Monday, October 30, 2006

A Tale of Conceit and Deceit

Even after the President Iajuddin Ahmed, frail and enfeebled at 76, has been sworn in as the Chief of the caretaker government (CCG), the spectre of death looms large over Bangladesh’s political horizon. He and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) faithful say that as the talks between warring political parties have failed and all the constitutional options have been exhausted he has to assume power to save the country from further bloodshed. But beneath this veneer of seemingly beguiling intentions stands a pack of lies and deceptions. The President did not properly explore all the plausible options of the constitution as he now claims to have done, but instead, this former professor of Dhaka University has played at the hands of, what it now seems, the BNP’s long standing plan to rig the next general elections.

In the face of a presidential takeover, the Awami League (AL) has given Iajuddin four days to prove his neutrality; the party has also laid down an 11-point demand on the table of the ailing President, which include: the removal of three election commissioners and correction and revision of the voter list.

If these demands are not met, the AL has warned to go back to the streets. The country’s hard-earned democracy is under threat, and there is a fear that further trouble lies ahead for this poor nation of fourteen crore people.

Dhaka, last Friday night, resembled civil war torn Beirut in the eighties. The Prime Minister Khaleda Zia gave a speech to the nation at seven in the evening and immediately after it ended machete and oar-wielding opposition workers poured onto the streets of the capital in their thousands. Khaleda claimed normalcy and gloated over her government’s “glorious five-year rule” as the country quickly slipped into chaos and lawlessness. A faint column of smoke rose first near Dhanmandi from a bus that had been burnt and quickly turned into a mangled corpse of charred steel; after this, as though after the first blood of the war was drawn, the war formally declared, opposition workers, with a renewed vigour, turned to every other moving vehicles on the roads, buses were burned, shops were looted, innocent passers-by, mostly women, returning to the city after holidaying, were robbed near Kanchpur. At zero hour, goons belonging to the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), riding a microbus and armed with automatic rifles, shot and maimed 40 opposition workers, who were organising themselves for the next-day’s rally. The old part of the city, even before Khaleda’s fustian speech began, had turned into a battlefield; boys as young as ten or eleven, belonging to Nasiruddin Pintu of the BNP and Hajji Selim of the Awami League (AL), took the rivalry into a new height; rival groups’ houses and businesses were torched, women were harassed; throughout the night, like the other half of the city, mobs of different colour and hue were on the prowl. Homes of BNP leaders across the country were attacked by the AL leaders, and on different occasions by the BNP's own disgruntled factions.

On this gory and ruthless night and the day that followed 20 people were killed all over the country. Saturday had witnessed even the worse incidents of violence. In the capital, the bone of contention was the control of Paltan Maidan, where both the opposition parties and the workers’ wing of the BNP called a meeting. BNP-men were not seen venturing into the ground, instead Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) workers and the opposition fought a savage battle near Baitul Mukarram National Mosque; at one point of the fight the JI, which actively opposed Bangladesh’s independence by carrying out numerous acts of rape and mass murder, introduced gun into what would have otherwise been a pitched battle. “Allah-hu-Akbar (Allah is the Greatest),” a loudspeaker blared while JI-men fired 20 rounds of bullets at AL-workers who had so far been using oars and brickbats. It took the night to descend and paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles to join hands with an outnumbered and withdrawn police force to restore some semblance of peace in the area, but before that four had died and a hundred were already maimed.

Not far away from the pandemonium, at her party headquarters, to a small audience of about two thousand followers, Khaleda declared that she would follow whatever decision the President made: a good hint for anyone who has been following the events closely.

Empty Talks

The talks that have failed, on the pretext of which the President has appointed himself as the Chief of caretaker government (CCG) are one of sorest and disreputable episodes in Bangladesh’s political history.

