By Shafquat Rabbee
On December 30, Bangladesh finally held a much awaited parliamentary election. Close to 100 million Bangladeshis voted in 40,000 polling stations across the country.
But even before polling began, many observers concluded that the vote, conducted under the country’s increasingly authoritarian conditions, would be a managed affair. It was clear to many that the ruling Awami League party would tilt the election process in its favour utilising coercive mechanisms.
News coverage, reports from human rights organisations, confidential party documents leaked by journalists, and unusually candid public pronouncements by ruling party members, some of which went viral on social media ahead of the polls, revealed the government’s elaborate plans for voter suppression, aggressive policing, systemic arrests and detentions of opposition activists – all with the singular objective of managing the election in the ruling party’s favour.
Given that no credible independent political polling exists in Bangladesh, analysts were left with reviews of spontaneous public engagements in political processions, social media sentiment analysis, and online polling as the only tangible measures for gauging popular support towards any political party. However unscientific, they showed that there was underpinning momentum towards voting for the country’s major opposition alliance during this election cycle.
Even the most partisan of estimates coming from government-affiliated pollsters, some prepared by nebulous characters and organisations, allotted at least 49 parliamentary seats for the opposition out of the 298 contested. However, as the results came in, it seemed as though the government’s elaborate machinery ended up over-managing the election and lost its grip on its own script along the way.
The Awami League party and its alliance ended up bagging 288 seats, leaving just seven seats for the JatiyaOikko Front, the major opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. There were constituencies where the ruling party won 99.9 percent of the votes, and hardly any ruling party candidate lost their contests according to unofficial results.
During four prior elections held under neutral caretaker governments between 1991 and 2008, no winning party ever won more than 48 percent of the popular votes. In this election, the winners bagged more than 90 percent of the total votes cast, raising serious doubts over the fairness of the polls.
The December 30 election was relatively peaceful in comparison to Bangladesh’s previous election cycles. However, the relative peace was achieved through the systemic oppression the state machinery carried out against the opposition over the past ten years, leaving it effectively hobbled and neutered.
Last year opposition leader Khaleda Zia was sent to jail on “corruption” charges; her son, Tarique Rahman, the acting party chief, is currently in exile in the UK sentenced to life imprisonment in relation to a 2004 attack on Awami leader Sheikh Hasina; and the lucky among the remaining opposition leaders are either already in jail or have hundreds of pending charges against them.
The unlucky among the opposition have been executed or forcibly disappeared. The months leading up to the election saw the highest number of extrajudicial killings over the last six years.
When the opposition appeared to be still managing to foster an effective alliance, bringing together major leftist, centrist, and Islamic elements of Bangladeshi politics, thugs wielding machetes and sticks were sent to their rallies.
Few visible election activities by the opposition alliance were allowed to take place; opposition campaign posters were removed from the streets, and opposition volunteers were arrested with unusual precision across the country.
Owing to widespread intimidation and systemic oppression, the opposition parties failed to place polling agents in most polling centres to ensure proper counting and certification of ballots.
The ruling party managed to pull off this campaign of intimidation ahead of the polls thanks to the direct control it has managed to establish over key state organs since the early 2010s. How did it manage to do that?
For about a decade and a half, starting in the mid-1990s, Bangladesh witnessed four relatively fair elections. What guaranteed the relatively smooth electoral process was a legal provision that required the government to hand over power to a caretaker cabinet for 90 days prior to the election. This neutral unelected body organised and supervised the vote and ensured that there was no interference from any side.
But in 2011, an Awami-dominated parliament overturned the provision and the following election was marred by violence and irregularities. In parallel, the ruling party also launched a process of systematic politicisation of state institutions.
Over the past decade, judicial appointments from the lowest to the highest courts have been made along party lines. In 2017, Surendra Kumar Sinh, the sitting Chief Justice of Bangladesh was forced to resign and leave the country when he acted out of sync with the party line. Such subjugation of the judiciary allowed arbitrary arrests and political detentions in the lead-up to the latest election.
Police recruitment has also been done along party lines, rendering the police force an easy tool of political suppression.
