By Ashis Biswas
In Bangladesh the ruling Awami League (AL), battered by extremely difficult economic challenges in the present post Covid pandemic/Ukraine war period, faces an existential challenge as it braces up for general elections in 2024.
With each passing day, the anti-Government rhetoric used by main opposition outfit Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) becomes increasingly extremist, as its leaders press for an immediate ouster of the Government. Veteran political leaders and some columnists feel that as Bangladesh has been impacted by a general crisis of unprecedented dimensions, a more consensual approach on part of both the AL and the BNP would have helped common people.
However, given the long legacy of bitter acrimony between the two sides , there seems to be no possibility of the slightest concession on part of the BNP towards the AL. The BNP-led opposition, judging by the tenor of Dhaka-based media reports, is sensing a kill after a long spell out of power.
What has complicated matters for the AL is the sullen mood among the majority of people, mainly because of raging inflation, recessionary economic pressures marked by low growth, rising unemployment and sharply declining incomes,– with no relief in sight!
Not surprisingly, the ruling AL finds it increasingly difficult to exercise its political/administrative options effectively. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, up against the biggest political challenge of her career, has opted to play her cards in the open, without concealing the Government’s difficulties from the people. She has warned of the possibility of a famine occurring in the country, for the first time since 1974, referring to fears expressed by eminent economists and reputed international authorities/organisations. Warning bells have been sounded for other countries as well.
The BNP lost no time to pounce on the PM’s dismal admission. BNP General Secretary Mr Fakhrul Islam Alamgir asked why the PM was spreading such a scare now, having always claimed that Bangladesh was self sufficient in foodgrains production. Common people were hurting from prices of cooking gas, power and drinking water rising several fold in recent months. The Government had failed abysmally in organising any relief for the suffering masses.
Worse, it had trampled on the democratic rights of the people, who wanted to protest against the Government’s failures by organizing meetings and rallies. The police had been routinely refusing permission for opposition parties to hold their programmes systematically. The government had tacitly encouraged wildcat transport strikes by private bus operators in places, to make sure that people could not turn up for protest meets, the BNP leader said.
According to the BNP leader, the best course for the AL would be quit peacefully and prepare the country for immediate polls. A safe exit was the best option at present for the PM.
While his words strike a responsive chord among people struggling to make ends meet, many are not ready to accept the BNP as a better political alternative yet — judging by the tenor of posts in the in the lively social media in Bangladesh.
AL leaders and think tanks sympathetic to them, seem to have little manoeuvrability in the present situation which has steadily turned from bad to worse for most. An earlier announcement from the government that its forex reserves amounting to around $36 billion, were safe, could not be sustained. The figure was a major drop from Jan/Feb 2022 levels, when the reserves were considerably higher. The IMF and other authorities estimated that contrary to Dhaka’s claims the reserves were lower. In any case the country is currently able to finance its imports for about three months, as against over six months some time ago.
A recent loan advanced by the IMF has saved the financial situation for now, but apart from remittances which have not declined, there is not much to cheer for the export-driven economy of Bangladesh.
The working class has been hurt the most. Trade Unions are now agitating for a nation-wide minimum wage of at least taka 20,000 a month, to help workers survive. As one TU leader was reported to have told a public rally, even simple dal-chawal (dal bhaat) now costs tk 8000/9000 a month, unaccompanied by any protein-based item like fish, meat, eggs or milk!
Dhaka-based media recently reported the distress of some workers at Bogra. They mostly work for daily wages in the real estate sectors or agricultural farms, small factories in the private sector and sundry odd jobs. Most do not find work more than three/four days in a working week, as before. The going daily minimum wage of tk 500 gets reduced to tk 400 at times, as both employer and employees acknowledge their own problems to arrive at a compromise. Despite the recent increases in wages for labourers, the average worker cannot feed himself or his family adequately with what he ends up earning every month!
The months ahead promise to be turbulent and tension-packed for Bangladesh. (IPA Service)