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A Bangladeshi policeman stands guard in front of a mural of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid and her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Dhaka.
Phillip Stephens wrote recently in the Financial Times of the unraveling — perhaps segmentation is a better word — he sees in the British polity. The emergence of the far right anti-immigrant, anti-Europe UKIP party leads him to conclude that a growing portion of the British population, wants only to look back to some imagined, glorious past. My response would be: “well, welcome to the club.” I think of the Tea party in the US and the growth of such parties as UKIP all over Europe. We live in an era which in some ways is eerily reminiscent of first half of the previous century. Democracy, where it is truly practiced, appears to be failing; the democracies are surely not meeting the needs of their citizens, neither their material and/or their psychic needs. In both of these failings onrushing globalization plays a large role. The number of practicing democracies is falling as more and more countries turn toward authoritarian governance. Most of these authoritarians have their own favorite and often misleading golden age to look back to, which they promise to reconstruct. The number of practicing democracies is falling Many governments that look back to a golden are concerned with regaining “lost” territory. Somehow the dream of regaining lost territory embodies an absolutist memory of greater glory and power that was connected with a more extensive territorial writ. The poster child of this group is President Putin of Russia, who talks boldly of a “New Russia” which would, at least encompass the greater European territorial grip of the defunct, but obviously not forgotten, Soviet Union. (Perhaps there is also a memory is of the expansionist Tsarist regimes of the 18th and 19th centuries.) Russia’s neighbors, most of whom were part of that Soviet Union to their everlasting regret, worry about whether Putin’s dream is not their next nightmare, a recurring one at that. In his seizure of Crimea and covert effort to seize Eastern Ukraine, he seems to want to return to the 20th century European way of doing things, using force establish and change borders. The power to carry out his dream, however, has disappeared along with the Soviet Empire. If Putin believes that controlling more territory will reverse the demographic and economic decline of Russia since he took over, he is as they say, putting the cart before the (dead) horse. South Asia has its share, and maybe more, of governments and parties which dream of some preferred past and, no matter how far those dreams depart from historical accuracy, aim to turn back the clock. The present Awami League government in Bangladesh has no revanchist motives, no territory to recover, but yearns instead for the imagined past of total power. It is driven by selective memory of its first 2 ˝ years in charge of the new state of Bangladesh, and motivated by the fluke of an inept opposition without vision, which, this year gave the Awami League sole power by refusing to participate in the January election. The AL has ended up, by default, in total charge of the country, but in a context totally different from 42 years ago. Perhaps encouraged by the worldwide retreat from democracy and regression toward authoritarianism, or perhaps by its own its own DNA, the AL is charging ahead to consolidate its one-party government into a one-party state by closing the political space for any kind of opposition. Whether Bangladeshi civil society, as well as the political opposition, will find the will to resist this is a more important question than it would appear on the surface, as it may have wider implications around the region. The answer is not yet evident, but the outlook is discouraging.
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Anti-EU leaders of UKIP place UK flags on their seats in protest during a session of the European Parliament in July.

India is now run by a party which also looks to an idealized past for general guidance. But as yet, the BJP seems to be trying to modernize the country, instead of regressing back to the future. It is early days yet in India. In Pakistan, dreams of a glorious past abound. With governments these dreams, though slightly mendacious, are aspirational, but probably deleterious because they create impossible goals for political leaders of either major party. Their dreams relate primarily to idealized view of how the nation was founded and/or governed in its first decade and a half. Much more pernicious dreams of the past are those that are held by the many militant groups, all of which in one way or the other see the political/economic/social structure of the 7th and 8th century Islamic world as what they would try to return to if in power. Although the modern day manifestations of this nostalgia have been ugly and totally alien to the predominant spirit of this century (Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s and ISIS-controlled Syria and Iraq today), the unfortunate fact is that many disaffected young men and women from many countries have been drawn to this retrogressive vision. The reasons for why people are attracted to a retrogressive and false dream of the past are complex and mysterious; social scientists are still trying to work them out. Clearly, the past has always helped to shape our lives. Over the centuries it has been both a nurturing and burdensome force, allowing people to make sense of the present but, at the same time, to shape change. The past was once a sanction for inherited power or privilege, but in many countries that has changed dramatically, all to the good. The past remains, of course, in many countries the bedrock of personal and national identity. But today’s fascination with an idealized past by so many governments and movements can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that it can be also a bulwark against massive and distressingly rapid change in the lives of people. And such change seems to be the rule of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The past will remain a potent force in our lives, and it is up to our political leaders to ensure that we use it to make the present better, and the best way to do that is to present the past as it really was, with all its warts and potholes as well as its parts worth preserving. Many readers will recognize the title of this piece is the opening line of J.P. Hartley’s classic 1953 novel, “The Go-Between.” The narrator, looking back to a boyhood trauma of a half century earlier that led him to feel cursed and withdraw emotionally from life calls the past foreign because, “they do things differently there.” But he learns in the end, “there is no spell or curse [of the past] except an unloving heart.” The author is a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia.