Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sand-truck Democracy

In a decision that has surprised us, the police have allowed the ruling Awami League to hold a rally in downtown Dhaka, temporarily lifting an eight-day ban on such activities. The police's new stance, quite sagacious towards the ruling party, stands diametrically opposite to its handling of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its leader. Khaleda Zia has been virtually imprisoned for the last nine days in the name of protecting her from unknown and undisclosed threats. To make matters even more grievous, lorries filled with sand have been kept at the entrance to her house to prevent her from participating in any open political activities.

It is true that the police's bias, unashamed that it is, towards the ruling party has undoubtedly reached its peak in the last few years. This is especially so when we see the law enforcers use live bullets against unarmed opposition activists, who have taken to the streets to realise a demand, which, according to some opinion polls run by this paper, an overwhelming number of ordinary Bangladeshis support.

While we cannot but condemn setting fire to private and public properties or vandalising them in the name of street agitation, in the same breath we deplore the police's partisan attitude towards the ruling party. There is no denying that the AL has every right to hold a rally in the capital, a privilege that it should share with other political parties. For any such group, holding rallies is one of basic ways to reach people and make its voice heard, but bestowing one political party with that and obstructing the other's path with sand-filled trucks undoubtedly smacks of undemocratic behaviour. 

There is no denying that the police have blocked the entrance to Khaleda's house following some government order, and the same is true about the ban on rallies in the capital that was slapped immediately before Khaleda's 'arrest'. The AL should keep it in mind that in any democratic society, the party in power has to work as the vanguard for freedom of speech and expression; it has to make sure that it is amply criticised, and its actions scrutinised. It is even more necessary in a dysfunctional democracy like ours, where, as history suggests, the absence of a dissenting voice always paves the way for tyranny.

In the last few weeks, the ruling party MPs have been talking about the possible arrest of Khaleda Zia on alleged charges that range from 'patronising terrorists' to 'stealing the money of orphans'. Given that she's been kept under virtual house-arrest, sand-filled truck and all, all the AL leadership needs is a warrant to make the matter more official. The implication of Khaleda's 'real' arrest is going to be huge.  Not that we believe, after her arrest, the BNP stalwarts will risk their lives and will throng the streets of the capital in their millions. If they do, it will be a different ballgame altogether.

But the balance of probability runs dangerously high against the BNP. After Khaleda's 'arrest', the BNP-led agitation, thanks to a leadership crisis, might fizzle out. The erosion of people's trust in the BNP to become a force to be reckoned with will surely create a vacuum, which Bangladesh's politics might want to fill with elements that many of us might feel uncomfortable to deal with. The weaker the BNP gets the more right wing its supporters might become. And that does not bode well for the country.

Be that as it may, the country is in the hands of a set of intolerant power-hungry politicians who do not even bat an eyelid while trying to find ways to deny the opposition's right to speak or, in the case of the BNP, to vandalise public property, the very ordinary people they so vociferously claim to represent.

Presently Bangladesh stands at a crucial crossroads in its history. Every decision that is taken now will make an impact on the country's immediate future and will shape the nature of its polity. But our politicians, it seems, are not aware of it at all.

First published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh on January 14, 2015

Sunday, July 14, 2013

After Awami League has met its Gazipur

It was inevitable. After its defeat in four big city corporation elections, ruling Awami League (AL) has been humiliated in Gazipur, otherwise known as its own turf. In the electioneering days, the AL leaders quite vociferously called the city the party’s second bastion after Gopalganj, the hometown of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The margin of votes by which the rather clean AL-backed candidate has been defeated clearly indicates the party’s declining popularity. There’s no denying that its grassroots now stand humiliated and demoralised, especially at a time when the general election is only less than six months away.
Given the trend the five city polls have set, it will be difficult for the party, impossible almost, to return to power in the national election, if its leadership does not introspect and show brinkmanship. While doing so, it will find that, the government has created many issues that are impossible to handle in less than 180 days. And after the election schedule, supposed to be declared in September, the AL might find the administration act in a not-so-friendly way.
It is indeed surprising the way the AL rank and file has expressed shock and disbelief after the electoral tsunami. The disaster has always been looming large, and its ferocity could always be forecasted. The AL government has strings of achievements to boast, but the way proverbial bad apples spoil the whole bunch, the party’s success stories are now forgotten by the ordinary voters thanks to some Awami Leaguers’ unbridled corruption and its student wing’s thuggery and gangsterism.

The results suggest a steep fall in popularity and it is time the AL arrests it to keep the casualty to the bare minimum. The best move would have been to dissolve the parliament in February to hold an early election under a caretaker government. It could have given the party a chance to bag the fruit of the Shahbag movement. It is indeed sad that Shahbag has become a skeleton of its previous self and a Prothom Alo survey says that despite the front-page treatment it has received during its helicon days, it has not been able to take its message to the ordinary masses. No chance there.
So, an early election is not a possibility. The war crimes trial verdict and its execution might not save the day for other bigger issues have now overshadowed it. The government should invite the main opposition to a dialogue to settle the issue of the caretaker government. Meanwhile it must take some face saving measures to regain the level of popularity it had enjoyed only four and a half years ago. The AL leadership might not like him, but Professor Muhammad Yunus is hugely popular among ordinary Bangladeshis, especially the Grameen’s borrowers, which amount to 900,000 poor Bangladeshi women. Splitting their bank will not surely go down well with them. As the first step to restore sanity, the government can sit with Yunus to find a way to resolve the Grameen crisis.
Then there is the albatross round the AL’s neck–the Padma Bridge. For the party, what could have been a jewel in the crown has turned into a thorn in the flesh. The AL leadership’s denial of corruption and comparing it with Bangabandhu’s uncompromising stance against imperialism (Sheikh Hasina’s budget speech) will not help any of the parties involved. There’s only one person’s alleged involvement in the scam that has prompted the World Bank (WB) to show its back to the bridge’s finance, and that person and his feelings should not come before national interest. The government should sit with the WB again and do the needful to bring it back to the project.
Besides the collapse of Rana Plaza, alleged abduction of labour leader Aminul and Bangladesh’s labour law has contributed the most to the suspension of the GSP facility that Bangladesh used to enjoy in the US market. Instead of nabbing the culprits or amending the law, the government has pursued a strange policy according to which it blamed everyone but the real culprits for GSP suspension. Now that the EU has told Bangladesh that the latter should not take its GSP for granted, the government should do everything to retain the GSP facility in the European market.

And on top of it all, the AL must immediately sit with the main opposition to find a way to hold an election that will be acceptable to all the parties. Holding a one-sided election with Gen HM Eshad’s Jatya Party is not a sane idea; neither is inviting an unconstitutional power, the apprehension of which former President Baddruddoza has expressed the other day.
AL has led Bangladesh towards its glorious independence. Whim and arrogance is unbecoming of the party that has for years fought military dictatorship to uphold people’s right to vote. AL leadership’s future decisions should reflect its august past. The party, like the country is at a crossroads; it is a time when a single political move can make or break.