A long-running controversy has taken birth a few years ago when Judge KM Hasan, former foreign affairs secretary of the BNP and one-time nomination seeker of the party, was made the Chief Justice (CJ). Many smelled a rat when the government suddenly extended the term of Supreme Court judges, making Hasan the last retired CJ available. The opposition made protests, and declared not to go to any election held under any government led by him; the BNP talked about following the constitution, which they themselves had tailor-made to make a likeminded person the CCG. The issue of Hasan’s political past has never been discussed in parliament; instead, at the beginning of this year, the secretaries general of both parties swapped letters, as many as eight times, to discuss the possibilities of a reform in the electoral process; the seven round of talks that came out of the letter-swapping were shady, as murky as these two politicians could have made it to be. The tone and the mood were strikingly similar-- Abdul Mannan Bhuyan of the BNP, in a black suit, wearing an always-ready-to-smile face, Abdul Jalil of the AL, a seemingly weather-beaten, throwing a puckered smile at everyone in sight-- "We have made significant breakthrough. We are hopeful to give the nation a good piece of news before Eid.”-- Either of them could have been passed on to have said this to the anxiously sweating newspersons waiting outside, sometimes, just to get a glimpse of the duo.

Trouble began when, three days before the Eid, both Bhuyan and Jalil came out of the venue within ten minutes into their discussion with sealed lips-- "Let’s see what happens,” Bhuyan declares; Jalil, uncharacteristically reticent and irritable, “Not now…not now,” he said as his car rolled on. That night the BBC scooped its rivals by airing the news that both the politicians did not care to let their nervous countrymen know-- "At the ongoing talks the BNP has proposed the name of MA Aziz as a substitute to Hasan”; this has been a nerve-wrecking information, which has effectually meant that the last chance of breaking the stalemate has fallen apart. The next day, the day before Eid, Mannan Bhuyan broke the news--"The BNP does not think it is possible to replace KM Hasan with anyone else as it is unconstitutional”. This has spelled disaster for the ordinary citizens as the Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina has already urged “people come to Dhaka with oars and sticks if power is handed over to KM Hasan”.

Justice KM Hasan, meanwhile, has remained silent, and it has needed a violent eruption of people’s angst and frustration, 20 people have to die to make this retired judge realise that “for the greater benefit of the nation”, he, KM Hasan, a good citizen, should not become the CCG.

The Farce that has been enacted

After the discussions failed, the parliament expired its terms, mayhem followed and KM Hasan declined to become the CCG, the President has stepped into the ring; he started his own talks with the leaders of different political parties and in the first meeting declared his own willingness to be the Chief of the caretaker government. It came as a surprise to everyone because all the other options set out by the constitution were not exhausted yet -- The AL did not want MA Aziz, who has already earned a name for being controversial and partisan; without giving any reason, the BNP and JI for their part said they had a problem with Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury, another retired judge, becoming the head of the new government.

Controversy arose and Abdul Mannan Bhuyan, the BNP secretary general, played foul with the issue; to the press Bhuyan lied by saying that Hamidul Huq, another retired judge and second in line to be the CCG, had expressed his inability to take over; but on the following morning the retired judge told a private television channel that it was not the case-- "I am available if all the parties involved come to a conscientious about me."

The Clause 58C (5) of the constitution says, " If no retired judge of the Appellate Division is available or willing to hold the office of Chief Adviser, the President shall, after consultation, as far as practicable, with the major political parties, appoint the Chief Adviser from among citizens of Bangladesh who are qualified to be appointed as Advisers under this article."

That the President has to assume power means that no one qualified to be the Chief Adviser has been found among the citizens of Bangladesh, which is ludicrous and laughable.

Iajuddin's magic draught

This is the same Iajuddin Ahmed, whose ill-health and the mystery surrounding it created a world of intrigue not more than six months ago. The President is taken ill, the press were told, but a thick veil of secrecy was drawn around Iajuddin, who the government said had suffered a "massive heart attack". The President, after the "massive" heart attack, went to the Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka, and walked down the asphalted road and concreted corridor to get admitted; he was later flown into Singapore and Jamiruddin Sirkar, the Speaker and a BNP faithful was made the acting President, and for a long time, even after Iajuddin came back to the country and seemed well enough to perform his duties, Jamiruddin carried on with his "extended role" as the acting President. Not to mention that the BNP, at that time, had already grown a habit of changing Presidents; Badruddoza Chowdhury, once elected the head of the state by the BNP, only a year into his job, was removed overnight; no reason was given, and Chowdhury, who now heads his own party, refuses to talk much about it.

