Saturday, April 21, 2007

A New Bangladesh?


After assuming power on January 11, the constitutionally mandated caretaker government has taken some bold steps to bring corrupt politicians and bureaucrats on the dock. Now that some former Ministers and MPs are on the run, where do politics stand in the "changed Bangladesh"? And what should the caretaker government do now to set the country back on track?

The Crown Prince and His Story

For Tarique Rahman, the day of reckoning came on the night of March 7 when the joint forces surrounded his mother's house in Shahid Mainul road in Dhaka cantonment. This 42-year-old son of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is believed to be the epicentre of unbridled corruption and nepotism that has plagued the country for the last five years. As he was whisked off to the nearby Police Station to be interrogated on numerous charges of extortion, the legacy that he had left behind in the country's politics is a curious one. Since his entrance into the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a party that his father, military dictator Gen Zia founded, Tarique has been deemed as the prince, the heir apparent. Though allegations of his unlawful influence and participation in several businesses as well as political manipulations have been rampant against him, Khaleda Zia, his mother, always turned a blind eye to it, calling them conspiracies to tarnish the future leadership of the "nationalist forces". It is interesting indeed that from the torn clothes in a broken suitcase that he had left behind for his sons when he was killed in a failed military coup in Chittagong, Gen Ziaur Rahman's two sons have become owners of a textile mill, numerous cargo ships, and a private television channel, not to mention investments worth millions of dollars that Tarique is believed to have secretly made in countries as diverse as Malaysia, Australia and South Africa. According to newspaper reports, Tarique has admitted to his interrogators to having bank accounts in five countries--Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, South Africa and Switzerland.

There was a time when reportedly not a single business deal would pass without Tarique's prior consent, and that would only happen if 10 percent of the deal went to his pocket. It was not only business transactions, Tarique's long hands had been at work in government tenders and recruitment in the civil service; even things as mundane as building of electric poles did not escape his clutches, Tarique Rahman did not spare anyone or anything. Worst still, Tarique and his cronies gave birth to a culture of improbity and degeneration where anyone could earn some quick bucks if he or she had the Crown Prince's 'blessings'. Armed with this, along with an ever-pervasive lumpen capitalism, some members of the BNP, in the last five years, unleashed a reign of unbridled corruption and mafia-like terror where it is justified to gobble up goods meant to be used for victims of flood or other natural disasters. We have witnessed the advent of a group of feudal lords, who live in palaces, and use an army of thugs and goons for their personal security. Now the Caretaker Government (CG), it seems, has opened a can of worms, an MP who used to be a mere student politician a few years ago, now alone owns over 40 flats in the capital. It's not only the ruling party faithful who have indulged themselves in a world of corruption, some opposition AL members, too, have joined hands with them to create an economy where trading is more profitable than setting up industries, and illegal trading has become even more lucrative.

How has it come to this?

How has the country arrived at such a deplorable situation 16 years after democracy has been established?

The subsequent governments, especially the last one led by the BNP, never understood the importance of good governance. Administration has been heavily politicised, flouting government rules BNP-men have been planted into different tiers of the civil administration to use it later to reap political dividend. Not only that, a nearly 60-member cabinet was formed, where to follow the wishes of the crown prince, deputy and state ministers were tagged along to almost all the ministries. The result was a dysfunctional government where corruption and mismanagement became the order of the day. The issue of proper functioning of the parliament has never been addressed either. Most of the time of the last government's reign the parliament could not function properly, it will not be an exaggeration to say that not a single constructive debate has ever been held in the parliament over issues as important as unemployment, attracting FDI or reducing illiteracy. Some MPs used the floor to abuse each other, their budget speeches at times turned into an elegy for their party leadership. And there came a time when the parliament could not attract even its own members which was followed by a severe quorum crisis. Partisanship of the Speaker has been more obvious this time round, the opposition's points of order were ignored, MPs made themselves more busy in "development works" in their areas than enacting laws for which they were elected. Not a single institution has been spared the blatant politicisation that has characterised the BNP-led government's tenure. Apart from a highly politicised bureaucracy the BNP-led Coalition government made sure that they have their people in every sphere of administration-- from the law enforcement agencies to the judiciary. Even the public universities, various cultural academies and institutes were plagued with political appointments and influences. It is ironic that the BNP, in the run up to the 2001 general elections made corruption a major issue, though the party promised to bring the corrupt into book, the party, after getting elected itself became the most corrupt political party in the history of Bangladesh.

For the country's dishonest amoral businessmen, national elections have become another source of earning a few millions; both the major political parties remain hostage to these corrupt persons who buy the BNP or AL's ticket at a price as high as 5-10 crores taka. Though in paper they both claim to profess democracy and transparency, the BNP and AL have remained a bastion of undemocratic behaviour. It is no less than tragic that 17 years after the two leaders (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina) who had led a mass upsurge against military ruler Ershad's vile regime have themselves remained symbols of dictatorship in their own parties. There exists not a shred of internal democracy in the BNP, where party leader Khaleda Zia holds absolute power. The AL, on the other hand, regularly holds councils, and follows what the party-members call democracy, but from electing (choosing) presidium members to party general secretary, Sheikh Hasina’s wishes are command to party councillors. When it comes to party leadership both the parties have dictators as the party chief. How the parties fund themselves is a mystery. Whenever both the leaders are asked about the funding of their parties they name ghost benefactors who prefer to remain anonymous. Some of these ghost benefactors run an underground economy, and remain virtually untouched by the law in exchange of the loyalty that they show in the amount of cash given as donations to the BNP and AL. It is not at all surprising that though both the BNP and AL have been vocal about each other’s demonic rule, neither the BNP nor the AL has done anything substantial to try the other parties' leaders for corruption when each one of them was in power.

