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BANGLADESH: Politics With Padma Bridge

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By Farooque Chowdhury

Politics with the planned Padma Bridge is now live in Bangladesh. Equations in politics that the planned bridge has generated are complex, multi-dimensional, and bear deeper implications in more than one level.

Accusations and counter-accusations centering the $2.9-billion bridge issue involve many actors, visible and invisible. The accuser, the world famous, and to many, infamous, World Bank, has also turned jurist and executioner, and the judgment was delivered while the judgment process was going on, and execution was carried our before the judgment was delivered.

As press reports said the WB approached the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Bangladesh corruption watchdog, submitted documents/evidences of alleged corruption and the anti-corruption agency claimed that necessary process was initiated.

Then the next scene in the drama was staged. The WB took its decision before the ACC announced completion of its process. The WB, the lead and coordinating agency in the consortium funding the bridge project, announced cancellation of funding $1.2-billion it had pledged for the project on Jun 29. Thus, an accuser turned not only executioner, but both, jurist and executioner.

Bangladesh politics, fully loaded with competition in its own form as in all other countries, found an issue in its agenda. Bangladesh Awami League, the political party heading the government, initially tried to explain the issue and publicly expressed hope for pursuing the WB in reversing the cancellation decision. Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition party in parliament, assumed traces of corruption.

The usual political bout began. Now the Dhaka press is running stories on accusations and counter-accusations aimed at political competitors: AL and BNP.

The opposition party, BNP, has tactical advantage. It can easily point fingers to the AL. Section of the Bangladesh opposition political elites have suggested compromise with the WB.

There are talks of favoring a particular firm, a universal capitalist reality. And, a few fingers point to the global lender.

But, all information is not placed before the public. And, strangely, Bangladesh progressive camp has not made strong demand to make the entire business transparent and a white paper to be prepared by an independent body. They had a better chance to reach public with the issue and unmasking motive and method the Bretton Woods institution follows as the bridge is very close to the heart of Bangladesh people. The global lender has given them a scope but that has yet been denied.

The party in government, AL, found tactical ground in another place: Political mobilization. Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh prime minister, made a call to patriotism and national honor as she dealt the issue in her speech delivered in the concluding day of the last session in the Bangladesh parliament. She cited the entire incident, her government’s efforts to dig and continue digging the alleged corruption. Then, she made observations and remarks, significant, in terms of the WB and honor of Bangladesh people. The Bangladesh prime minister outlined her government’s plan to finance the bridge construction with resources to be generated in home.

In a central leadership level meeting of AL, as Bangladesh media reported, Sheikh Hasina hinted role of Professor Muhammad Yunus, the micro credit proponent, behind the WB decision. However, the US ambassador in Dhaka issued a statement canceling the assumption related to the hinted role of Prof. Yunus.

Contributions to fund the construction project have been pledged by the Bangladesh parliament members and different sections of the society. These came out as a show of national honor in the face of high handedness. The Bangladesh government has drafted policy on opening bank accounts to raise fund for the purpose.

Sections of Bangladesh capital also expressed their willingness to finance the Padma (it should be Paddaa as Dacca, the Bangladesh capital, is now properly and correctly spelled Dhaka) bridge construction project.

In appearance the planned Padma Bridge over the river Padma, the lower part of the Ganges (Ganggaa) and one of the longest rivers in the world, has connected a lot of actors, within Bangladesh and outside of the country. It is another example of “development”, “aid”, credit, ties, dictation, politics in poor countries.

Role of external actors in Bangladesh is an old story. This land is experiencing masters’ hands since pre-liberation days. Wikileaks has made latest revelations of interesting characters, concerns, issues, factions, information gathering, brief but sharp descriptions of allegiance. Sometimes, roles of external actors are very stark, visible, crude, arrogant, humiliating. Protests and silence, both follow external actors’ role, suggestions, advices, demands. The common people also notice these silently and they mark who stands where and who is closer to whom. Their expression comes out in due time.

At least a partial reality of Bangladesh economy, politics and aspirations of sections of Bangladesh society are getting revealed by the incidents and initiatives centering the planned bridge. Sections of Bangladesh capital and sections of ruling elites also come to light with their aspiration, capacity, tact, limitations. Contradictions and compromises, now and in the coming days, are being and will be connected by the planned bridge.

