Gowher Rizvi on Bangladesh democracy

The prime minister’s international affairs adviser claims the government is democratic and is addressing the country’s weak institutions.

Gowher Rizvi on Bangladesh democracy
Gowher Rizvi speaking at a meeting in the House of Lords in February 2023. Also present, in the pciture are Baroness Pola Uddin and Rushanara Ali MP. Ms Sara Cooke, appointed as UK's next High Commissioner in Bangladesh, and Saida Muna Tasneem, Bangladesh’s High Commissioner in London were seated beside them. Photo: screenshot taken from video of the meeting

If Bangladesh’s governing party had a secret weapon to help garner international goodwill, it may well be the charming and suave academic, Gowher Rizvi, the prime minister’s international affairs adviser. Now based in Oxford, Rizvi has for the last 14 years remained loyal to Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League government, and in his time has successfully sweet-talked many diplomats and foreign politicians, convincing them that the Bangladesh government has only the best of intentions.

A few weeks ago Rizvi was chief guest at an event at the UK House of Commons which launched a report titled “Bangladesh: The Journey of Indomitable Development”, produced by the pro-Awami League, UK-based, Bangladesh Study Circle.

Had the prime minister's adviser gone with the flow of the occasion, he would have followed Saida Muna Tasneem, Bangladesh’s High Commissioner in London, in talking about the “bold leadership” of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the “hard work” of the country’s “leadership”. Rizvi, however, decided against taking the easy path and decided to speak about "democracy" in Bangladesh.

Many have wondered why a man with liberal democratic convictions has tethered himself so closely to the increasingly authoritarian government with its much-criticised record of rigging elections and a human rights record comprising arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, violations of freedom of assembly and censorship. Perhaps Rizvi imagines he can nudge things in a more positive direction by being an adviser, or perhaps he thinks whatever deficiencies there are in the Awami League government, the alternative is worse. His memoir, which he is reportedly in the process of writing, may well provide an answer to this question.

Rizvi is more of a one-on-one man, most effective with a hand on the shoulder, a gracious smile and a few words in the ear, but he does not not have a great record of publicly rebutting criticisms of the Bangladesh government’s move to authoritarianism - remember his parlous performance on Al Jazeera’s Head to Head where he debated whether Bangladesh was a one party state. But if there is one person who could spin a positive story on the record of democracy under the Awami League, it would be Rizvi.  So how convincing was he at last month's parliamentary reception?

“I want to address this … head on,” he started by saying. “First we were criticised for not making enough progress. We were a ‘basket case’. We were ‘a country that was not viable’. A country that might become ‘a hole in the map’.” But now, he argued, “When we have done all the things that even our well wishers had wanted — and what we wanted — and today we are on the real path to progress, we are now being told, ‘Well, there is development but no democracy’”.

This was a clever start - suggesting that the Bangladesh government was not an authoritarian regime, which was ruthless with its political enemies, but rather a victim of foreign critics.

But he then went onto make this extraordinary claim about development and democracy:

“Anybody who has invented this thing does not know what he or she is talking about. There can be no development without democracy. [...] If you look at it empirically, no society in the world which has left democracy can actually make progress. You can make progress for a short period of time, but political stability cannot be there unless development and democracy go hand in hand.”

And he doubled down on this claim:

“[T]he whole dichotomy that has been created — development versus democracy — I don’t know where it comes from. Look around the world — development and democracy always goes together and if one falls back, the other collapses.”

One does not need to look too far around the world, in fact no further than a country very close to Bangladesh, to realise how “empirically” wrong Rizvi is. While we would all like to make the claim that “development” and “stability” requires “democracy,” China is the unfortunate example which shows that democracy is by no means a prerequisite.

Rizvi must know this about China, so why does he place so much emphasis on this outlandish argument?

There are two possible explanations. One sympathetic reading is that, although he knows his argument is not true, it is part of his attempt to persuade others in the Bangladesh government that the only way to achieve stable economic development is to become more democratic.

