilises population.   Look at the chart — when do you see the beginning of the sustained dip in this rate?

And unlike in China or India, the decline in fertility rate hasn’t been accompanied by grotesque discrimination against female infants (effectively female infanticide in places).  In fact, on metrics related to living standards of poor women, Bangladesh tend to pretty well compared with its peers.

The reason for this includes concerted government efforts — something again initiated by the Zia regime, and continued by everyone since.  But activities of the NGOs and the emergence of the ready made garment sector have also played their part.  Of course, both the first Aarong shop and Desh Garments (first RMG factory) started when Zia was the president.

What about self sufficiency in food?  The green revolution came to Bangladesh under Zia.

What about the remittance boom that has kept Bangladesh afloat for the past decade?  The Gulf labour market opened under Zia.

We can see a pattern here.  But let’s not belabour the point.  Instead, let’s ask — how much of this was because of conscious decisions by Zia?  How much of this would have happened anyway under Mujib had he lived?  Was Zia simply lucky?

After all, it’s not like Mujib was unaware of the importance of population control, or food security, or women’s empowerment.  And he tried to establish relations with the Arab countries.  The thing is, Mujib’s efforts failed, while Zia succeeded in initiating or establishing the processes that led to the achievements we celebrate today.  The question then becomes, why Zia and not Mujib?

The standard answer to this question is that Mujib had to deal with a war ravaged country while Zia came in when the hard task of reconstruction was done.  But this standard story is only half true, and therefore all wrong.  Yes, Mujib had a war ravaged country.  But the country had hardly been reconstructed when Zia assumed power.  If anything, after the 1974 famine and the impacts of Bakshal and the coups of 1975, Bangladesh was in a more perilous condition when Zia assumed power.

I would contend that Zia succeeded not because his task was easier, but because he was a pragmatic technocrat who eschewed ideology and grandiosity, and adopted ‘whatever works’.  Thus, for example, he facilitated the NGOs to expand not because there was an ideological dispensation for it, but because he recognised that these agencies were providing a service that the state machinery was incapable of delivering.

I will talk about foreign policy in a later post.  For now, it’s important to note that Zia received political as well as economic support from the Red China right from the beginning.  And China itself was undergoing its transition from the Mao to Deng era at the time Zia emerged in Bangladesh.  From all accounts, Zia’s pragmatism seems to be heavily influenced by Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’.

This is not to say that Zia was ‘ideology free opportunist’.  Far from it.  The opportunist thing to do would have been to talk about socialism while encouraging crony capitalism — exactly how things are in today’s Bangladesh.  But Zia consciously and deliberately turned away from socialism.

Think about how radical this would have been in the late 1970s.  This was before the Reagan-Thatcher ascendancy, before the reform eras of China and India, before Glasnost and Perestroika.  Soviet Union was still exporting revolution, as was Red China.  Indeed, Zia himself was put to power by radical soldiers claiming to carry out a ‘people’s revolution’.  The opportunist thing to do would have been for Zia to dub himself the great socialist.

Instead, what Zia claimed to base his economic policies was ‘social justice’ — সামাজিক ন্যায়বিচার in Bangla.  Now, social justice has never actually been defined formally.  But we can guess what he would have meant by this from the policies and developments adopted and initiated under his watch.

I would contend that social justice would involve economic growth, which translated into jobs and income from the rural and urban poor and less affluent classes.  I would contend that social justice would mean stable prices and macroeconomic stability.  I would contend that social justice would mean government programmes that ensure safety nets such as food vouchers for the needy.  Social justice, I would suggest, would involve active government programmes for human development, and particularly development of the marginalised sections of the society.

Social justice, I would contend, is what Sen says Bangladesh is better at than India.

Interestingly, across the Muslim world, parties that are coming to power with popular mandate seems to contain ‘social justice’ or related terms such as welfare or development in their names.  It seems that Ziaur Rahman pioneered a synthesis that is still all too relevant not just in Bangladesh, but in other similar countries too.

12 Responses

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  1. Fugstar said, on January 20, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Is there a decent biography of either Mujib or Zia yet?

    FRom what I’ve been able to know, Zia was quite a risk taker, much like mujib, but more able to match talent and jobs that needed doing and less prone to demagog-giry. talent did not always yield to his demands through. I see Zia like the biryani maker we lack today.

    The term synthesis might be better replaced with integrative, as in bringing elements together. Synthesis implies too much of that good old effete intellectualism.

    Contrast this to the ahlal mujibs exclusivist framework, which takes a tip from mujibs ethno linguisting counter to muslim nationalism. Maybe Mujib, had he been in control of the forces unleashed by the situation and the entrance of Indian armed forces into the national scenario, would have been a better biryani maker.

    You mention that the NGOs were enabled during the Zia period. was their any particular decision point? or was this also part of the anything goes spirit of the time? NGOS giri is not something i associate with the BNP, except as something they would use to depoliticise and coopt potential opposition.

    There’s no need to see Zia as a pioneer of (islamic) social justice, the history of that extends further back than year zero (1971) through jamat e islam, land reform in east bengal, the 19th bloody century, toba tek singh gathering, Maulana bhashani.

    Imran khan is talking islamic welfare state these days. and good luck to him, and them.
    In Bangladesh if you talk about islamic governance they lock you up.

    Allahumma save us from developmentia.