Recruitment for the civil bureaucracy, including the election commission, are also going through a partisan process where about 30 percent of all government jobs are statutorily allocated to the children of “freedom fighters”, a loosely defined group of men who fought for Bangladesh’s independence some 47 years ago, under the leadership of Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Given that the government certifies an ever-expanding list of Awami party men as “freedom fighters”, such preferential recruitment has developed a clan-based civil bureaucracy which works in favour of the ruling elite. Key figures among the bureaucrats also receive perks that often go beyond the hefty salary raises they already receive.
Meanwhile, the army has been kept busy with lucrative construction deals and UN peacekeeping missions – a source of hard currency for the top officers – and away from the troubled political and electoral processes.
In a nutshell, the ruling party has created a politicised and dependent state apparatus in which state bureaucrats have to ensure the continuing rule of the incumbent in order to preserve their perks and privileges. Such a patron-client system emerged in Iraq, Syria, and Libya with disastrous consequences.
Bangladesh has been gradually sliding back into authoritarianism over the last decade, after experiencing a chaotic democratic moment for about two decades in the 1990s and 2000s, when the country’s two major political parties took turns in power. There were teething pains in that nascent democracy, but people still rejoiced over their ability to elect and change their political leadership.
What happened on December 30 clearly shows that Bangladesh has officially become a one-party state of an exotic variety, where elections take place, yet votes are not properly counted; where numerous opposition parties are allowed to exist, but are effectively rendered impotent and barred from ever reaching power; and where the raucous media are “free” but are only able to produce a self-censored cacophony of government-approved narratives.
Today in Bangladesh, a party has its own state which has one mission: to maintain the status quo. There are certainly at least two countries that are happy about that status quo remaining – China and India – both of which stand to benefit politically and economically with Hasina in power.
Some Western countries, which have been critical of the Bangladeshi government in the past, have so far refrained from congratulating the winner. However, the Trump administration expressed its willingness to continue working with the new government, which may not mean much for Washington, but in Bangladesh, it is seen as a stamp of approval, boosting Hasina’s legitimacy.
This does not bode well for voices of dissent. The already disabled opposition alliance will likely see more heavy-handed repression and more of its activists thrown in jail, especially as the winner of the elections is making public pronouncements that it is a badge of honour to be called “authoritarian”.
This new wave of oppression will likely keep Bangladesh’s streets quiet, at least in the short term. But the absence of violence should not trick us into thinking the country will settle into authoritarian stability.
A rigged election which effectively side-lined, neutered, and humiliated the political centrists in Bangladesh will ultimately swell the ranks of rejectionists of all varieties, including the ones who reject democracy, secularism, and political change through peaceful means. And that does not bode well for the future of the country.
Brazen statements on job shortage
By Mihir Swarup Sharma
Back when Narendra Modi was just a candidate for the post of Prime Minister, he seemed to understand what India’s biggest problem was: jobs. He promised tens of millions of jobs would be created if he were voted to power – India’s unemployed young people would be transformed, he promised, into an army for development.
Four years later, this promise has turned into a weapon for the opposition. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, pointed out last year that young Indians were “desperately waiting for the jobs that they were promised.”
The Modi government’s response has been typical: not harder work, not economic reform, but bluster. Two recent statements from senior ministers who should know better stand out. Piyush Goyal said that the large number of people who are lining up for jobs in the Railways that he oversees – over 15 million applied recently for a minuscule number of vacancies – did not in any way mean that there is a shortage of jobs in India. And Human Resources Minister Prakash Javadekar, whose job is indeed to prepare the Indian workforce for employment, has insisted that each and every sector in India has witnessed job opportunities. “We have to find out why people with post-graduate degrees apply for sweeper jobs in the government,” he said.
Well, minister, the answer is staring us all in the face: that there simply aren’t enough high-quality jobs available. Yes, even low-skilled government jobs provide security; but in a growing economy, the private sector should also be creating enough and better-paid jobs in such a way that security would be rendered irrelevant.
The fact is that when millions of Indians turn up for jobs that they are manifestly overqualified for, it cannot be seen as anything other than a failure of economic management on a massive scale.
There was not even the slightest remorse expressed by the ministers for whatever combination of circumstances may have arisen in the economy to cause this sort of desperation on the part of job-seekers. Nor was there an iota of compassion for these young job-seekers or a comprehension of the lack of choices they face.