Another more realistic reading, which coheres much better with the rest of the speech, is that Rizvi made this claim as it allows him to insinuate that Bangladesh is “democratic” because it has economic “development” and “stability”.

An interesting characteristic of Rizvi’s speech was its emphasis of the ideas of “stability” and “continuity” - words Rizvi used almost as an alternative to “democracy”.

So, for example, he said:

“One reason why Bangladesh has developed is because it has political stability and continuity. [...] Lot of people criticise Malaysia but Malaysia shows what can be achieved by political continuity. Continuity does not mean one party rule, as long as there is [an] election, and hopefully there is [a] fair election, and therefore this continuity is essential for development.”

And again, he stated:

“So I wanted to say [...] that whilst Mozamel Ali’s book has given an extraordinary picture of all round development that has taken place in Bangladesh [...] in order for this to have been achieved we needed political stability, continuity, [...] without them there can be no genuine development.”

Don’t be surprised if Awami League’s new argument to justify retaining power is Bangladesh’s need for “stability” and “continuity”, with the idea of “democracy” being edged out.

Rizvi accepted that Bangladesh does have weak institutions — a much more honest position to take than the normal run-of-the-mill Awami League public declarations on the matter — but he blames this on earlier “military authoritarian rule” and claims the Awami League is making things better:

“I don’t have to remind you, that of our 50 years of independence, half the period was under military authoritarian rule. And one thing that military authoritarian rule does [is that] they destroy institutions. They undermine political and legal institutions. It is because of that, today our democratic institutions are weak. It will take time to build them, to strengthen them. So if there are certain deficits, those are being addressed, will be addressed. All we need is to continue with our democratic journey, democratic process, government elected on [the] basis of elections, and power also transferred on [the] basis of election, not through the back door, not through coups, not through overthrowing government.”

Putting to one side that the 15 years between 1975-1990, when the military were in power in Bangladesh in one form or the other, comprises less than a third (not half) of the country’s 50 years of independence, Rizvi is completely misrepresenting who holds responsibility for the current dire state of the country’s democratic institutions.

It should be noted that in the first years of the country, between 1972 to 1975, Bangladesh’s democratic institutions were never that strong. It also goes without saying that the subsequent 15 year period of military rule did nothing positive to develop them. And while even with the return to democracy in 1990 - with the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party alternating power - the next 16 years were far from ideal, the country’s democratic institutions have been particularly decimated during the Awami League’s 14 years in power since 2008 with its systematic rigging of elections, suborning of the judiciary, and gerrymandering every other institution.

It is not the case that the Awami League government is addressing democratic deficits, as Rizvi asserts. It is responsible for creating far more of them.

An interesting comparison can be seen in how the military government, 25 years ago, and the current government, 3 years ago, dealt with legal cases where the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court had ruled against it.

In 1998, when General Ershad was in power, the Supreme Court ruled that the eighth amendment of the constitution, which had sought to regionalise the High Court, was unconstitutional. The government accepted it.

In 2019, under the current government, when the same court ruled that a law seeking to change how judges could be sacked was unconstitutional, the government hounded the chief justice out of the country, threatening to kill his friend, and accused him of corruption

The very sad thing about Bangladesh is that in many (though not all) ways, the current civilian authoritarianism of the Awami League is far worse than military authoritarianism in both its human rights record and in how it dealt with democratic and rule of law institutions.

Of course Rizvi is right that power should not be transferred through coups or overthrowing governments. But there is currently no "democratic journey" going on in Bangladesh, as Rizvi asserts. The Awami League government is doing everything to ensure that there will be no free and fair elections in Bangladesh, and is again preventing the possibility of a peaceful transition to another party.

Rizvi should stick to applauding what is worthwhile praising in Bangladesh, rather than seeking to justify the indefensible. He should just be honest and say what I imagine he and the Awami League believes - that they prefer "stability and continuity" over "democracy"●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.