by Shafiqul Islam (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 25, No. 2, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1416)
Last month, Shaikh Hasina Wajed, leader of the Awami League, was sworn in as the prime minister of Bangladesh, thus ending 21 years in the political wilderness. Her 19-member cabinet was also sworn in despite the Awami League being just shy of an overall majority in the 330-seat parliament.
Like Begum Khaleda Zia whom she ousted as prime minister, Shaikh Hasina also carries the mantle of a slain leader. She is the daughter of Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, the rabble rouser who led the separatist struggle for Bangladesh in 1971. Mujib was assassinated by army officers on August 15, 1975 together with his entire family. Hasina was the sole family member to survive the massacre because she was away in India at the time.
Politics in the subcontinent are largely a family affair. Both in Pakistan, from which Bangladesh separated in 1971, and India, politics are controlled by a few families. In Pakistan, a small, parasitical feudal class, of which Benazir Bhutto is a member, has dominated politics since its creation in 1947. In India, the Nehru dynasty ruled the roost for much of its independent history.
Bangladesh is no exception. Begum Zia gained prominence and sympathy because her husband, general Zia-ur Rahman, then the country’s president, was assassinated by fellow officers in 1981. She managed to cash in on the sympathy vote faster than Shaikh Hasina.
For nearly two years, Bangladesh was gripped by political violence as the Awami League jostled to drive the BNP from office following the local bodies polls in February 1994. Since the Awami League did well, it demanded the immediate ouster of Begum Zia’ s government.
Subcontinental politicians, especially in Pakistan and Bangladesh, are an impatient lot. They believe that they have an inherent right to rule and if they lose an election, it is immediately attributed to rigging by their opponents. Also, in each country, one candidate is allowed to stand from several constituencies, to ensure that the leaders of political parties get into parliament.
This was also witnessed in Bangladesh. While the results of 299 constituencies were declared, by the time a vote of confidence was taken in parliament, the number of MPs had dropped to 284 because some candidates, including the main party leaders, stood and won in up to five constituencies each. They can retain only one seat and the others will be filled in by-elections.
The two-year long political uncertainty has taken its toll of the Bangladeshi economy. For years, derided as a basket case, Bangladesh had made major strides in improving exports, especially in the textile sector. Political stability is necessary to restore the economy back to health.
On June 20, Bangladesh’s caretaker government announced the country’s ‘provisional no-new-tax’ budget for the fiscal year 1996/97 which starts this month. The budget envisages revenue earnings of 171.2 billion taka (US$4.1 billion) and expenditure of 121.03 billion taka. There is, surprisingly a surplus of 50.17 billion taka, which will be spent on development. The new budget is, of course, subject to the approval of the Awami League-led government.
More than half of Bangladesh’s 118 million people live below the [government-set] poverty line of $11.12 per month or a daily calorie intake of 2,122 . Annual per capita income is about US$240, according to official figures. The country is expected to receive about US$1.6 billion in foreign aid this year, against $1.9 billion in 1995/96 to finance development and imports.
Three major factors can impede the country’s economic progress: eruption of political violence; intervention of the armed forces, or natural disasters like cyclones and floods. While there is no control over nature, the first two are man-made. This month, there have been reports of escalating violence and crime in major cities. Given the volatile nature of the people, it is the first two that have caused much havoc with the lives of the impoverished masses.
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 199