Theorising the Present Political Crisis in Bangladesh

Nazmul Sultan

Predictably enough, with the arrival of the scheduled parliamentary elections, Bangladesh has once again become entangled in a rather inextricable political crisis. The recently held national parliamentary elections—boycotted by the major opposition parties—is only a prelude to further political contestation over the occupation of state power. The crisis is structural and constitutive of the political system— the moral bankruptcy and the lack of will that the concerned political parties show is not the cause, but rather the effect, of the structural conflict. Elections—that is, the process through which the occupier of the centre of explicit political power is periodically shifted—take place amid chaos and unrest across the world. The procedural concern regarding elections might be a problem in its own right, but this is not the fundamental source of the present crisis in Bangladesh. The crux of the problem lies in the irresolvable contradiction constitutive of the distribution of explicit political power in Bangladesh. What is at stake is not simply the dysfunctionality of institutions such as the election commission, nor is it primarily a conflict between the two political parties over the occupation of power. To be sure, the power struggle between the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is the occasion that triggers the crisis. However, the fundamental source of the crisis, as I will seek to show in this article, lies in the conflictual instability over the very distribution of political power, involving the political society, civil society, military apparatus and, not so obviously, the people.

Elections and the Suspension of Power

Let us start with a plain narration of the crisis at stake. Apparently, the crisis is about the failure of the two parties to reach an agreement regarding the procedural arrangement of national parliamentary politics. The terms of procedural arrangement concerns this central register of dispute: the suspension of political power of the elected ruling party. The provisional Non-party Caretaker Government — once orchestrated as an apparently innovative solution to this crisis — is no longer a viable option for the political society. The legally-sanctioned arrangement of the caretaker government required the elected ruling party to suspend its power three months prior to election so that the non-party provisional government could oversee the electoral process. Although the chief of the provisional government was required to be chosen from among retired Supreme Court chief justices, the advisers were chosen from the recommended candidates by the political parties. As a result, the political society collectively retained control over the provisional government. Despite the presence of the non-party provisional government, the pre-election period had always been marked by political confrontation between the major parties. The contention over the appointment of the Chief Adviser of the provisional government in 2006 ended up in a political stalemate and resulted in a quasi-military coup that installed another Caretaker Government for the next couple of years. The coming together of the civil society actors and the military to occupy the place of governmental power added a twist to the preceding contestation that was limited to being one between the political and civil societies. Heavily persecuted by the military-backed regime, both the major political parties share a common opposition against the extra-political-society agents. So now, while the BNP demands that a national government be installed prior to the election, the AL dismisses the demand by claiming that the non-partisan provisional government would pave the way for the intrusion of non-political actors (a not-so-hidden reference to the civil society) in the sphere of political power.

The explicit political power – at its institutionalised locus — is disproportionately concentrated in the ruling regime. The power of the ruling regime appears to be an almost permanent prerogative. The ruling regime holds sway over almost all the central registers of political power, perhaps with the exception of the civil society. In most cases, the ruling regime is also able to secure its political control over the military, a force whose relative autonomy nevertheless remains fairly obvious. The concentration of power is generally explained by the lack of functionality of the institutions. The lack of will among politicians to allow institutions to function autonomously is then singled out as the source of the problem. The lack of autonomous procedurality in the political institutions is, of course, apparent. However, to delimit the problem to the moral lack of the politicians is to overlook the underlying logic that generates the concentration of power. Although, as I remarked earlier, there is a “conflictual instability” in the distribution of power, this instability should not be conflated with disequilibrium. Often in the form of parallelism with the supposedly “ideal types” of democracy in the West, the political arrangement of non-western countries is theorised as the lack of equilibrium among institutions. Such an understanding of our political horizon misses the presence of a distinct organism that cannot readily be understood in terms of western political models. The arrangement of power is unstable, but this instability forms an equilibrium of its own. Regardless of the impression that the facticity of political institutions provide, political power is not an unmoored force reproduced by the monopoly over violence. The question of legitimacy is crucial here. This is so not only because of its justification of the relationship of domination (as pointed out by Weber), but also because of the production of political power through the contesting process of legitimation. There is a gap that separates the claim of popular sovereignty from the institutions. In the putatively universal mode of modern democracy’s self-description, the constitutions of the post-colonial nation-states state that the people are the sovereign, and they transfer that sovereignty to the elected regime through periodic elections. In other words, the elected government and the political institutions claim to represent the people. This normative account is inadequate in understanding the disseminated form of political sovereignty, as it misses how the claims of sovereignty remain more volatile, contingent and tied up with the staging of the extra-institutional people.