Reports on alternate sources of financing from abroad, possibilities of involvement of firms from Malaysia and/or China have been carried by the Bangladesh media. Geopolitical considerations, very significant, surface.

Bangladesh, rich in resources and possibilities and poor in distribution, is the home of more than 150 million people and experienced insurgency in its south-eastern corner a few years back. Bangladesh sitting on the head of the Bay of Bengal, and the Bay on the shoulder of the Indian Ocean, is not far away from the Palk Strait, the Andaman Islands, the Ten Degree Channel, and the strategic straits: Malacca, Makassar, Mindoro, Lombok. The Indian Ocean now is a space for strategic maneuvering by a number of blue water navies. Bangladesh, adjacent to India and Burma/Myanmar and closer to Nepal, Bhutan, China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, now occasionally turns seat of international tactical moots, and is now moving from garments manufacturing to ship building. Its smaller ships are now being exported to a number of European buyers along with its garments to the European and North American markets. The country’s loss or profit in its state of jute trading with Iran following sanctions imposed on the oil producing country is a question, but not in the agenda of anti-imperialist politics. Sections of Bangladesh capital are connected in varying ways and levels to capitals in other countries while hydrocarbon resource is a major issue of competition and politics in Bangladesh. External relations the country maintains officially are a complex exercise. The country provides shelter to a group of Rohinga, who had to leave their homes in Burma a few years ago. Recently the issue surfaced once more, and the country has not accepted advices from a number of powerful external actors to provide shelter to the Burmese citizens. The country’s position on Kosovo is a question to a number of important international actors.

Bangladesh is home to a number of micro credit debtors, totaling to more than total populations of a number of countries. The issue turned a live political issue on the occasion of release of Tom Heinemann’s documentary on micro credit. Internal and external actors appeared and are still appearing repeatedly on the issue. Sometimes, these appear interference and the actors turn so desperate that they keep no façade to hide their reliable friend. The Bangladesh people politically disregarded and stood against imperialist plan during their valiant struggle for liberation, and, at times of awareness and struggle, the people stands against imperialism and its friends.

Ruling elites of this poor country have not yet succeeded to get out of the situation basically described as the general crisis of the Bangladesh bourgeoisie by Badruddin Umar, a leading Marxist theoretician in Bangladesh, in the famous Bangladesh weekly Holiday in July-September, 1977. A legislature acceptable to all factions of the ruling elites is yet to materialize.

Politicization, an imperative to rule and a very normal process to all classes according to respective capacity in all societies, is carried out earnestly but is opposed theoretically by all factions of the Bangladesh ruling elites and their theoreticians as the process is yet to bring coherence and equilibrium between the factions. Donor advices are there to train up political entities of the ruling factions so that a stable ruling system can come up and operate. But their methodology ignores elite character and ingredients formulating the character. Exercises with NGOs in Bangladesh are not always happy one for the donors. Rather, a few turned ridiculous while a few exposed subservient character. Political activities and mobilizations or efforts for these by a section of NGOs are now not a hidden agenda in Bangladesh.

In most of the times, schedule of general election brings assumptions of uncertainty in Bangladesh politics. Actors, visible and invisible, turn active in overt and covert ways.

These realities are there as the Padma bridge politics emerges.

The way the World Bank issue was discussed by Sheikh Hasina is quite unusual, sharp, unambiguous in the history of Bangladesh parliament. Never before in the history of the Bangladesh legislative assembly the global lender was discussed, dissected and criticized for so long time with such words. Her pronouncements sometimes made one imagine hearing voices from Latin America. She spoke of national honor and dignity, of the Glorious War of Liberation, and was critical of the World Bank method and its practices. The World Bank lending-“development” business has turned into a political issue in Bangladesh carrying geopolitical implication.

Now, more people in Bangladesh know the global lender, its role in Bangladesh, the way the bank deals with poor borrowers. No political literature has taken the issue to so many citizens as the incident has done. This is the way people learn from day-to-day political developments.

None is sure about the way payments would be made by the masters for the political incident, politics with the Paddaa Bridge. Appeasement? Political price? A new, more faithful lackey? Whatever happens there in the politics of Bangladesh ruling elites, people will learn and their lessons will accumulate furthering politicization of the society.

Farooque Chowdhury is Dhaka-based freelancer.


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