For about a month, effectually, there were two Presidents-- Iajuddin and Jamiruddin. Rumours ran wild when some younger MPs of the BNP-- the so-called young Turks-- demanded the removal of Iaj on the ground that his health did not allow him to perform the day-to-day duties of presidency. It was clear that his own party did not want him to remain President, especially with the next general elections in the offing. A more loyal and workable Jamiruddin Sirkar was wanted and the party, later on, grudgingly made do with Iaj because of the huge uproar that was made when the party tried to dump him.

Has the President, so weak only six months ago that he was finding it increasingly difficult to perform as a titular head, has that same Iajuddin Ahmed had a magic tablet that he will hold not one but two most important posts at the same time, and will not make a blunder? Even when he has long past the standard age for retirement?

Waiting for the Barbarians?

The Awami League has failed to stand up to the occasions when the day of reckoning has arrived. The party, while the sectary-general level talks were going on, never disclosed the day-to-day outcome of the discussions. By making KM Hasan the centre of their demands, the party has actually played at the hands of the BNP. The AL has thrown all its attentions and might on the appointment of KM Hasan as the CCG, downplaying its previous, and more important demands for the reform of the caretaker government system.

Last Friday and Saturday, when the whole nation was anxiously waiting for a vision of the future, for a guideline, the Awami League could not come up with any. Sheikh Hasina, who has led the first government of the country's history to complete its full five-year term, starting from 1996 to 2001, has never showed a way out of this anarchy, instead she fomented more violence by calling her followers to "seize the capital with sticks and oars".

Signs are there that the BNP leadership has always toyed with the idea of eventually making the President the CCG. The BNP has done everything it can to rig the next general elections-- a stooge like MA Aziz and Khaleda minions like Mahfuzur Rahman and SM Zakaria have been made Election Commissioners, the party has planted its own members onto different layers of the judiciary and administration.

But signs are there, too, that the BNP, which along with its zealot and corrupt partners have enjoyed an absolute majority in the last parliament, may not even get the single majority needed to return to power. The BNP leaders, most of whom are mired in corruption and political scandals, it seems, are aware of this. The party is desperately trying to cling onto power no matter what; on Sunday, the day Iajuddin nominated himself as the CCG, Dhaka was abuzz with rumours of military takeover; there were idle speculations that a state of emergency might be declared. Who fed on these gossips and where they generated from one cannot tell, but these paved the way for the President to become the CCG. The rumours that a martial law can be imposed, that we are going back to the Stone Age, that barbarians in olive uniform are going to take over, have been deliberately spread.

It is surprising; shocking almost that the party that has so overwhelmingly won the elections only five years ago is now frightened to face the voters this time next time round. The level of corruption and misrule of the BNP's last term can only be compared to the forlorn days of 1972-75 when different armed gangs and the then Prime Minister's sons indulged themselves in a world of corruption and degeneration.

By playing foul with the constitution and thus undermining our hard-earned democratic process, the BNP, has, in effect, dug its own political grave. And with the advent of the BNP's own breakaway faction the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and its increasing popularity in BNP bastions like Chittagong, the BNP has reasons to get scared. Iajuddin's appointment as the CCG will not change the situation, on the contrary, it may as well, spell an even bigger disaster for Bangladesh, if Iajuddin, a retired Professor of Soil Science turned President turned Chief of Caretaker government fails to govern.

Khaleda's Balance Sheet

Five years after being voted to power, what legacy is Khaleda Zia and her Four-Party Alliance (FPA) leaving behind?

Of the pledges that the FPA has made before coming to power in 2001, hardly anything substantial has been fulfilled. The long overdue separation of the judiciary, which both the major parties have promised to do 15 years ago, immediately after the ouster of Gen HM Ershad, hangs in limbo. The FPA government, particularly its law minister Moudud Ahmed, who is especially known as politically corrupt, has so far given numerous excuses for the sorry state of the country's judiciary. Instead of giving it independence, Khaleda has effectually ravished the country’s judiciary, especially the lower one, by employing one BNP-man after another; cases of judges taking inducements have remained an all time high during the last government’s tenure.

About the autonomy of the government-controlled Bangladesh Betar and Television, the information minister has never uttered a single word; on the contrary these two organisations have been made the FPA-government’s own propaganda machine; Fascist Hitler’s Nazi information minister Paul Joseph Goebbels believed that a lie becomes a truth if it is said a hundred times; Khaleda’s information minister and his cronies in Bangladesh Betar (BB) and Television (BTV), taking Goebbels’s suggestion too seriously aired lies, one pack after another, blatantly, with a straight face, as many times as they can. These seemingly educated people, who are still not in the helm of these two bodies act as though general people of this country are a bunch of idiots who can be taken for a ride whenever they want to. In her last speech to the nation, Khaleda rightly said that the AL government during its tenure had made the BTV and BB a particular family’s eulogy producing device. True though she is, if anyone has watched BTV or BB in Khaleda’s time will have thought Bangladesh is a hereditary monarchy, where only the Queen (Khaleda) and, the heir to the throne (Tareque Rahman) and his chums are allowed to show their faces on the idiot box. Ekushey Television, the first independent private channel in the country was taken off the air in Khaleda’s rule as it lost an appeal in the Supreme Court.

Dhaka based newspapers, on the other hand, have enjoyed a relative freedom; at the same time different BNP-men have lodged several criminal and defamation lawsuits against editors, publishers and reporters of different dailies. No verdict has so far come out of these cases, most of which are made only to harass journalists. The situation has been worse for journalists living outside the capital, particularly those who live in the northeastern Bangladesh, where thugs and goons have been butchering innocent people. In Khaleda’s five-year-rule journalists were killed in Khulna, Barisal, Nator, Kushtia and Bogra; the list of other types of attacks on journalists like maiming or beating is endless. Khaleda Zia’s full term in office has made the whole Bangladesh a prison for those who believe in free speech. Humayun Azad, the country’s leading linguist and novelist was hacked at a book fair in Dhaka for writing a novel Pak Sar Jamin Sad Bad, and over two months later the author died in Germany. Azad’s killers have not been brought to book; interestingly it was Jamaat-e-Islami MP Delwar Hossain Saidee, after its publication, in the parliament who demanded the book's banning. When it comes to clamping down on free speech, Saidee-- who actively opposed Bangladesh’s independence war and had carried out numerous acts of rape and mass murder in that period-- has remained an ardent advocate. In Khaleda’s “glorious rule”, this caitiff fanatic has once demanded that a blood test for all journalists be arranged to see if they are proper Muslims or not. Even after all this Saidee has remained a free man, only a few days ago he used to sit in the Treasure Bench, not far away from where Khaleda herself sat.

So it is no wonder that during her tenure the country has witnessed the worst instances of attack on free speech and religious freedom. Immediately after the FPA came to power thousands of homes and businesses owned by the country’s Hindus were burned and looted; some Hindu women were raped by Khaleda’s boys and many Hindu families were forced to flee the country, selling the properties of their ancestors to Shaheed Zia’s soldiers.

At the fag end of Khaleda’s rule, the lives and properties of minority Ahmadyyas have also come under beastly attack from the fanatics. In different parts of the country their places of worship have been desecrated.