In the case of Bangladesh, the foundation of the present political order was laid by the event of 1971. The political horizon of “the national” conditions the form of political legitimacy and draws the spectrum of partisanship. The dominant form of legitimacy that exists in Bangladesh is correlated with the “Bengali nation”—i.e. the Bengali nation’s right to rule over itself. This form of legitimacy has no determinate dovetailing with the institutionalised regime of the political. If the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and other legally autonomous spheres of political order cannot lay claim to be autonomous agencies and are easily folded under the agency of the ruling regime, this is primarily because of the reason that these institutions cannot appeal to the founding legitimacy in the way the extra-institutional people do. Granted, these institutions have their own logics of operation, and yet they have no agency to assert their political autonomy. Even whatever legitimacy the operation of pastoral power provides to the ruling regime, it is always vulnerable vis-à-vis the claims of the extra-institutional people. In any case, the imbalance of power, I would suggest, has a deeper root than sheer institutional dysfunctionality. The ruling regime is in a position to control and navigate the institutions at the level of decision, if not at the level of institutional logic. The concentration of power in the hand of the ruling regime results in an irresolvable tension within the sphere of political power. At the moment of election – that is, the moment when the power is to be transferred — the systematic absence of an autonomous procedurality and the attendant concentration of power in the ruling regime enter into a sharp contest. The opposition party — along with the civil society and any other actors concerned with a “fair” election — cannot but oppose the occurrence of elections under the aegis of the ruling regime. There are two forms of determinate contest in the political sphere: (i) the apparent and predominant contest between the political parties, who, in their identity and difference, form the political society; (ii) the simultaneous tension between the political and civil societies. The Non-partisan Caretaker Government was a solution that kept the suspended power within the political society with the aim of mitigating the tension between the two main parties. This option has lost its credibility owing to the introduction of the second form of contest following the rupture of the military-backed regime. The military-backed caretaker regime has established that the suspension of political power for the “caretakers” to come into being is not immune to the intrusion of the civil society into the sphere that the political society claims as its own. There is clearly a generalised opposition to the civil society from the partisans of political society. Evidently, both the BNP and the AL are not willing to leave power to a caretaker government that is open to the influence of extra-political-society actors. Thus the BNP came up with another option, that of the “national government”. Clearly, this would be more immune to the risks than what the old model of the caretaker government faced. The problem is there is not enough political force present in the political sphere to make the AL accept this otherwise amenable demand. The political ambition of the ruling party lies in outdoing both the external civil society and the opposition party (internal to political society) by way of rhetorically reducing the opposition party and the civil society to the same level.

French political theorist Claude Lefort famously argued that the locus of power is empty in democracy.(1) In contrast to the monarchic regime, wherein the king embodied society by virtue of being the mediator between the other-worldly and the worldly, the source of the legitimacy that hierarchically ordered society broke down with the arrival of modern democracy. Against the grain of the much-vaunted claim of modern liberal democracy concerning its ability to represent the will of the people in an institutionalised form, Lefort has argued that neither the people nor the institutionalised structure can occupy the empty place of power. The place of power is impersonal, and thus it is impossible for any political agency to identify itself with the locus of power. It is a form of society that internalises the impossibility of representing the people in the political institutions, despite taking the former as a symbolic ground of power. According to Lefort, it was not for nothing that many socialists and liberals protested against universal suffrage in its inaugural moment. The numericalisation of the will of the people would effectively displace the substantial and extra-institutional emergence and assertion of the people. Since the locus of power is empty and society is instituted without an organic body, the tendency of disincorporation introduces a gap between the sphere of power, and law and knowledge. Legality and the sphere of knowledge assert their independence from the sphere of power. Lefort’s argument hinges on the observation that only the mechanism of the exercise of power is visible, not the locus of the power itself. The government, or that which possesses the executive register of power, is posterior to the institutionalised form that conditions it. And thus, says Lefort, the government is not capable of embodying the power in itself, nor can it use the power for its own end. It does exercise power explicitly, but the government cannot identify with the mechanism and process that allow it to exercise power. In that sense, the institutional-form that makes it possible for the government to exercise power is prior. Furthering Lefort’s argument, Ernesto Laclau contends that there is a permanent gap between the form and content of political community in democracy. As a supplement to Lefort, Laclau argues that democracy “requires the constant and active production of the emptiness.”(2) The particular hegemonic “aggregation of demands” tends to be generalised and, in so doing, it seeks to represent the (incomplete) universality of the community through the particularity of its own constitution.

