Dhaka Courier

Did the Westminster model ever operate in Bangladesh?


“The Westminster system is a parliamentary system of government developed in the United Kingdom. The system is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once used, in the national legislatures and subnational legislatures of most former British Empire colonies upon gaining responsible government. However, some former colonies have since adopted either the presidential system (Nigeria for example) or a hybrid system (like South Africa) as their form of government.” Wikipedia

Two aspects of the Westminster model is obvious. a. It’s a product of post-colonialism, in some ways a continuation of the colonial state. B. It is linked to formal political structures not socio-economic governance patterns. The major objectives of these states emerging out of colonialism vary and so do their governance models.

What however remains common is the pivotal role of the negotiating class and its characteristics, which are inevitably set in elitism. Usually it’s a middle class aspiring to become upper. Most important, what matters is who decides what is going to be the nature of the state.


India, Pakistan and maybe Bangladesh are three interesting examples of post-colonialism.  Of the three, India has done the best having continued as an independent state in post-colonial environs but with its political management values rooted in the earlier colonial world. The elite runs India in a way few else do but it’s not just the economic elite but socio-cultural ones as well and more efficiently than the rest in South Asia.

The idea that motivated the “One –Nation “theory of Nehru/Congress still continues even with its deep ethno-regional divides that dominated the negotiating phase of pre-1947 politics. Its extreme centralized concept is rooted in the notion of the core and the periphery. The colonized basically replicates the idea of the central core of the empire, whether as a North Indian or European colonizer.

India has grappled with its federal model of governance but hasn’t done as well, partly because it is not really committed to the idea. It’s not comfortable with power sharing and reciprocity whether internally or regionally. The result is continuity of the colonial state but without full ease. Fundamentally, it’s a product of historical continuity of many regimes behind it.


Pakistan is probably the least successful of the trio as it lasted only from 1947 to 1971. Having failed to manage its politics, governance, security not to mention equity, it lost half its territory resulting from a very inefficient and brutal model of internal colonialism that backfired. It focus on the security apparatus as the guarantor of the state given its weak economic level didn’t work as its capacity to run an efficient internal colonial state was proven to be very limited.

Its military was very inept and it’s over dependence on an unintelligent secret services as a substitute for the rest of the state organs didn’t work.  Even after 1971, the model has continued to dominate. The Westminster model was never there and it was more the Sand Hurst military model of governance. The equations are still internal colonial with the military serving as the centre and the rest as periphery.


A more complex construction of history is Bangladesh which went through two transitions – 1947 and 1971- though basically one birth that is though the war after Pakistan collapsed. However, these transitions are overlapping and not always easy to detect when one transition began and one ended.

1947 was a conventional birth but more a miscarriage. The “Pakistan” model didn’t apply to the Eastern Bengal/East Pakistan as it was basically a peasant state not led by a central elite like India and even Pakistan. Prof. Rounaq Jahan makes a distinction between provincial and national elite in her analysis too.

The analysis was produced by a centrist gaze but shows the nature of Pakistan as a post-colonial reality. Bangladesh was in effect a subsumed state of the margins that doesn’t fit into the conventional analysis of colonialism and post-colonialism of the West influenced academia. The state came into being in stages not at once. Hence the subsumed state of “Bangladesh” was already in existence in 1947 but not in full operation. In 1971, that became a reality through armed inter-actions.

The nature of the 1971 war

1971 is a curious war where everyone participated but it was essentially a peasants war in which they were pivotal but did not lead that is a part of historical continuity too It was also not a signed across the table independence but caused in response to a brutal attack by state forces on its own perceived population. 1971 war was a mix of a race war, a colonizer’s desperate to hang on to an outstation war but also a transition of social forces within the colony. It was a great triumph of the middle class who led the peasantry once more as they had done before without whose support the war could not be won.

The problem was that the liberation was incredible but the state was inflicted many blows before birth in its war and there was no system to inherit after 1971. Bangladesh was born in a governance vacuum.

India was an extensions of the colonial state and Pakistan was a state of convenience for the remnant elite. This elite expanded an external problem to make it the state’s ultimate priority as part of ruling class strategy like Rohingya genocide in Myanmar that allows the military to continue to dominate. Bangladesh was not a conventional post-colonial state.  It was a by-product of an internal colonial state – hence a second generation colonial state -and that is why it had no strong link to any previous model.

Post 1971 Bangladesh

By 1975, the political system in Bangladesh was in distress and one party rule was established ending the multi-party constitutional rule. But it was followed by a brutal military takeover which involved among others killing off of most members of the ruling family. This was followed by martial law which was followed by a series of coups, counter-coups and intrigues, conspiracies etc. that continued all the way till 1990 when the civilian parties with the army’s tacit consent tumbled off a civilian leader of previous military pedigree.

From 1972 to 1990 is 18 years and Westminster was never in practice.  The neutral caretaker government which basically means no party trusts each other to hold neutral polls shows how weak the political party system was. By 2006 the intrigues were in open display. The military rule was once more in place in 2006-08. It’s an indicator that civilian parties on their own could not be expected to rule or hold elections fairly and together.

The 2008 elections was held under military rule so it doesn’t count  but the incapacity of civilian to hold a credible elections is not in doubt anymore. It’s not the fault of the EC or the government in power at any given time. The system which includes quality elections, legal transfer of power and rule of law has not established and so not fair to ask for it.

The informal state in formal clothes or post pluralistic state?

Had the peasant had a greater role in managing the state, the ones who really gave the most to be a free land, we would have seen an evolution of a natural state. But without the continuation of the colonial model or the birth of a social class-alliance e model, it tends to be more of state without any structure. Here formal institutions exist without functioning formally and informality reigns as the formal custodian of rights.  This is neither good or bad but the inevitable state of being.

Bangladesh is not the only one of a kind state but many are. Which is why the shelf life of such states or nature should be explored further. Experimental-by choice or inevitability- states are many now and so are economies. China for example has become the greatest example of how a conventionally socialist orthodox state can produce the most unorthodox experiment by having a totally capitalist economy run by a totally anti-capitalist construct, the Communist Party. Its yielded much economically and the impact can be felt globally. However, politically, it remains conventionally autocratic.

Rather than wail over the state of electoral democracy in Bangladesh, there is a need to understand if the state at this point is looking for it or not. It is needed to identify the components of the ruling class and how each segment seeks goals and which. If its unified in its objective, is there a need for many political parties that basically has no difference in objectives or operational plans. Politics is not mainly about a change in the dinner menu.

The voter doesn’t matter because if people have voted for a party so overwhelmingly that it has becomes in de facto a one –party state. If they haven’t and the Opposition’s claim of vote manipulation is right, that is more worrying because voters aren’t on the street protesting either. In either case, voting is a very demand diminished political product. Conventional voting itself may be less relevant in current political or governance arrangements.

But a model does operate and in that traditional ideas of political pluralism is not so visible now. If so, what does the structure look like. It’s hardly about AL-BNP fight, it’s about the next stage and why. It’s not the party where the answer lies but in the structure that manages the state becoming increasingly post-political.

  • Did the Westminster model ever operate in Bangladesh?
  • Issue 32
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

Leave a Comment