What is to be Done?

For a start both the major parties must set their own houses in order. Lack of democracy in the BNP and AL is one of the major reasons for the stalemate that has made the State of Emergency a necessity. Now that politcal activities of every kind have been suspended top leadership of both the parties should sit together to decide ways to reform themselves. Both the parties, especially the AL have played historic roles in our glorious past, now it is high time that the party leadership stands up to the occasion to pave the way for new dynamic leadership. The BNP and AL's future lies in reform, only time can tell if these parties will be able to rise up to the challenge that the new Bangladesh has thrown at them. The government, on the other hand, should probe into the funding of all the major political parties and their front organisations. No one-- not even the party chiefs- should be considered above the reach of law. All the previous cases of grafts against the politicians and bureaucrats should be reinvestigated; it is not understandable why the former prime minister cannot be charged with corruption when her office has given away corrugated tin sheets meant for the victims of natural disaster to the members of certain political parties. A major overhaul of the civil administration should be done immediately. Keeping the corrupt and partisan bureaucracy intact the recent government drive cannot establish a political environment free from corruption and nepotism. Along with its drive on corruption, the government has to focus on the building of democratic institutions, some of which have been rendered invalid by the last governments. Politics based on religion and hate preaching should be banned; a timid step towards this giant long march can start with restricting groups that in their constitution profess hate preaching. At the same time issues integral to the rise of fanaticism such as poverty and economic exploitation must be addressed to nip the zealots in the bud. Electoral laws need to be scrutinised to make sure no loan defaulters or corrupt politicians can compete for a seat in the legislature. Political party funding must be tightly monitored, and the Election Commission (EC) has to be given more power and necessary legal framework has to be built to empower the EC. This is a constitutionally mandated government, and its members, as its chief has already mentioned, must put more emphasis on building insttutions than going on one-time drives to nab the corrupt. While the corrupt must be brought before the law, a continuous and relentless process that it is, a healthy political and social environment has to be created where goodness and honesty is encouraged. All this cannot be done in a day, neither can the election be held in three months, as both the parties have so conspicuously demanded last month. Instead of going for a Voter Identity Card that will be used only once in five-years, it is time we think of a National Identity card which should be used from birth registration to the issuance of passports. The government’s recent drive to clean the street of encroachers is a commendable step but its decision to rehabilitate the hawkers into the so-called holiday markets has not picked up so far. The Agargaon Maat, which is now used only once a year during Dhaka International Trade Fair, can be allocated to genuine hawkers who can set up a Night Bazaar. The rights to housing and jobs are fundamental rights of the citizens of the republic, and denying them of these will be a gross violation of people’s basic human rights. Even after the arrest of Tarique Rahman and a crackdown on his infamous syndicate the prices of essentials like vegetable, baby food and cooking oil have not come down; putting the blame on the unseen forces of market capitalism (the way an adviser has lately put it) is not going to help Fakhruddin and Co to help win the hearts and minds of the toiling masses. Open Market Sale (OMS), in this case, is an option but the government under the OMS cannot sell perishable commodities like onion and aubergine. To solve our day-to-day problems, the government, however, has taken an array of steps--office and businesses are told to pull down their shutters after seven o’clock and the government, after many hiccups, has finally decided to import electricity from Bhutan. But decisions that will effect national interest like giving transit to India should be left to any future elected government; if the issue needs to be handled immediately, the government can call a plebiscite, where along with transit, the government can ask for the people’s mandate to run the government for two or three more years, if the situation demands so. Some advisers are complaining that the work they have on hand are too much for only 10 advisers to handle; and as the Constitution does not allow the membership of the advisory council to cross the 10 member threshold, a “national unity government” can be formed that will incorporate honest time-tested politicians, members of the civil society, former bureaucrats and military officials to run the government smoothly. Bangladesh's experience with past military governments, however, has not been a pleasant one; after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered by some disgruntled members of the army in a bloody coup, the country has experienced military dictatorship of different colours and creeds.

There was a time when ordinary citizens dreaded to wake up to find someone in olive showing up on television to declare the seizure of power by his forces. The country’s last military despot Gen HM Ershad is a case in point: this vile person once launched a self-styled Jihad against corruption and once the front pages of different newspapers adorned Ershad’s photographs where the would-be tyrant was seen riding a bicycle (He wanted to save the government fuel). But history has taught us that morning does not necessarily show the day. After his grip on power became tight, Ershad, following Gen Zia's footsteps formed his own party; he did everything Zia had done: Ershad held a farce of a plebiscite where he got over 70 per cent of the total votes cast (Zia four years ago held his own plebiscite where he gave himself over 90 per cent); Ershad gave a 19 point proposal to solve all the problems the country had been facing (Zia, his predecessor, had an 18-point proposal to offer). But these are stories of the past. Since then our army has matured a lot and has shown respect for democracy.

So far the Emergency has worked well. The drive against corruption would not have gone as far as it did without the backing of the army. The mis-governance, the abuse of power and the nepotism that appeared to become the order of the day have been curbed dramatically. For this we all have to give credit of the army backed present government.

However, we have to end with a word of caution. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupt absolutely. It has proven to be true in the past. There is no reason why it should not prove true in the future. Therefore we must guard against this happening and do so right now. The State of Emergency that the government has imposed cannot be a permanent solution and is not healthy for the country's democratic polity either. Restoration of democracy is the ultimate answer, and the sooner this government comes up with a roadmap for democracy the better.

Published in the Star Weekend Magazine on March 16, 2007

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