Mr Javadekar even said that “people who do not work out of choice cannot be called unemployed”. Is it possible that Modi Sarkar imagines that everyone without employment prefers to watch things on their Jio phone rather than earn a living? It is impossible to overstate how out of touch that sentiment is. Even in the best case scenario, which is that the minister was referring only to the worrying decrease in the labour participation rate of women – fewer women in India are working, while in the test of the world more women worked as development progressed – it still reveals an inability to understand the real problems faced by job-seekers. If women are not going out to work, it is not out of “choice”. It is because neither law and order nor their social relations in their community have allowed them to do so. Is this not something a government should be concerned about – if, that is, it values half of India? Or should it just dismiss the crushing of womens’ aspirations as “their choice”?
The ministers complained that there was not enough data to prove that jobs were not being created. This seems to undercut various other claims made by government apologists that jobs are indeed being created – on the basis of the pension records kept by the provident funds, for example. Many economists have poked clear holes in this theory. At best, that reveals that under pressure from demonetization and the GST, some jobs are coming into the formal sector – but it does not reveal whether or not jobs are being created overall. While it is amusing to discover that not even the Modi government ministers believe its own propagandists, the politicians’ statements are still important. Their complaint about the lack of official data is shared by many.
Yet data is scarce, of course, for a very specific reason: the survey of unemployment in the country, conducted by the Labour Bureau every year from 2010 to 2016, was discontinued by the Union Labour Ministry – in a strange coincidence, the Survey showed sharp job losses after the National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014. So when the ministers – and earlier the Prime Minister himself – complain that there is no data on employment, what they should instead explain is why the government chose to stop collecting data on employment.
The reason, of course, is that this government does not want the release of any data that would reveal the true state of the economy. The manipulation of the backseries of GDP data revealed exactly how desperate it is to whitewash its unusually poor record.
The Modi government seems to believe that voters are comically stupid. That they will not only believe that jobs are being created, but also that mobs of people applying for a few government jobs is a sign of how many other jobs there are. That they will also believe that a lack of data that the government has itself organised can be replaced by earnest assurances from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet that large numbers of jobs have indeed been created.
The most reliable independent source for jobs data are the reports from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, or CMIE. Their latest report, issued earlier this month, indicated that 11 million jobs had been lost in 2018. Think about that – 11 million jobs were lost, not created. This comes at a time when most economists believe that we need to create between 6 and 12 million jobs a year just to keep pace with the number of people entering the job market. Nor were previous years better – demonetization in particular wreaked havoc, costing millions of jobs.
There is little doubt, therefore, that Modi has failed to keep the promises that he made before being elected. The question is whether he will be held accountable for those promises. Perhaps if the Prime Minister or his colleagues had been open about their failures and accepted that they understood where they had gone wrong and how more jobs could be created going forward, they might have been able to retain some credibility. Instead, they have chosen to deny that a problem even exists and to pretend instead that the promises have been fulfilled. This is brazen even by the standards of Indian politics.
There are good reasons for greater urgency. India’s window to create high-quality manufacturing jobs – the sort that helped countries like China move up the income ladder – is closing. More and more processes are being automated, and the scope for mass manufacturing that takes in lower-skilled workers and gives them solid secure employment is narrowing. But the World Bank has insisted in a recent report that there is still enough time. Given its vast numbers of young people, it is India that should be benefiting from these last decades in which manufacturing will matter. But instead the government has failed to undertake genuine economic reform, relying instead on adulatory press handouts and ministerial statements – managing the headlines and not the economy, as Arun Shourie put it. India’s young people, lining up in their lakhs in the hope even of a job as a government sweeper, deserve better than this callous indifference to their fate.
Is Rahul Gandhi emerging as a reliable brand?
By Shuchi Bansal
The Congress’s recent victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have put the spotlight on its president Rahul Gandhi.
While an earlier column spoke of brand Modi and whether he has lost some of its sheen, little has been said on Rahul Gandhi and if he, as a brand, has come of age. Or whether, despite his party’s recent wins, it is too early to think of him as a dependable brand.