Lefort’s theorisation of modern democracy poses considerable questions and problems. His account is based on the transition from monarchy to democracy. While for someone like Foucault the ruptural shift from the old monarchic regime to the modern institutionalised democracy coincided with the expansion of disciplinary practices to the finest grain of society, Lefort’s account describes the political organisation of the form of modern society as indeterminately determinate, claiming a rupture among the spheres of (political) power, knowledge and legality. Lefort is certainly correct in arguing that the marker of certainty has dissolved in modern democracy insofar as the ordering of society is concerned, as the political order of society was no longer strictly hierarchised. However, it is unclear how would he theorise the empty locus of power itself other than referring to the void that had been produced through the disappearance of the monarchic form and reproduced by the sustenance of the institutional arrangement of modern democracy. Insofar as the empty locus of power acts as a foundation (as its emptiness determines how the sphere of power is arranged and correlated with other spheres), it is imperative for us to think whether it is pure emptiness or a form of (incompletely and contingently) saturated political foundation. The case of Bangladesh is an interesting instance. Coming out of the colonial experience, Bangladesh is certainly not the ideal site for thinking Lefort’s Europe-centered account of democracy. That being the case, the distribution of political power in Bangladesh clearly poses certain questions that are akin to Lefort’s problematic. Given the concentration of power in the ruling regime and the lack of autonomy of the political institutions, there is a profound imbalance in the distribution of political power. This adds complexity to the form of political sphere. As our discussion of election and its attendant suspension of political power has shown, there is a fundamental uncertainty regarding the very form — and not just content — of the political community. If all the contests were over the content of power, there would not have been enough reason for disputing the suspension of power. The otherwise banal ideological debates among political parties indicates that the core of their political reasoning is not so much concerning governance, but rather about instantiating the border and order of the political community. The political parties thus manifest the drive to collapse the distinction between the prior empty place of power and their occupation of it, as though their particular occupation of power is the only means to safeguard it. This centripetal force of power also explains why the sphere of law and knowledge are so closely tailed with the political sphere in Bangladesh. The subordination of legality to politics — whether in the form of para-legalism or simple suspension — is barely a matter of dispute. More interestingly, the intellectual sphere of Bangladesh shows a remarkable tendency to divide itself between the rival camps of Bengali and Bangladeshi nationalism, while the autonomy-seeking section of it remains trapped in unreflective contrarianism. While the constitutional democratic political structure formally generates a necessity for extricating the place of power from the particular contents that occupy it, this institutional drive is neutralised and outdriven by the presence of a saturated political foundation that collapses the distinction between form and content of politics. Unlike the Laclauian hegemony that explains the occupation of power through the becoming-universal of a particularity amid the plurality of demands and groups, the appeal to the foundation of political community generates a desire for an immediate identity between the form and content of the polity. The drive to saturate the empty locus of power is that which explains both the danger and potency of Bangladesh’s political horizon. The articulation of this claim would require us to make a foray into how the people construct themselves by bypassing the logic of institutions.

The People and the Institutions

Between the people and the sphere of political power, there is a lack of correspondence. This is, however, a lack that is systematic. To be sure, the failure to reflect the political will of “the people” in the institutional order of the political system is the perennial crisis of modern representative democracy. This is a constitutive failure of constitutional democratic system — it is inherently incapable of accommodating the extra-institutional entity that is the people. In the West, “public opinion” emerged as a mediating process in introducing the institutionalised correspondence between the people and the political institutions. Public opinion, of course, is not the pure will of the people. Its form is institutionally determined, whereby the opinion of the individuated citizens – which is distinct from the truth-claim that a political collectivity pushes for — operates within clear limits. Given the absence of the role that “public opinion” plays in the West, there is a vacuum between the institutions and the people. As I said earlier, the gap is constitutive of constitutional democracy. What is, however, specific to the Bangladeshi scenario is the absence of any mitigating correspondence between the two poles. No absence, however, is pure absence. This structural particularity is also at the root of the extra-institutional politicisation of the people in the Bangladeshi context. What we call the people is far from being a readily accessible political category. Instead, it is one of the most complex political entities. Partly because of the “failure” of the institutions to set up a neutralising correspondence with the people a la public opinion, the Bangladeshi people are in a privileged position to extra-systematically contest political power. As the diagram shows, the political construction of the people leaps over the realm of non-correspondence and directly enters into the realm of power.(3) The Shahbag movement is an apt example. The current scenario is complicated precisely because of the Shahbag event. It heralded a new political configuration. To portray the post-Shahbag crisis as merely a contest between proponents and opponents of the trial of war criminals is to fall short of understanding how the congealed image of Shahbag has transformed the ordinary regime of power distribution. Moving beyond the myopic concern with what the demand of the movement was and who constituted the sociological formation of its ranks, we need to look at the way in which it amounted to a contestatory construction of the people and, in so doing, mobilised an extra-institutional source of legitimacy.

