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National dialogue: Prelude or decisive solution?

There is no denying that the current political situation in Bangladesh is very grave. The cycle

current politically-motivated violence has caused over a hundred deaths so far and many more

serious injuries as well as enormous damage to the economy. Naturally, concerned citizens are

worried and have recently urged the Honourable President as the guardian of the State to hold a

national dialogue involving all political parties with a view to arriving at a national consensus on

certain issues – such as strengthening the Election Commission for organising free, fair, and

participatory national elections in the future.

Unfortunately, some senior members of the governing party have been very quick in rejecting the

idea of a national dialogue outright, smelling some sort of conspiracy. However, we want to be

optimistic, for it is optimism that can keep us going; it is a basic ingredient for our survival and

progress. Therefore, we are still hopeful that a national dialogue will take place sooner or later and

eventually there will be some agreement on the issue of free and fair elections to end the current

political impasse.

Yet, the question remains: will these means be enough to end the increasingly violent tendency in

our society or polity?

The answer to this question would require understanding the underlying causes of social or political

violence. To begin with, we need to internalise the point that conflict (social or inter-personal) is a

fact of social life, but violence is not. While some conflicts may end in violence, not all conflicts lead

to violence. Thus, the deeper issue here is not about ending conflict, but to prevent conflict from

becoming violent. That is, the challenge for the populace is to find social or institutional mechanisms

that allow mediation of conflict through a peaceful manner. Herein lies democracy’s greatest appeal.

Democracy is the best known political or governance system with its ability to settle social conflict or

differences in a non-violent way.

Ironically, politics has become increasingly violent in Bangladesh when one of the fundamental State

principles is democracy. The people of Bangladesh did not expect political repression and state

violence by party goons and paramilitary forces (e.g. Rakkhi Bahani) in an independent Bangladesh;

they have laid down their lives for establishing a democratic Bangladesh; hence the experience of

the early years of our independence was unfortunate and disappointing. The goriest experience of

course, has been the killing of Bangabandhu and his family members, and the legacy of blood that


One disturbing nature of political violence is the increasing tendency towards physical annihilation of

‘the other,’ that seems to have intensified since the 1990s after the restoration of democracy. While

both major political parties worked hand in hand against the autocratic regime of General Ershad,

they turned on each other when democracy was restored. Assassinations, contract killings, and

abductions of political opponents have become common features of our body politic. Politicians no

longer hesitate to openly issue threats of physical violence against opponents and their annihilation.

Senior government leaders frequently threaten to extinguish the leaders of the opposition from the

face of the earth, even when they stand in august Parliament. Party workers are now called

‘activists’ or ‘cadres.’ Every civic association has become divided along party lines as if the fault-line

runs right across our entire society.

So, one can naturally deduce that our democracy is not the ‘ideal’ for which people struggled and

thousands laid down their lives, hence it needs to be supplemented. This is the basis of the

proposals of the eminent citizens to strengthen the Election Commission in order to ensure fair and

free elections. However, fair and free elections are necessary, but they themselves are not sufficient

for consolidating democracy or preventing conflict from turning violent. A vital factor in this regard is

the nature of civil society organisations, including political parties, and civic engagement.

The findings of a leading scholar of ethnic violence, Professor Ashutosh Varshney, are very

instructive here. His research on ethnic violence in India and elsewhere, shows that networks of civic

engagement, such as business associations, professional organisations, reading clubs, film clubs,

sports clubs, NGOs, trade unions, and cadre-based political parties play very different roles in ethnic

conflict depending on whether they are based along inter-ethnic or intra-ethnic lines. Civil society

organisations formed along inter-ethnic networks build bridges and manage tensions, and hence are

agents of peace. The opposite is the case when communities organised only along intra-ethnic lines.

In such cases, the interconnections with other communities are very weak or even non-existent, and

hence ethnic violence is quite likely. It should be part of our common humanity that we wish to

know and get to know ‘the other.’

Professor Varshney also found that everyday forms of engagement or routine interactions of life,

such as visitations of families from different communities, eating together regularly, jointly

participating in each other’s festivals, allowing children of different ethnic groups to play together in

the neighbourhood are not as sturdy as the associational forms, especially when confronted with

attempts by politicians to polarise people along ethnic lines. It is the elementary forms of social and

craft associations that are of primary importance.