Interestingly, the resurgence of the Congress and that of Rahul Gandhi in particular seems to represent an almost textbook example of a challenger brand.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unexpected poor performance is also perhaps a classic case of what a market leader should avoid—complacence, overconfidence and petty-mindedness being on top of the list.
“While it’s true that Rahul Gandhi has a long way to go before he can match the perceived stature and the personal popularity of Narendra Modi, he has certainly been able to narrow the gap between them. I would say this is an outcome of some of his bold initiatives helped to a great extent by the missteps of the latter,” says Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting.
Dheeraj Sinha, managing director (India) and chief strategy officer (Asia) at Leo Burnett, agreed that Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a viable challenger with the recent wins in the Assembly elections.
However, he argues that challengers don’t win the game in India, leaders do. “Will Rahul be able to position himself as a viable leader of the country is the question. Just being a challenger won’t make it happen for the Congress,” he says.
Advertising veteran Sandeep Goyal who has done his doctorate in human brands, says that a challenger brand is defined by a mindset. It has ambitions larger than its conventional pool of resources and is prepared to do something bold. The most common narrative associated with the challenger brand is that of the underdog.
However, challenger brands are today more often focused on “what” they are challenging rather than “who” they are challenging.
“Rahul Gandhi is, therefore, by definition, truly a challenger brand. The important thing that everyone seems to be missing out on is that he is cleverly not really challenging Mr Modi but challenging incumbency, unfulfilled promises, growth agenda, and the performance of the current government, ‘mistakes’ like demonetization and GST (goods and service tax). In politics, these are really the ‘category drivers’. Rahul is also focusing on disenchantment/ unhappiness with jobs/economy, which is really challenging the ‘user experience’ with the current government,” says Goyal.
Sinha feels that Rahul’s underdog image helps him. He began his political career as a fumbling novice, which earned him the Pappu sobriquet.
“It’s because not much was expected of him is why his stock goes up every time he exceeds expectations, even for accomplishments that are less than extraordinary. On the other hand, his rival suffers a huge disadvantage for having set unrealistically high expectations, and whatever be his achievements, they are bound to fall short of the promise. This has no doubt negatively impacted both his credibility as well as popularity, which has helped Rahul Gandhi seize the narrative. When one starts at the bottom, the only way is up. The converse is equally true,” points out Sinha.
Brand Rahul seems to be gaining some traction. “His speeches have improved both in form and content. He is more consistent, more combative.
The hesitant, reluctant brand Rahul of yore is slowly but surely transforming into an astute leader who has pedigree and lineage,” feels Goyal.
Of course, none of this guarantees a defeat for the BJP, or a victory for the Congress, in this year’s general elections. Goyal says that as of now, brand Modi is stronger and better resourced, but beginning to fray at the edges.
Also, a bit hurt, if not bruised. In 2014, brand Modi epitomized “hope” and “progress.”
“In 2019, he cannot stand for Hindutva or Ram Temple or The Cow. That would be a big mistake. In 2014, brand Rahul was untested and nascent. In 2019, he is portraying himself as progressive, secular, empathetic and pedigreed… Both brands have their own appeal,” he says.
As Leo Burnett’s Sinha says, leadership brands need to appeal to the whole market.
Will brand Rahul be able to cover this distance from being a challenger brand to the leader brand in the next few months remains to be seen.
Your waste: someone’s taste
By Zeeshan Rasool Khan,
While we every other day listen to boastful claims that the country India is developing fast. It has become very difficult for most of us to accept the brute reality that here the people die because of hunger. Yes, death due to starvation is the unthinkable, reality of India. According to sources, about 14.9% of the Indian population is undernourished. Half of the world’s hungry live in India. Thousands are those who do not know if the next meal would be availed or not. Reports say, everyday 20 crore people have to hit the sack with an empty tummy. In the year 2018, many cases of hunger-death were reported in India. This bitter truth is being cloaked with bragging. Global Hunger Index 2018, which has placed India at a 103rd place out of 119 qualifying countries, is a testimony to this fact that India is not what media shows i.e., all is not well within the nation with respect to common masses. Howbeit, it is not any matter of berating the nation. There is no question of cutting anyone to size in connection with this issue. Instead, it demands serious contemplation from everyone irrespective of our positions in society.
