Dhaka consensus

Posted in democracy, Islamists, politics by jrahman on April 17, 2017

The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity — wrote WB Yeats nearly a century ago.  Given his own illiberal politics, I am pretty sure to him neither were liberals particularly good nor nationalists and statists bad.  But these days, it does seem that it is the liberal democrats who lack all conviction, while those full of passionate intensity usually idolise a strong state in the service of ‘the people’ — though often there is vocal, sometimes violent, disagreement about exactly who constitutes the said people.

Liberalism has never had much support in Bangladesh, where the writers and critics dealing with ideas have tended to cling to some variant of statism and nationalism.  In fact, as Shafiqur Rahman notes, there is:

…. a curious complete inversion of progressive thinking in Bangladesh compared to the rest of the world.

Throughout the world universalism and rationality are regarded as the bedrock of progressive thinking; in Bangladesh parochial nationalism and emotion are the guiding principles of progressives. Throughout the world progressive historians regard debunking national exceptionalism and national glory as essential for historiography; in Bangladesh progressives regard glorifying national history and suffusing it with strong emotions as the sacred duty of historians.

Throughout the world the best literature are dispassionate and clinical analysis of the human and social condition, in Bangladesh the more emotions you can pour in art and literature the better is its reception to the critical elite. Throughout the world the best political commentators are those who can provide detached, reasoned analysis of political developments, in Bangladesh the best political commentary are saturated with messianic imagery and the most cloying emotional appeals.

Shafiq calls this Bangladeshi intellectual paradox, and goes on to offer an explanation.  His thesis is that in the post-9/11 world,  Bangladeshi elite (his term) reached a consensus that ‘…a fundamentalism based on national glory, sacrosanct past and hallowed individuals’ was the only defence against the risk of a political order rooted in fundamentalist Islam, and liberal notions such as ‘universalism, rationality, freedom of expression’ would only weaken that defence.

I broadly agree with Shafiq’s analysis — under different life circumstances might have written something like this myself.  Of course, a good piece should make one think, and this made me get out of my stupor to jot down my thoughts.

As a general rule, I find terms like elite, or the working class, quite problematic, for they mean very different things to different people.  If the purpose of our writing is to illuminate, then using such words can hurt, unless they are clearly explained.  It seems to me that Shafiq uses the term ‘elite’ interchangeably to mean two different groups of people: those who wield the money and power in Bangladesh, and those who form opinions.  The first includes the people who run the civil-military machineries of the state as well as the owners and managers of the large business houses and the NGOs.  The second includes the ones who dominate the media and the cultural scene.  Of course, in practice, the two groups largely overlap, and produces the politicians who run local councils and constituencies as their fiefs.  But for analytical purposes, I think it’s useful to draw a distinction between the two.

Let’s call the first group political elite, or the establishment.  As I have argued previously, Bangladeshi establishment, above everything else, wants stability.  A related observation is made by Naomi Hossain, who argues that in the turbulent 1970s, ‘an elite consensus emerged that committed the Bangladeshi ruling class to protecting the rural masses against the crises of subsistence and survival that so frequently swept their way’.  I look forward to exploring her fascinating thesis in detail.  For now, it seems to me that the establishment consensus about stability has an unequivocal implication.  To quote Shafiq:

There is no question about which kind of fundamentalism is the worse threat for Bangladesh. At its worst, one kind of fundamentalism would render Bangladesh an increasingly chaotic kleptocracy. At its worst the other one would lead to a murderous, totalitarian theocracy. So it is not hard to see the choice that a learned and informed member of the elite would make.

Digging a bit deeper, and thinking through the political history of the past few decades, it seems to me that the establishment consensus in the 1990s was to support two large political parties cycling in and out of power through regular elections as the best mean of attaining stability.  This is perhaps why various attempts at the so-called minus-2 — with Kamal Hossain, Muhammad Yunus or various generals — had been half-hearted at best.  As an aside, I also agree with Faham Abdus Salam, whose suggestions for the current state of Bangladeshi opposition I see as an application of Shafiq’s thesis.

Of course, as Keynes put it, the power of the vested interest pales before that of ideas.  And the ideas and opinions forming elite of Bangladesh also backs the nationalist fundamentalism unequivocally over the religious one.  Here I think the cleavage is a bit older than 9/11.  Bengali Muslims’ identity issues go back to at least the 19th century.  A decade ago, I used to think that this identity question was effectively settled as the majority that was born after 1971 came to identify themselves as Bangladeshi.  In light of Shahbag and Shapla Chottor, I am not so sure anymore.  But then again, I also think the current Prime Minister is a very astute reader of the public mood, so perhaps some form synthesis is forming in the identity front after all.   Too early to tell.

What does all this mean for the prospect of liberalism in Bangladesh?  Considering how fragile the liberal projects seems to be in the Anglophone heartlands of the ideology, perhaps it is bleak indeed.  Nonetheless, we can apply the framework developed by Dani Rodrik and colleagues to think about the question.  Perhaps another day.



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