    • jrahman said, on January 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      There isn’t any decent biography of either in English. On Mujib, Afsan Chowdhury has written articles, and there are interesting memoirs in Bangla. On Zia, there isn’t even that. Your best source would be contemporary articles in western and Indian media, and books about 1970s Bangladesh.

      I take your point re: Mujib. As I’ve written here, I believe Mujib very much understood the consequences of the forces he was unleashing.

      I think the NGOs were enabled as a pragmatic band aid in the context of severely limited state capacity.

      Of course there is a long history of the philosophy of social justice. But no one in pre-Zia Bangladesh put that philosophy in their political agenda. The leftists were dreaming about their revolutions. Nationalists of various types played identity politics. And Islam-pasand types cared about bibi talak and hillah marriage. It’s in that sense that Zia was a pioneer.

      As for the developments in the rest of the Muslim world, the point is not that Turkish or Arab or Indonesian politicians are going around being Zia-shoinik. Rather, when Islam-based politicians want to seriously contemplate politics beyond Hudood acts and the illegitimacy of anal sex, they arrive at the kind of synthesis that Zia articulated three decades ago.

      In Bangladesh, people who talk about Islamic governance do not talk about social justice. Jamaat has spent 40 years trying to regain their 1970 position. Their biggest so-called alim, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, delivers sermons that are little better than soft-porn. All the others — Islami Oikko Jote and Khilafat Andolon and such like — talk about either declaring XYZ kafir or making sure that women stay indoors. Social justice? I don’t think so.

      Re: synthesis — perhaps I am an effete intellectual? :p

  2. Fugstar said, on January 25, 2012 at 8:24 am

    My (small) experience is that they do, only the media and sochil fabric arent listening. This might have been the east pakistan islamic academy going on overdrive or me seeing neo faraizi possibilities everywhere.

    i would like to know more about who was in the room around zia’s renegotiation, because most of the islamiversity of the society had been purged by then.

    makes you wonder about how interesting things would have been had the awami league not outmanouvred all poltical differences.

  3. tacit said, on January 26, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    “Interestingly, across the Muslim world, parties that are coming to power with popular mandate seems to contain ‘social justice’ or related terms such as welfare or development in their names.”

    Yes, but so what? Case in point, the Freedom and Justice Party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s new parliamentary arm.

    “Although the Brothers do draw significant support from Egypt’s poor and working class, “the Brotherhood is a firmly upper-middle-class organization in its leadership,” says Shadi Hamid, a leading Muslim Brotherhood expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
    Not surprisingly, these well-to-do Egyptians are eager to safeguard their economic position in the post-Mubarak Egypt. Despite rising economic inequality and poverty, the Brotherhood does not back radical changes in Egypt’s economy.

    The Freedom and Justice Party’s economic platform is a tame document, rife with promises to root out corruption and tweak Egypt’s tax and subsidies systems, with occasional allusions to an unspecific commitment to ‘social justice.’ The platform praises the mechanisms of the free market and promises that the party will work for balanced, sustainable and comprehensive economic development.”

    • jrahman said, on February 4, 2012 at 10:56 am

      So this. Almost all political organisations in the modern world are at least ‘upper-middle-class’ in their leadership. Some organisations, seeking ‘radical change’ revolution have a novel way of hiding their class identity — apparently their upper-middle-class leadership is the ‘vanguard of the revolution’. And speaking of revolution, beware of people seeking ‘radical changes in the economy’, if such people are sincere, they will probably end up doing harm unintentionally, and they may not always be sincere.

      The MB “praises the mechanisms of the free market and promises that the party will work for balanced, sustainable and comprehensive economic development”. The same could be said of Zia. And I think that’s good.

  4. […] asked me about the advent of neoliberalism in Bangladesh.  Another has asked me whether my take on social justice is compatible with my general view of neoliberalism.  I thought a quick post should […]

  5. Zia at war « Mukti said, on May 30, 2012 at 6:13 am

    […] of rebutting X, write about Y, he told me-.  This (painfully slowly progressing) series is an attempt at that.  Meanwhile, a regular reader asked me to write about Zia’s role […]

  6. […] Ziaur Rahman.  The first installment was on politics and governance, while the second one was on society and economy.  My main contention is that when things work in Bangladesh, they work along the path set by Zia, […]

  7. Mamun said, on May 30, 2013 at 3:57 am

    Excilent write up

  8. Tarik Shomi said, on May 30, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    hahaha…far from being objective! The objectivity is rather subject to an individual’s political affiliation..e.g. population control thing was an effort by PSI through social marketing activities that started just after liberation and was at its peak during Ershad regime..again..with regards to social justice, the implementation of this would require the rejection of consumerism and communism..Interestingly Zia, conceived as a supporter of communism by his peers ( Taher, Manjur), later on promoted ultra consumerism..and to implement his so called ‘social justice’ paved the way to a consumer driven society. And the result is the lumpen class which has been patronized by all regimes after Zia..In fact the writer has written a thesis which will have several antithesis and may be at some point of time in future we will get the synthesis!!

  9. […] Mir, Dudu Mian,  and Bhashani. Post independence, we might observe Ziaur Rahman’s struggles and achievements, against internal and external opposition, in this vein, in laying the foundations of a modern […]

  10. […] Mir, Dudu Mian,  and Bhashani. Post independence, we might observe Ziaur Rahman’s struggles and achievements, against internal and external opposition, in this vein, in laying the foundations of a modern […]

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