An Eternal Optimist

Dr Atiur Rahman

17 March, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Bangabandhu has completed a hundred years of his birth today. However, the nation has decided to continue the celebration of the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation throughout 2021. Doubly rewarding for us is that we are also celebrating the golden jubilee of the independence of Bangladesh simultaneously. Despite the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, we are celebrating both milestones with enthusiasm. What is more exciting is that we are getting kudos from international bodies for our stunning performance as a nation in our development journey, defying all challenges including the latest pandemic. From that perspective, the year 2021 has indeed been auspicious for Bangladesh. Only the other day, the Committee for Development Policy (CDP) of the United Nations gave Bangladesh the final recommendation for graduating into the list of developing countries. Then came the good news from Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland that our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangabandhu, has been named among the top three inspirational leaders along with Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Barbados who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership during Covid-19 that “delivers a common future for women and men and serves all of our common good.” Earlier Bangladesh was included in the top twenty successful countries by Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking Score. On yet another positive note the well-reputed Wall Street Journal carried a story titled “Bangladesh is becoming South Asia’s Economic Bull Case’’ on Bangladesh’s successful export-led Asian development model riding on its booming export performance, which increased by 80% in the past decade.

This is the same Bangladesh which was labelled as an ‘international basket case’ or a ‘test case of development’ by international pundits and observers. In the early years of nation-building, the per capita income was only 93 US dollars. The savings to GDP ratio was meagre 3 per cent. The country has come a long way over the last five decades. In many instances, it is being looked up as a replicable role model of inclusive development, true to the dreams of our Father of the Nation. Bangabandhu was an eternal optimist and could see the bright future of Bangladesh even as he stood among the ashes of the Liberation War. After his release from prison in Pakistan, he stopped in London and Delhi on his way home. He was totally exhausted from the journey following his prolonged imprisonment, and also deeply hurt by what he gathered from his co-leaders about the extent of the damage done to his people. Yet he remained composed and remembered to respond positively to the journalists gathered in Delhi airport. He said that he was proceeding towards a ‘peaceful, progressive and prosperous’ country. To him this was a journey from ‘darkness to light’ and from ‘desolation to hope.’ And he remained focused on this dream till his last breath.

He did not waste a minute and started rebuilding the country from the ashes with prudent policies and without losing his heart. He knew his golden Bangladesh would bounce back if properly managed. He maintained a balanced strategy of simultaneous agricultural and industrial development. To him there was no alternative to increased agricultural production in the context of dirty ‘politics of aid’ being played by the US Government, contrary to the support of the American people. Moreover, he rightly thought agriculture would provide food for the huge population which was growing at around 3 per cent, employment for the growing workforces, and raw materials and demand for industrial goods. He opted for state-led industrialization as there was no local entrepreneurial class to fill the void left behind by the Pakistani owners and managers.          

However, the first five-year plan and the budget of 1974-75 provided enhanced space for private investment. In addition, the resource-starved new government of Bangladesh laid the foundation for subsequent growth of the private sector through speedy reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure, and paved the way for a green revolution in agriculture. However, inflation shot up following the oil price hike following the collapse of the US dollar standard imposed by President Nixon through the Smithsonian agreement, which replaced the gold standard. Global inflation increased due to instability in the global foreign exchange market which also led to devaluation of Taka. This boosted export of jute and jute products but added fuel to the inflation as most imports became costly. Bangabandhu did not hesitate to enforce a tight monetary policy, including demonetization, to rein in inflation which was running at more than 60%. All this helped stabilize the macro economy of the country despite many remaining challenges.

Additionally, his initial farsighted public policies which laid a solid foundation for a vibrant Bangladesh included: 1. Food self-sufficiency through agricultural research and development; 2. Population control through a focused campaign and social consciousness raising; and 3. Free universal primary education throughout the country through the dedication of scarce public resources. He took up these long-term policies knowing fully that he had to build up the infrastructures ruined by Pakistani occupation army and reconstruct the institutions for running the administration and the economy. He constructed the pro-people Constitution, first five-year plan, and Kudrat-e-Khuda education commission to build a prosperous Bangladesh even as he struggled to feed his hungry people and provide basic needs like cloth, accommodation, healthcare and education. He never lost hope and was thinking big and long-term. Short-termism never overwhelmed him. This only shows that he was a born optimist who could see far despite the challenges in the short run. This made him a great leader who stood out among many other leaders who were also fathers of their nations.