What are the implications of these findings for violent Bangladesh politics? Can we attribute our

increasingly confrontational politics bent on annihilating ‘the other’ to organisation of various

professional associations, ranging from the Bar Association to 4th class employees associations,

along party lines? These professional associations no longer serve as bridges among political parties

as they used to in the old days. All our civic society organisations and professional associations were

once united associations or organisations. Over time, our social capital has frayed as politics became

increasingly annihilatory, and those organisations have bifurcated or trifurcated. Instead of diffusing

tensions, they now aggravate conflict. The country is now caught in a vicious circle of annihilatory

politics and divided civic organisations along party lines reinforcing each other.

So, the proposed national dialogue, if it takes place, must also address this vicious circle and

discourage the formation of professional and craft bodies along party lines. This does not however

mean barring professionals from engaging in politics as individuals. This ‘social frown’ should also

extend to political parties or civic associations along religious or ethnic lines.

The above only addresses some current institutional aspects of social and political conflict. One also

needs to identify socio-economic factors that rationalise or incentivise social conflict. In short, the

parties involved expect to materially gain (miss) from winning (losing). When stakes are very high,

parties can engage in a non-cooperative game where rivals try to annihilate their opponents with the

aim to capture the entire pie. This is certainly worse than a competitive game where the ‘winner

takes all,’ although the competition between the parties may be very intense, as only one party can


What has modified the link between politics and economics, especially since the 1990s? This was the

period of rapid opening up and deregulation of the economy which saw the rise of the ‘new rich.’

This was also the period that witnessed wide-spread corruption that pushed Bangladesh to the top

of the corruption ranking ladder as well as to the top of the least developed countries from where

illicit transfer of funds occur. This was also the period when the ‘new rich’ captured state power, and

politics and business became intertwined.

There is, however, nothing wrong for business people to engage in politics or politicians to engage in

business. The problem arises when economic rent becomes too large through business-politics

collusion; politics can become increasingly confrontational as the material loss (gain) for the losing

(winning) side would be quite substantial.

Nevertheless, the presence of large economic rent at least provides a basis for the warring parties to

have a common interest in avoiding the destruction of the economy. The challenge then is to find

institutional mechanisms to manage the distribution of economic gains from politics in a manner

that is somehow linked to a democratic polity. In this regard, it would be worthwhile for the national

dialogue to consider a modest proposal by Professor Salim Rashid of the University of Illinois,


The proposal involves handing out all government contracts to each political party according to the

numbers they gain in the popular vote. For example if parties A, B, C, D, get 40, 30, 20 and 10 per

cent of the vote, this is the ratio in which each party will get government contracts. This should apply

only to all parties that get a certain minimum (say 2 per cent) of the popular vote in order to avoid

fracturing contracts.

In this system, since all opposition parties will have economic goods to share after the election, the

incentives for destroying the property of the state or people should be much diminished; the desire

to slow economic growth should be lessened since all parties will lose. Additionally, each party

should have the incentive to make effective use of their contracts, since the performance of their

appointees will be compared with those of their rivals.

The system should also have beneficial impacts on the working of democracy and governance. Since

political parties would be judged on their performance in implementing government contracts given

to them transparently and explicitly according to their shares of votes, they likely have the incentive

to outdo one another in establishing their credentials as competent and honest or not corrupt. In

addition, smaller parties would have an incentive to maintain an independent voice which is crucial

for ensuring transparency and good governance.

However, a system of distributing economic gains according to proportion of votes parties managed

to get may not be consistent with the political system based on the ‘winner takes all’ principle as it is

now in Bangladesh. Therefore, for the system to work more coherently, our parliament should also

have proportional representations. That is, the number of members from each party should be in

proportion of votes they receive so that both the mechanisms for distributing economic gains and

sharing political power become proportional to respective parties’ appeal to the voters or populace.

There is, however, another approach to get the warring parties to cooperate. That happens when

they are convinced that both sides would lose from a non-cooperative game. Recall, the US and

former USSR cooperated to agree to nuclear disarmament when they realised both would lose from

a confrontation. As a matter of fact, many are talking of a third party threat to force cooperation

among major political parties. However, institutionalisation of such a third party involvement would

not be a very welcoming outcome if we are to consolidate a democratic polity.

Readers are urged to read this opinion piece in conjunction with my earlier piece, “A modest

proposal,” published a year ago on 7 January, 2014.

Anis Chowdhury is a former Professor of Economics from the University of Western Sydney, Australia.