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Dhaka Tribune

Navigating political polarization

Is it possible to find a common ground anymore?

Update : 06 Jan 2024, 01:25 PM

In recent times, political pundits have turned their attention to the issue of polarization, recognizing its increasingly pervasive impact on global politics. Two pivotal reasons underscore the urgency of this matter. 

First, polarization has evolved into a defining feature of politics worldwide, significantly influencing the quality of democratic processes. The recent downslide of democracy can be attributed in part to the widening scope of political polarization across the democratic countries. 

Second, discussions surrounding polarization have gained momentum because scholars highlight that it is not solely driven by economic factors. Emotional or affective elements are becoming more pronounced, adding a nuanced dimension and complexity to this subject.

While psychological and affective factors have always played a role in politics, they have not received adequate attention until now. Can you imagine Bangabandhu delivering a lecture in a dispassionate tone with PowerPoint slides? 

While economic class was once a primary factor in explaining political polarization, recent trends suggest a departure from this traditional understanding. Examining political polarization in the United States reveals a complex landscape where both Republicans and Democrats draw support from big corporations. 

Notably, corporations like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple are often associated with Democrats, while oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have often supported Republican candidates and causes. Again, the political landscape remains dynamic. One thing can be said with some degree of certainty that economic class no longer serves as a primary factor in explaining political polarization, adding complexity to the situation.

Possibly, corporate entities such as Adani and Ambanis have aligned more closely with the BJP, while other business houses have exhibited closer ties to the Congress party. Historically, the Tata and Birla groups have been associated with the Congress. Notably, Mukesh Ambani's corporations experienced a significant increase in net value during a period that coincided with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pro-business policies.

Analysts, such as Rehman Sobhan, have observed a capture of politics by big business, regardless of the regime in power in Bangladesh. Addressing economic factors, both major political parties in Bangladesh adhere to neo-liberal, market-friendly policies, differing mainly in the degree of market-friendliness. 

Economic indicators, such as increasing bank accounts with substantial deposits and declining poverty rates, paint a complex picture of the nation's economic landscape. The rising Gini Coefficient indicates growing income inequality, contributing to economic polarization.

The number of bank accounts with deposits exceeding Tk1 crore reached 113,586 by the end of September 2023 compared to 109,946 in December 2022 as reported by the Bangladesh Bank.

The poverty rate in Bangladesh has come down to 18.7% and the extreme poverty rate stands at 5.6%, according to the latest“Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2022.” The poverty rate was 24.3% and the extreme poverty rate was 12.9% in the previous survey, carried out in 2016. (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), 2022).

In this scenario, the rich in Bangladesh have become richer and the poverty rate has reduced at the same time largely due to poverty-reduction policy intervention. There are other scenarios. The Gini Coefficient -- a stylized measure of income inequality -- rose to 0.499 in 2022, up from 0.482 in 2016 and 0.458 in 2010, according to the same survey. Economic polarization has taken place as reflected in growing income inequality in Bangladesh, but this does not correlate with political polarization mechanically.

Political polarization is traditionally manifested in differences in political ideologies, where individuals or groups hold opposing views on issues such as government, economic policies, and social issues. 

The classic division was between bourgeois ideology and the socialist/communist ideology. In our university days, polarization meant class polarization, which was bound to happen, and the middle class would disappear as we read in the Communist Manifesto, which we thought was the source of ultimate truth. 

Predictions made in 1848 did not bear out. Political polarization is now more along political party lines, where individuals strongly align with and support their chosen political party. Partisan division in the US, India, and Bangladesh has assumed a new high unseen in the past. 

In India, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar -- father of the Indian constitution -- made a comeback when honoured by the pantheon of the nationalist leaders under the watch of the Modi government. In Bangladesh, the chairman of the constitution drafting committee appointed by Bangabandhu has been somewhat marginalized in the welter of partisan politics. 

However, the greater influence of emotion over political economy becomes evident in Bangladesh's heightened political polarization.

Finding a middle ground becomes imperative to bridge the widening gap of polarization. Democratic politics thrives on compromise, yet achieving such middle ground proves challenging in Bangladesh due to deep-seated historical roots, which many analysts often overlook. 

It is not easy for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to accommodate a political opposition party that had not only rewarded the murderers of the Father of the Nation (who also happened to be her own father) with cushy diplomatic appointments but had also erected barriers by amending the constitution to grant them immunity. 

It is crucial to recognize the historical underpinnings of political polarization in Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina faces the arduous task of navigating a deeply entrenched political opposition. Drawing a parallel with Hindu mythology, just as Lord Shiva consumed poison to save the universe, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina may find herself having to make difficult decisions and sacrifices to safeguard the nation.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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