Monday, August 18, 2008

Waiting for Godot


For a country that is young and has such a huge number of young people, the politics in Bangladesh is heavily dependent on old politicians

It is unfortunate but true that the average age of the top leaders of all the major political parties has long passed the average age for retirement. In fact, most of the leaders lack vision and the promptness that the country badly needs to face the challenges that the new century throws at its fledgling economy. An old leadership means, the country will unnecessarily dwell on the past and its leaders will remain indifferent to the world of scientific discovery and innovation. One does not need to go afar to see the ramifications. Young people of our country are growing up indifferent to politics, apathy is growing dangerously fast, the country is run without any vision, a culture of lethargy has been born, a culture in which the government, like an idler, remains passive -- instead of having a pro-active role in governance, it only acts when things happen. This apathy or sheer lethargy also means that the people, especially the young ones, have to shout in order to let their voice be heard. It turns bitter at times, for why else will the citizens have to lay siege to the office of the local government office to demand an adequate supply of fertilisers?

This is sad; at least the situation should not have come to this. Bangladesh has been famous for its political leaders; it is, after all, the country of Maulana Bhashani, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Comrade Moni Singh. After the birth of Pakistan and the subsequent military dictatorships that ensued, a vibrant, pro-people student movement was launched and it gave birth to a flurry of leaders who followed a life of sacrifice. The students, as they always have been, form a part of the population, come out from the masses, and, in a country where the majority lacks proper education, should have worked as the vanguard of people. The great mass upsurge that shattered the castle of Ayub Khan into pieces in 1969 is a good example. The movement has been democratic in nature in the sense that its primary aspiration has been to establish democracy in Pakistan. The fall of Ayub, and before that the student and labour movements to remove him from power, swept the politics of Muslim League of Bengal. The party, which led the birth of Pakistan, drew the last blow, the final nail in its coffin. By the election of 1970, the party was wiped off the map of East Pakistan, paving the way for a dynamic leadership to emerge.

In fact, during the bleak days of 1971, it is for the leaders like Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, AKM Mansur Ali that the country, in the absence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, could focus on the ultimate goal that the masses had given them the mandate for--an independent country free from exploitation, the utopia of Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal) that the people of this land had always dreamt of but could never have achieved came into being. Leaders like Abdur Razzaq, ASM Abdur Rab, Rashed Khan Menon, Matia Chowdhury, Hasanul Haq Inu and Mujahidul Islam Selim are the by-product of the mass upsurge of 1969 and the war of independence.

Selim is a case in point. Now the general secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, he led a procession against the US-led war on Vietnam, which saw the police fire bullets on innocent students. Then the general secretary of the Dhaka University Central Students' Union (DUCSU), Selim protested the police firing by cancelling the life-long DUCSU membership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was at the helm of power of the nation at that time. So has been the tone of student politics till 1990, when a mass upsurge ended HM Ershad's dictatorial rule. During the anti-autocracy movement, as it is known, new young leaders like Khalequzzaman, AFM Mahbubul Haq, Mahmudur Rahman Manna, came of the age.

With the fall of Ershad, this trend has ended, with it has stopped the supply of mature politicians that the student politics has thus far provided the country with. This is the time when commercialisation of the country has taken place. Some old thugs have become Members of Parliament and student bodies have become breeding grounds for young thugs. Most young politicians that we come across are, like their ageing counterparts, corrupt. The entrance of some of these young politicians into politics has taken place for apolitical reasons: their fathers or husbands have been politicians and the batons, as in a relay race, have been handed down to them to carry on the family business; another way is bottom up-- one has to start as a bully boy in one of the student organisations and through bravery (bullying) one can go up the ladder of success and can even make it to the parliament. Our last three parliaments have been littered with the products of this family-based, narrow-minded politics.

Where the solution lies is difficult to tell for creating leadership is a long process and it has to come from the grassroots. The life of sacrifice that the founding fathers of this nation had chosen has not been emulated by any of our present leaders. The issue is indeed a bigger one and is entwined with the criminalisation of politics that has taken place over the decades. The old guards must make room for young talented leadership to emerge, politics must be freed from the clutches of the evil nexus of businessmen and politicians, national politics must set an example for the youth through making politics and the decision making process more participatory and inclusive. Family-based politics is the biggest enemy of democracy; it gives birth to corruption that eats at the very foundation of the country's economy. The parties' should have internal democracy; the only way a young politician can go up and make it to the party office should be through merit. His or her personal relationship with the top leader must not work as an added advantage. Politicians must know when he or she should call it a day. Contrary to other established democracies, our politicians remain in politics till they die. A good leader can read the pulse of people and act accordingly. While it is true that time teaches the politicians the keenest of lessons, making experience the prime requisite to be a good leader, one must have the magnanimity to pave the way for a better replacement. The creation of a knowledge-based society is also necessary for a steady, enduring economic growth, a growth that will include the toiling masses, from whom the new leaders will come.

In Irish writer Samuel Beckett's legendary tragicomedy Waiting for Godot, a character says, 'Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!' In the play, the characters wait for Godot to arrive, their wait never ends. Like the characters of the play, the people of Bangladesh are waiting for a set of sincere, honest, dedicated leaders to come and lead them to the future of prosperity that three million martyrs of the country's liberation war have dreamt of. There is a Bangla proverb that epitomises their desperation-- Kings come and go, the fate of the downtrodden remains unchanged. The fifteen crore people of this country definitely deserve better leaders.

This article was first published in the May 30, 2008 issue of The Star magazine