In spite of these, the biggest crime Khaleda-led government has committed on this nation is the creation of a culture of sheer misrule and unabated corruption. Several stories of corruption of Khaleda Zia’s own son Tareque Rahman have been in circulation. From an offer to the Malaysian government to investment of millions of dollars in that country to taking a 25 per cent commission from every new business contract signed-- Tareque Zia’s name has been everywhere. Tareque himself, and, not to mention his mother Khaleda, summarily deny it. The Anti Corruption Commission that has been formed with much hype and hoopla has so far produced practically nothing. In her speech to the nation, Khaleda has accepted the presence of rampant corruption in her government; though she has apologetically termed it unfortunate, this admission, this acceptance of failure to keep the so-called Young Turks (an euphemism for Tareque and his cronies) under control, will not go down well to the electorate.

Standard of living in Khaleda’s term has been plummeted sharply; though her government has boasted a good foreign currency reserve, real income of the ordinary citizens, actually declined in the last five years, because of rising inflation, which according to unofficial estimates is at 8 per cent a year. Though the BNP has claimed to have led a nationalist government, many of its members, particularly those living in the border areas, have indulged themselves in smuggling of essentials to and from India.

Bypassing Bangladesh’s own petroleum exploration body, the Bapex, numerous shady deals have been struck in oil and gas, Bangladesh’s two prime national resources have been leased out to different multinational companies.

Khaleda’s last tenure has also witnessed a rise in violent Islamism. Several grisly bomb blasts have taken place during her government's tenure. The government, at the very outset of its term, has kept denying the presence of these militant outfits in the country; Khaleda herself has blamed the opposition several times for blowing the fundamentalist issue out of proportion, calling it a conspiracy to blemish the country's image abroad. Even after several grenades were lobbed at an Awami League meeting at Bangabandhu Avenue, in which 37 people died, several BNP leaders tried to find the perpetrators in the fold of different criminal gangs. Even when Siddikul Islam alias Bangla Bhai (BB) and his gang were butchering the innocent in the troubled northern districts of the country, the party and some in the state machinery had helped BB carry out numerous acts of gruesome killing and thuggery. It has been found later on that BB is actually one of the linchpins of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a terrorist outfit that has declared a jihad to establish Sharia in Bangladesh. The government's role in handling the issue of religious extremism is questionable: though the regime at the tail end of its term has actually cracked down on the outfit, the BNP leaders, who once actively supported and armed BB, remain free.

The parliament, like other democratic institutions in the country, in the last five years, has remained ineffective; the AL has never played the role of a strong opposition in the parliament; the Speaker has always failed to live up to expectations, his role in this parliament has been markedly partisan. The Shangsad has never been made the centre of all political activities; the major policy and political decisions have been made either at press conferences or at party gatherings. The BNP, as the party in power, has failed to make the political atmosphere more congenial and workable; the Awami League, for its part, has always relied on strikes and street agitations; instead of relying on wit, which politicians in other democracies do, both the major parties have resorted to violence and anarchy.

The BNP's last term, apart from corruption, has also been marred by unashamed nepotism and lawlessness. Though the FPA government has formed the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a new force parallel to the police, to improve law and order, there are instances of RAB-members themselves extorting and killing ordinary citizens in the name of cleansing the country of hooligans.

The BNP, in its last term, has created a culture of corruption and degeneration; goons and thugs belonging to the BNP and its corrupt and vile partners have run amuck; long-term BNP leaders have been sidelined and this has given birth first to Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh, and, eventually, to a major break-up of the party-- Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); the LDP's emergence as a major player in the country's politics means that the BNP, as a centre right force, has lost a significant ground and in the next general elections its votes, in areas like Chittagong and northern districts, are going to be significantly divided. And worst still, chances are there that the LDP may push the BNP further into the hands of extreme rightist elements like Jamaat and opportunist and corrupt leaders such as Ershad and Naziur Rahman Manju. Signs are already there that the BNP, already mired in nepotism and improbity, may move further right under the leadership of Tareque Rahman.

The BNP, as a political party, even as an oligarchy run by a few families, is facing the biggest crisis in its history. Even the death of its founder Ziaur Rahman or the military coup led by Ershad, or a rebellion by party stalwarts in the mid eighties could not cause such a big blow as it is facing now, which is, in fact, its own creation. The unabated corruption and unashamed misrule of the BNP and its partners have put the party's future at stake; with the LDP claiming a big share in its vote, chances run high that a major vote swing will take place in the eighth general elections, which is only months away.