diagram for RN article

The political power that the movement generated did not arise through any institutional process, nor did it gather force in the manner of issue-based social movements that operate through channeling the demands and mounting pressure on the concerned authority. The event came into being abruptly, and mobilised political claims by way of reclaiming the founding legitimacy of the polity. The people that the Shahbag Movement brought into being by way of re-invoking the political community form founded by 1971 is political in the sense that it generated political power independently of the permanent agencies of the sphere of political power. The virtual impossibility of affecting the sphere of political power through an institutionalised process breeds the possibility for the people to put themselves in the sphere of political power through bypassing what I have called “the sphere of systematic non-correspondence”. As I argued above, while the Shahbag movement contended with the state over the source of legitimacy, it did not result in an antagonistic contestation with the state over political power. This is precisely the feature that made it susceptible to the cooptation of the ruling regime. With the symbolic fulfillment of the explicit demands that the movement put forward, the AL regime could articulate the afterlife of the movement in its own terms. Political events do not just burst through the surface and then vanish without any effect. They do disappear, but in so doing, they alter the relations of forces in often not-so-apparent manner. The continued presence of the Shahbag Movement registers such a transformation. On the one hand, it has made it nearly impossible for the political parties and platforms to negotiate with what the movement had identified as “anti-1971” forces, thus affecting the border of the regime of political power. On the other hand, its claim to the source of legitimacy –and the attendant construction of the people — provided it with a political authority that, however, was not directly antagonistic to the state. These paradoxical features have rendered the event amenable to cooption by the ruling regime, which through such cooption sought to boost itself with the power that flowed from the Shahbag Movement. If the Shahbag Movement is reduced to the demands that it voiced, then it is possible to find the cooption acceptable. The present crisis is not a crisis centered on the war-criminal issue. It is a structural crisis integral to our political system, whereby the afterlife of the Shahbag movement has added productive complexity to the crisis.

The empty politics of “good governance”

The civil society is once again at the forefront of national politics. The civil society — or what is rather barbarically translated as Susheel Samaj (civilised society) in Bengali — is a complex entity whose understanding requires close theoretical and historical investigation. This is a task that I cannot undertake here. The grotesque name that they have given themselves is more than a symptom of mere linguistic incompetence. It designates the preconception that posits both the political society and the people as unqualified subjects of politics. Nevertheless, let us consider some of the prevalent (mis)conceptions about civil society in the context of Bangladesh. While it is obviously true that the Bangladeshi civil society did not evolve in the way in which western civil societies have, this contrast does not warrant us to conceptualise this civil society as historically parasitic or an entity without any social root. The civil society is neither simply a conglomeration of self-interested agents bent on procuring their economic and cultural interests. To be sure, they are self-interested, but that does not tell us much about their political drives and actions. The modern theorisation of civil society that came into being with Hegel explicates it as a mediator between the natural realm of family and the rational sphere of the state. For Hegel, individuals operate as self-interested subjects in civil society; but, in so doing, they conjure up a collective rationality which, in turn, results in a form of society that strikes a balance between the individual and the collective. The self-conception of Bangladeshi civil society expresses the desire to mediate between the “development-seeking” people and the “corrupted and irrational” state. However, since they deem the state as utterly irrational and self-serving, and the people as incapable of acting at the institutional sites, that dual presuppositions lead them to decide for both the state and the people. The task of mediation, as it were, is nothing less than dictating the logics of the entities between which they purport to mediate. In one sense, the political constitution of civil society captures the paradox of our political community in a rather actualised way. The paradox resides in the duality of the nation and the state. The civil society is as much under the condition of the national as any other political agent in Bangladesh. The cultural imagination of the civil society, however westernised, clearly feeds into the horizon of Bengali nationalism. The border and order of the political community that it envisages is under the condition of the national. As I noted above, its commitment to the liberal-democratic structure as the form of governance – with its attendant institutionalism, moral and cultural configurations and so on — puts them in an antagonistic relationship with regard to the political society. Indeed, there is clearly a generalised opposition to the civil society from the otherwise diverging entities of the political society. If the ruling regime does little to ensure the autonomy and independence of the institutions such as the judiciary and administration, it is because these institutions do not figure in the production of legitimacy and its attendant political power in the way in which the street does. Missing this central site of political power, the civil society takes institutions as the objects of politics. The liberal democracy that they push for is one that only knows institutions, extricated as it is from the extra-institutional sources of politics.