One of the root causes of hunger is poverty that has been challenging to every developing country and India is no exception. Despite the reports of GHI, which says, the poverty level has reduced by 0.9 % since 2011 we must accept that our efforts have been too meagre to achieve any feat in this direction. Let us accept we have failed in defeating poverty. But, that does not mean we will rest on our laurels and let poverty-stricken die. If we cannot eradicate the gigantic issue of poverty but we have immense potential to secure poor. If we cannot build palaces for indigents, however, we can provide them shelter to hide at least. If we cannot raise their standard of living but there is no doubt that, we can mitigate their problems. Likewise, if we cannot provide them with sumptuous food, at least we can make sure that they will not sleep hungry, die due to hunger and starvation.
There is no dearth of food. Credible reports suggest that India produces sufficient food to feed its population. However, access to the available food is lacking. And this inaccessibility is partly due to low income of people and mostly due to our behaviour of wasting food. It has been estimated that nearly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption is wasted every year. This wastage starts from processing continues up to packing, supply management, and consumption.Due to imperfect packaging methods and inefficient supplying system, a considerable amount of food is lost. According to one estimate, about 40 percent of fruits and vegetables and 30 percent of cereals are wasted and do not reach the consumers because of improper packaging and supplying techniques. Prevalent ways of processing and subsequent supplying of paddy and other grains result into wastage of a part of it. Common Fruit growers know it better, while packaging, what quantity of fruits is wasted. Fully ripened fruit is often discarded as ‘rotten’ because of apprehensions about its transportation. Same is the case with vegetables and other foodstuffs.
These squandered grains, discarded fruit and vegetables make a large part of wasted food. Imagine if these grains, ripe fruit, and vegetable reach any poor, how great it would be. At the consumption stage, significant levels of food wastage occur. The gluttony, most people are indulged in is itself a form of wastage. Some people eat like a horse without thinking about health risks that overeating leads to. They keep on inviting ailments rather than getting any benefit but never cogitate, how by exercising moderation in eating we can help others. The excessive food that we take can easily become a morsel for a destitute.
Our weddings, events, restaurants, hostels, and houses are a major source of food wastage. At weddings, a huge amount of food is wasted. A large amount of food including multiple dishes are served, which results in leftovers that finally finds a place in trash bins. It would have been far better to have control mechanism at our weddings for prevention of food-wastage. However, even in absence of a mechanism, we can play a significant role in reducing wastage of food by best use of leftovers. Leftovers from weddings and even from our homes, restaurants, hostels, and hotels are often thrown away. But there is an option for us to make better use of it. We can recycle leftovers. We can make many other dishes from it, which can be used for the next meal. Massimo Botturra of Italy – the world’s best chef has come up with this innovative idea. He has founded the association namely ‘Food for Soul’ with the motive to fight food waste. He uses surplus food /leftovers productively to tackle food wastage and nourish poorest people of the city. Most of Hoteliers and restaurateur, across the world particularly India, have followed suit that is a good sign. Others, who are not aware of this idea, should imitate the same .So that more and more necessitous are benefited. In fact, using leftovers to feed the poor living in our vicinity would be one of the finest uses of leftovers. By this way the uneaten edibles from our homes, restaurants, etc. can fill the bellies of many and eliminate their hunger.
Efforts are on throughout India and fortunately, in our state too, to reach out the hunger struck population. No doubt, some NGO’s are working to utilize extra cooked food and give it to needier. But, the challenge is big and efforts are small. Broad-gauge efforts are required that must be started from the individual level. While processing, packaging, supplying, and consuming, utmost care needs to be taken to check the frittering. Through this mindfulness, we can preserve lot of food and can make it available to the poor. In addition, if everyone would refrain from wasting food and take care of penurious people of respective communities, we can ensure food availability for a maximum number of deprived people.
It is worth to mention, feeding hungry cannot obliterate hunger as it is related to several problems. However, we cannot deny the fact that hunger itself is the root of various other troubles. Hunger deprives a person from growth. It increases the vulnerability of a person to a myriad of complications, which can have an adverse impact on social, behavioural, emotional, and physical health of a person. Satisfying one’s hunger can make him eligible to earn livelihood otherwise his destiny is elimination. So, we must think logically to gain the best of both worlds.
(The writer can be reached at: [email protected])