Ershad, himself a crook and a treacherous politician, will not be able to save the skins of the BNP leaders and their cronies. What happens in the next elections will decide the future of many, especially the future of the BNP as a political entity.

Bangladesh Shining?

Khaleda Zia's last term in office has witnessed a boom in the telecom sector and a steady economic growth, but the spiralling price of essentials and corruption may cost her dearly in the next elections

It is, indeed, no less than ironic that every development activity that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) claims to have done in its last five-year rule is attached to allegations of graft and nepotism. One of the major achievements of her tenure has been the banning of two wheelers from the streets of the country. But, that, too, is overshadowed by corruption--it is alleged that due to the dishonesty of some BNP leaders, the Communications Minister Nazmul Huda's brother to be precise, a four-stroke three-wheeler, which costs Tk 1,50,000 abroad is being sold at double the price in the country. The same can be said about the billing-metres of these taxicabs; a metre that usually costs Tk 1000 on the international market is as much as nine times high, costing Tk 9,000 apiece.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Even some of the over 70 ministers in Khaleda's cabinet allege that their ministries could not function properly because of Tareque Rahman's manipulations and interventions. When Khaleda herself has urged foreign investors to come and invest in the country, news of Tareque's foreign investment abroad is in circulation.

In fact, it is the same sordid story everywhere. The BNP and FPA leaders have not spared anything or anyone. Though the country's economy is boasting a steady growth and the wild horse of inflation has successfully been tamed, prices of essentials on the market have been skyrocketing. In her last speech to the nation Khaleda has also boasted a steady foreign exchange reserve of USD three billion, saying that remittance inflow has increased to $ 4.2 billion, rising from $ 1.88 billion when she took over as Prime Minister.

That the rate of inflation is at seven per cent a year and the prices of rice and vegetables, along with other daily necessities have been soaring, means the real income of the masses have dwindled. It is tragic that BNP-men are involved in this too-- there is evidence that the party high-ups have created a number of syndicates which have been controlling the supply to different bazaars, creating artificial crises on the market, and thus making the price far beyond the means of the masses.

A real development-- if one must use the word, for the BNP-leaders have abused the word indiscriminately-- has taken place in the telecom sector; the competition has been so high here that even the government-run BTTB, inept and ineffectual that it is, has joined the country's burgeoning mobile phone market. At the same time, the government has opened the world of Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol to private operators. After much delay the BNP-led Four-Party Alliance has also decided to connect the country with the Information Super Highway. Use of polythene, deadly to the environment, has been banned; a massive crackdown was launched on food-adulterers, but, at the same time, no follow up has been done to drive them away from the business for good.

The FPA leaders, BNP-men to be precise, have set up different television channels and banks in the last five years. The most striking of these success- stories is that of a BNP leader who a few years ago lived in a tiny rented house, and, now, this person, a favourite of Khaleda Zia, is an MP, and owns two television channels, a newspaper and a bank.

Apart from corruption, signs of misrule are everywhere. Under Khaleda Zia's rule most of the government-run subsidiaries, which were limping around under Sheikh Hasina in 1996-2001 because of the Awami League leaders' own corruption, have become a refuge for corrupt employers and fat bureaucrats. Though on different occasions Khaleda Zia has talked about "upholding the country's image abroad", urging citizens to be on their guard against any probable conspiracy, on the foreign affairs front Bangladesh remains friendless. The BNP could not solve issues as basic as sporadic shooting by Indian border guards on innocent Bangladeshi farmers. The country's performance at different trade talks of the WTO has been shambolic and miserable.

With the prices of essentials soaring and the real income of ordinary people diminishing fast, it will be laughable if the BNP and its partners claim that the country, under their rule, has been shining. After five years under Khaleda, if anything had been shining at all that, too, would have been in the pockets of BNP and FPA leaders.