Being preoccupied with the task of ostracising corruption from the institutions, the politics of “good governance” is unable to intervene in the extra-institutional sites of politics. As a result, it is an ideology — regardless of its intentions — that strives to negate and excoriate the unruly self-representing people from the sphere of politics. The true subject of the politics of “good governance” is a non-subject proper. From the student rebellion of 2007 to the Shahbag Movement, the civil society had found itself incapable of — if not always indifferent to — dealing with the extra-institutional grounding of politics. The signature characteristic of the civil society’s political vision is the fear of disorder. Constitutionally incapable of realising how the moments of “disorder” are the fecund sites of politics, the civil society locates the source of all crises in the corruption of institutions. Owing to the lack-based understanding specified above, it transposes political contestations on to an empty normative horizon. The failure to influence both the institutional terrain dominated by the ruling regime and the extra-institutional sites, the ideologues of good governance have no other option than relying on the superlative intervention of western diplomats and the military.

The Crisis of the Left-Over Left

This complicated scenario of national politics has dragged the left into a quagmire. The modest success of the post-1971 Left has been dependent on the mobilisation of the nationalist condition of politics. With the emergence of a group of strong nationalist political activists in the last decade — a group that ideologically leans towards the Awami League and yet maintains a distance from its institutional aspects — the Left has been encountering contest and resistance in the attempt to short-circuit between nationalist and traditional leftist discourses. Nor can the Left lay claim to represent the urban workers and poor, the conspicuous outsider in the national politics. In short, the left is unable to instantiate any particular people as the legitimising ground of its politics. The stage-ist left, by and large, is happy to hibernate, while waiting for the coming of the pure (and thus mythological) class-conscious working class. The more active section of the left is oriented to the social issues. In the recent past, they have rather successfully led few social movements. This otherwise promising social-content-oriented section of the left’s crisis lies in its failure to transform social issues into political contest proper. While the Left’s pointing out of injustice and oppression normatively makes sense to the public, that act of making-sense does not get catapulted into a political contestation by itself. The precondition of the emergence of a political contestation requires not only an articulation of the terms of opposition, but also a contesting horizon of the collectivity, i.e. the possibility of a political community. This is precisely what the Left has been unable to generate in the recent years.

As an insignificant actor in the equation of electoral politics, the Left does not hold any effective leverage in shaping the terms of parliamentary elections. A large chunk of the old Left has allied with — or rather tailed behind —the ruling regime. At the level of ideological articulation, this section of the Left has little bearing on Bangladeshi politics. This political inaction is exacerbated by the Left’s understandably ambivalent relationship to the afterlife of the Shahbag movement. The epochal importance, if any, of the Shahbag movement resided in its instantiation of the possibility to re-enact the politics-form of the national by way of constructing the extra-statal people. With the subsumption of the afterlife of the movement by the ruling regime, the persistent presence of its after-effect has got crystallized into something that tends in the direction of lending legitimacy to the Awami League regime. Clearly, any provisional alliance with the AL has to reckon with the fact that the Shahbag movement does not have primacy here — it is the AL’s internal contest with the oppositional party and the civil society that dictates the terms.

Although it is true that the national is the dominant condition of the political in Bangladesh, there is no reason to resign and hold that there is no possibility of articulating a political grounding that would stand outside the present condition. I argued that the crisis of the Left owes to their growing dislocation from the internal order of the national, resulting in a redundant tailism with the mainstream Bengali Nationalist forces. The “outside” that the left needs is not necessarily an absolute outside — the possibilities of constructing a new ground of politics is present in the society. The possibilities themselves must be seized upon — the task of politics is more about subjectivating those possibilities than about waiting for a fully interiorized outside. The manoeuvre to dislodge this state of politics must re-examine the unquestioned ontological presuppositions and discursive strategies of the traditional Left. Hopefulness is empty and self-circling when it obdurately bypasses the facticity of despair. The Left must recognise and reflect on its apparently unmoving negativity, if it wants to break out of the existing state of political order.


(1) Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, (Cambridge: Polity, 1988).

(2) Ernest Laclau, “Democracy and the Question of Power,” Constellations 8, no. 1 (2001): 12.

(3) I do not consider the anti-Shahbag Hefazat-e-Islami movement as another example of constructing the people. For sure, the Hefazat reaction drew huge crowds, garnering considerable support. However, in terms of the politics-form, it was neither able to carve out a space outside of the national nor was it able to appeal to the existing political foundations. As a result, notwithstanding its numerical force, it remained caught up in the moment of its negative energy vis-à-vis the Shahbag Movement.

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