Is Bangladesh a Quintessential example of a ‘soft state’?

May 10, 2020

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To many of our neo-liberal intellectuals, the rushed return of thousands of garment workers to their working place on the first week of April and gathering of about one lakh people at Brahman Baria for attending a funeral may not seem to have something in common between themselves. But even a superficial coherent study, if not detailed into the causes and aftermaths of those and alike incidents, tells much more than an ordinary story- one which is just a small facet of a so delicate intricate state scenario. Nobel laureate economist Gunnar Myrdal terms this delicacy as ‘soft state’.

As Myrdal suggests, one of the main features of the soft state is that most political powers are in the hands of the upper-class. This upper-class people are in a position wherefrom voicing egalitarian laws and policies are very affordable. Nevertheless, their position and strata in the society makes them an invisible organ of the state, and ultimately they find themselves in an unchallenged position to prevent implementation of policies. Probably, this classic dichotomy between enactment of noble laws and policies, and their implementation has never been in such picture-perfect form in reality as it could be found in these sweeping events.

The government of Bangladesh, on 2nd April issued a circular extending the shutdown for seven more days. The garment factories were not included as emergency services to remain open, nor that should it be. Yet, just after two days, the garment owners started recalling their workers, even baited them to come with the fear of layoffs and wage-cuts. Following this fudgy decision, severe criticisms grew up, government urged and that resulted into re-closing of the garments when the workers just reached about. As expected, the workers stood up and went to the streets to protest amid the danger of spreading highly contagious covid-19 virus. The audacity of ‘BGMEA’ did not go unnoticed as masses took on social media platforms to protest, with the exception of public officials and state ministers whose reaction was less of a mild chiding. The ambivalence became clearer and clearer. But that is what this state has been since its birth- longing for a far cry revolutionary utopian sense of development by forming policies that are rarely implemented, if at all. The numbers of ‘BGMEA’ like institutions or persons having similar institutional force may be fewer in numbers, but there is no question about their being less susceptible to government’s control. Their viable influence upon economy, along with political co-operations ensued into an invisible state machinery that is apparently beyond the reach of the rest.

‘BGMEA’ has some heavy critiques, both from the public and politicians. However, not all such institutions get fair amount of criticism. The persons who called out people over social media to come to funeral at B-Baria and make it crowded with lakhs of people are likely to be a part of that category. Whereas, in India the Tabligh Jamat organizers were blocked under Indian Penal Code for violating government guidelines and culpable homicide, here, in Bangladesh the consequence seems to be opposite as the controversy got buried with withdrawal of ASP and two other police officials. The organizers and liable persons were not even called out. Ironically, this time, the public were of mixed opinion as to the fate of the organizers. Some even advocated for them pointing at administration only and got satisfied with the withdrawals of public officials. All these symptoms refer to a generic soft state where social indiscipline is abundantly evident, people breaking laws and seldom being punished. Nevertheless, some section of people seems to enjoy that impunity more and more. This section is known as ‘political brokers’ for their effective control over unorganized masses. The inherent vested interests, and unequivocal mandate over a huge number of Madrasa students and religious people are probably the secret behind their cult like power as people from six neighborhood districts joined the funeral amid the fear of being infected, though only God knows how many of them actually believed that gathering could get them in contact with covid-19. But for the government, sanctioning them was a political choice, of course a hard one with consequences. And for the time being, government choose the right one only because the opposite could pose an instability. However, everything that is politically good for the time being does not mean it would be so in the future as the susceptibility to government would lessen more and more, societal indiscipline would be far worse if this were to be continued.

For a soft state, aforementioned choice making is always hard as its society is highly politicized. The risk of politics is so high that it discourages long term policies, forces the leaders to choose short term strategies and eschew long-run commitments if they want to hold on to their tenure. It is a matter of no surprise that a society does not get the features of a politicized one out of air. But what makes a society politicized? Myrdal in his ‘Asian Drama' answers that it is absence of common consensus to ultimate state goals- which goals should be prioritized and what means should be taken to achieve the goal itself, which makes it highly politicized. The term state goals, of course, having certain implications, deserves further explanation. Every existing country has its own goals and plans for future. In our case, we have our fundamental principles of state policy enshrined in the part (II) of the constitution. These, being built upon nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, give a broad idea as to state machinery and state goals. But the job of trajecting the public consensus and opinion in favor of a particular state goal, completely devolve upon the politicians. Unfortunately, most of the times, the political tenures have been misused and, instead of trying to make a socialist and secular egalitarian society, the tenure-holders carried the society all through the path of communalization and politicization. From Zia to Ershad, no one left any stone unturned to manipulate the public consensus to hold on to their tenure. But, in the process of doing so, politicization replaced socialization; state religion invaded the place of economic progress. In the end, we as a nation got confused as to what goal the state should aim to achieve.

Now, one may wonder whether this state scenario is a post-independence phenomena or something of recent origin. Providing a clear-cut answer would be hard as all we can do is to reconstruct the past. If we initiate to do that and start to analyze the history from the very beginning of the state, we find adoption of a pro-human rights constitution and formation of a ‘planning commission’ by Bangabandhu led ad hoc assembly in 1972. But the aftermath is not something to be proud of. The revolution of 1971 got derailed by passive revolution in 1975. Ever since, policies have been made on a wholesale basis, albeit, only some of those been actually implemented. It should be remembered that these two recent incidents are not alone to portray the symptoms of the existence of a soft state, there are more cases that are similar and that result in Bangladesh filling up of the criteria of a soft state as easily as a nation possibly could. With these incident occurring on a routine basis, each day, the nation gets a step ahead toward stagnation, politicians lean more to political opportunism and populism overtaking revolutionary constitutional principles.

Still the state looks stable from outside, while being fragile inside. The process of getting soft would continue until hard decisions are made, common consensus as to goal is achieved and most importantly, the concept of politicized society is given up.

The other way around, the worst days are coming.

Tags : Soft state , Public Policy

Saurov Dash Roni is a fourth year student at the Department of Law, University of Dhaka.