Professor James Manor, in a speech on ‘Understanding Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’ at SOAS, University of London on April 10, 2018 said that he was a true secular leader and not an ‘ethnic nationalist’. His secularism did not restrict access to religion. However, he did not allow anyone to abuse religion for political purpose. Amartya Sen also recently in a webinar at LSE argued for titling him as a Biswabandhu (a ‘Friend of the World’) for his wider views on secularism. Professor Manor also noted that Bangabandhu was always a flexible leader who was open to dialogues/negotiations and not at all a ‘hot headed’ agitator. The world saw his patience, calmness and openness even though he was pushed by the conspiring Pakistani generals and Bhutto during those difficult days of the Non-Cooperation Movement of March 1971. He and his team continued to negotiate with President Yahya knowing fully that they were conspiring against Bengalis. This demonstrates his belief in democratic principles and flexibility without compromising on the core principle of his people’s freedom. His hallmark of foreign policy evolved around the principle of ‘friendship to all and malice to none’.

Indeed, he was destined to be a people’s protagonist. His own writings reveal to us how close he was to the ground since his school days. He was a born organizer and advocated fully for the disadvantaged. He developed his compassionate leadership qualities through ‘learning by doing’. His engagements in running the ‘Muslim Welfare association’ during his school days, and gruel kitchens and relief camps during college days indicate his passion for building organizations for the public good. These experiences helped him build student organizations later in his university days, enabling his leadership role in the language movement which formed the foundation for the Bengali nationalism he nurtured throughout his life. At one stage he opted to leave the position of Minister to concentrate on building the party as its General Secretary. Young Mujib chose politics as an instrument to stand by the have-nots. Sheikh Mujib was eager to learn from the pro-people outcomes of the Chinese revolution when he visited China. He visited agricultural farms, industrial units, schools and universities, technical institutions and workers, and colonies. He was then in his early thirties. This seems to be part of his preparation for leading reforms and reconstructions of his own country.

He always stood by the marginalized. His signature Six Points Program was also aimed at realizing social and economic parity between the people of two parts of Pakistan. Failing to realize these objectives peacefully, he encouraged armed struggle, leading to the independence of Bangladesh. That he was always pro-poor was abundantly clear when he started his new campaign of reconstructing the war-ravaged Bangladesh. On May 9 1972, just four months after his return to Bangladesh from Pakistani captivity, he candidly spoke out his mind at a mass gathering in Rajshahi. There he said he wanted a Bangladesh where people would be well fed, well dressed, well accommodated and adequately employed. In another public speech on December 15, 1973 he said, “This independence will be meaningful to me only when the woes of the farmers, labourers and the deprived of Bangladesh end.” The Constitution which he framed just months after independence clearly pledged opportunities for all. The fundamental state principles of the Constitution included pledges for realizing democracy, human rights and decentralization. It also committed to providing free and mandatory primary education, healthcare, nutrition and empowerment of women. It promised to implement a basic needs approach by providing the right to employment. It also pledged to ensure rural development, agricultural revolution and emancipation of workers.

Bangabandhu, as reflected in his first five-year plan, was in favour of a balanced development where both agriculture and industry would play their desired roles. Simultaneously, he thought there could be no golden Bengal without golden people. So, he initiated the Kudrat-e-Khuda Education Commission to develop a humane, secular, committed and morally strong workforce. The students were expected to acquire leadership qualities with respect for those who were involved in physical labour. The human resources were to be technologically savvy. He also prioritized education for girls and women. The role of higher education was redefined to produce graduates who would work for an equitable society.

His leadership qualities were both compassionate and aesthetic. He was both local and global. He could motivate his people to embrace struggle for decades. He was careful to develop co-leaders who eventually oversaw the War of Liberation. He could reach out to people from all walks of life, which proved to be rewarding in liberating and reconstructing the country. He could always see far and dream of a prosperous Bangladesh, or Shonar Bangla (the golden Bangla). He emphasized long-term planning for a people-centric transformation of Bangladesh. He looked forward to a world where human creativity and technological improvement would shape a peaceful era.

He was equally committed to eradicating corruption from the society and administration. He was very annoyed with unethical behaviour of the elitist government officials and reminded them of the hard work and contribution made by the farmers and workers. The latter were not corrupt, he said. So, they deserved more respect from the former. According to him the corruption was rooted among the educated. Therefore, he went for the Second Revolution which would bring systemic change in the administration through decentralization, greater transparency and accountability. The farmers and the workers would get higher respect from the government officials and also better share of their produces in the process.

Unfortunately, he was not allowed to see his dreams come true in his own lifetime. Fortunately, however, his daughter has been steering the country towards the goals set by Bangabandhu. Due to her apt leadership the country has been growing around seven plus percent riding on the stunning performances of agriculture, export industries, remittances and digitization of services including finance. She has also been addressing the climate change challenges both at the national and global level. No wonder Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, could write so emphatically in the New York Times: “What can Biden’s Plan Do for Poverty? Look to Bangladesh.”


The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Dhaka University and Former Governor Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at: [email protected]