Bangladesh: A Left Alternative
By Nayma Qayum for AlalODulal.org
The left does not have a visible presence in contemporary Bangladeshi politics. Perhaps its complex and somewhat unraveled history limits the imagination of its possibilities. Or maybe it is held back by the reputation that it has earned over the years. At least in popular sentiment – dinner table and chayer-dokan conversations, popular social media outlets, and even in think-tank scholarship – Bangladeshis rarely envision the left as a viable political alternative. Thus, the very thought of building a left alternative in Bangladesh can be exhausting.
However, Bangladesh needs a left presence in mainstream politics. The country owes its remarkable poverty alleviation rates to the service sector, driven mostly by informal labor. Although this ever-expanding working class forms the backbone of the country’s economy, its interests are largely underrepresented in politics. Although a new labor law now provides the freedom to form trade unions, it will hardly be easy for working class politics to remain independent of Bangladesh’s ruling-party-dominated political sphere. As is the case in authoritarian regimes, it is not unlikely for trade unions to be absorbed into the state machinery instead of existing as pressure groups. In a different scenario, where trade unions may fail to institutionalize at all. And a mobilized but unorganized working class can only further contribute to the decay of Bangladesh’s already failing political institutions. A left political force can represent the interests of this growing class of informal workers and create a presence of these workers as a pressure group.
Bangladesh has also experienced a recent surge in religious politics. The country’s politics is largely centered on service delivery. Since the 1980s, religious organizations have competed with national and international development organizations to bring essential services to the rural poor in areas as diverse as health care, legal aid, and welfare goods. The absence of strong local institutions may have provided the religious right with opportunities to establish strong foothold in grassroots politics. Thus there is now a question of who represents the rural poor and whether their interests are truly represented through existing avenues. Is the support for mainstream political parties and the religious right a manifestation of representative politics? Or, are citizens embracing these groups as they provide the only viable option? Is there room for the left to emerge and provide the poor and working classes with a political alternative?
Finally, service delivery in Bangladesh is dictated by foreign agendas. Not only do bilateral donors and international funding agencies dictate Bangladesh’s national development plans, most grassroots development occurs through programs that operate on a cross-national level. There is a large discrepancy between policies and programs on the one hand and the situation on the ground on the other. Bangladesh needs its own model of economic and political development; one that looks beyond foreign agendas and towards building its own capacities, and is based on a concrete understanding of the circumstances and challenges on the ground.
Bangladesh needs a strong left presence to address these challenges. A left presence does not necessarily refer to a left majority, but rather, to a polity with left parliamentary representation, student activism, and most importantly, trade union and grassroots associational activities. Imagine a Bangladesh where small businesses in the villages operated through cooperatives and networks that increased market access, created opportunities for savings, and collateral for building an asset base.
In order to emerge as a viable political force, the left must re-imagine itself, and construct an identity beyond that of theorists-lacking-real-world perspective, or activists-turned-NGO-officials. Here, I raise three questions to consider.
First of all, the left needs to ask of itself what it means to be left in contemporary Bangladesh. In October 2013, South Asia Solidarity Initiative organized the Ghadar Convergence, a coming together of progressive activists and thinkers from South Asia and the United States. The convergence ended with this very question as relevant to the left in South Asia. In the closing plenary, activist Ravi Sinha had said of India, that the contemporary left faces new challenges, which differ radically from challenges it faced when it came into being under the conditions of colonial oppression. In Bangladesh, too, the left emerged under structural conditions that differ from contemporary challenges – repressive governments, weak state institutions, a wealthy industrial class, and a working class (the backbone of the economy) that has neither the space nor the institutional support to organize. The left must re-imagine itself within this structural context, and that requires moving at least a little bit away from it past and theorizing based on what was.
The left must also envision what kind of a state Bangladesh could be and outline the path it should take towards that goal. At least two dimensions become important here – the relationship between the state and the economy, and the relationship between the state and religion. The current institutional structure permits workers’ oppression in industries that also form the backbone of the economy. So, what battle must the left wage against the industrial class? Can the left imagine its politics in a way that allows industrial growth to coexist with their vision of progressive politics? Is there a different battle that one can wage, not against industries, but against inequality, patriarchy, and the lack of adherence to workers’ rights?
The relationship between politics and religion become equally important. Can the left be a viable option in a society that is not only predominantly Muslim, but is increasingly embracing Islamic politics? Grassroots religions organizations have been long involved in a tug of war with secular NGOs in rural Bangladesh. This growing grassroots Islamic presence is only recently staring to meet the public eye. For politics to be truly representative, the left must coexist with this growing right. Can the two groups pursue such coexistence despite their ideological differences? What role should the new state carve out or bilateral donors and lending agencies? The vast majority of the country’s rural poor benefit from handouts that come from bilateral organizations and World Bank funds. The left has to imagine a place for itself within this scenario.
Finally, the left must invest its energies in building a strong grassroots organizational base. How does one mobilize support among the poor in a society where rural politics almost always hinges on service delivery? Within this scenario, what can the left offer that the two ruling parties cannot?
In early 2014, a new political party was launched in Bangladesh by the name of Aam Janatar Dal (Common People’s Party). The party was inspired by the principles of Maulana Bashani and aimed to uphold the rights of the common people. The convener and spokesperson of the party claimed that the party would free the people of Bangladesh from the slavery of Awami League and BNP. Writer and activist Zia Hassan wrote in Alalodulal:
“We Bangladeshis have seen so much dishonesty and crime in the name of politics that we are naturally inclined to distrust. Our trust cannot be gained through press conferences or face book posts. You must win us over with your actions.
Bangladesh does not need an Aam Janata Party. It needs a grassroots party that can organize citizens and fight for their rights within existing social spaces. There is plenty of room here for that.”
Does the left have the unwavering commitment to see this through? A few years ago, I was in conversation with a writer who had actively engaged with the left movements of the early seventies. I asked him why the movements failed. He said, “We were probably not dedicated enough. We did not stick it through. Two or three years were not enough. We needed to wear our lungis and toil with the farmers in the fields, month after month, year after year. We could not gain the peoples’ trust because we did not stay at it for long enough.”
Whichever path the left ends up taking will be a long and difficult one. And there will be more questions along the way. But the left must start addressing some of these issues, and move forward amidst these new challenges by first deconstructing, and then re-imagining itself.
[This piece is based on comments at the panel "Bangladesh Tomorrow" held at the Graduate Center, CUNY, NY in January 2014]
Nayma Qayum is Adjunct Assistant Professor at Pace University and a member of the Alalodulal Editorial Collective.