Monday, September 22, 2008

Made in Bangladesh

Locally made Products can make the Dream of Autarky come True

Abandoned by her parents, twelve-year-old Masuma sleeps under the awning of a foreign bank, the latest to enter the country’s burgeoning capital market. Masuma does not know how to read and write, neither has she learnt the hidden laws of probability, according to which the stock exchanges work. She sells flowers at the intersection in Motijheel, near the DSE, as it is called by those who invest in the share market. She has remained outside the steady growth of 5/6 percent that Bangladesh’s economy has enjoyed over the last few years. Her father left them, she and her mother, in 2005, the year in which Bangladesh was listed with South Korea and nine other countries as ‘Next Eleven’, eleven emerging economies, by Goldman Sachs investment bank. Her mother ‘disappeared’, as she calls it now, a year after that. Her mother has got married again, Masuma found out later. Left with no other option, Masuma, barely in her teens, started to beg; with the hundreds that she had saved, Masuma bought a few bouquets of flowers to sell it to the commuters who halted at the crossway. Since then it has been her only source of income; “It’s better than begging,” she, who goes hungry on every alternate days, says proudly.

Over the last couple of decades Bangladesh’s economy, considered the 48th largest in terms of its total Gross Domestic Product, has grown. It is difficult to tell to what extent locally made products are contributing to its overall growth, but the advent of Bangladeshi consumer products has become one of its prime contributors. People belonging to the middle-income group are flexing their financial muscle, generating an ever-increasing demand.

The irony, however, does not escape us: Bangladesh’s booming economy is based on a system that forces its own children to go hungry year in and year out. Millions live on subsistence income; hundreds and thousands of children grow up stunted and malnourished. The law of capitalist economy requires growth and development to be heterogeneous-- while new shopping malls are being built and are quickly crowded with the overfed rich, jostling over gaudy, glitzy expensive clothes; we still have to live with the sight of famished, bone-all Masumas sleeping in the footpath. In this cruel city of over one crore, they are the silent, invisible majority. The path to free them from the clutches of the double-headed monster of poverty and exploitation remains a long and treacherous one.

“The boom has taken place because of the small and medium enterprises (SME), the growth of the garment industry and the remittance sent from abroad by migrant workers,” says MM Akash, economist and teacher of Dhaka University. The consumers of these locally made products belong to the lower and middle classes, who, he says, if are given proper government help, can work wonders. One reason why the SMEs have flourished in the country is because certain import restrictions are in force. “All the SMEs produce goods and commodities are import substituting, or they supply the raw materials to small agro-based industries,” he says. If these small enterprises are given the driver’s seat, they will generate more growth and the benefit of it will trickle down to the bottom. “The government should make bank loans cheap and easy for local small industries. It must also create cooperatives of small farmers and weavers and the government has to take the responsibility of marketing their products so that middlemen like big retail stores cannot exploit them,” Akash says.

In fact in an economy like ours cooperatives and guilds owned by the farmers and small investors are necessary to relieve the burden of import expenditure. As their produces are primarily import substituting, encouraging their growth will mean more employment opportunities, which for its turn will generate demand.

Akash has made scathing remarks on the outlets that buy products from small producers only to sell it at a higher price. “They add value to the products that the poor weavers produce and market them at a higher price,” he says, “In the long run this process leaves the producers exploited.” He thinks it is high time that these outlets give up its ownership to the weavers and small producers who produce all its products. “Grameen Check is owned by the weavers, if Grameen can do it, why will other such organisations will remain an exception?”

To strengthen the growth and sustainability that our economy has been enjoying over the last couple of years, the government must take concentrated steps. One wrong decision can ruin everything. “If now,” Akash says, “the government lifts the restrictions following some dictums of the World Bank and open our market to cheap substandard Chinese goods, our SME-based growth, which has so far grown steadily, will not sustain.” Inflow of remittances, on the other hand, does not go to the productive sector. The government can take certain measures that will increase non-resident investments.

Taking the right steps in the right direction to sustain the demand for Bangladeshi products can be the first step towards autarky. It means that Masuma's freedom from hunger and poverty is entwined with Bangladesh’s economic independence.

This article was first published in the September 12 issue of the Star Magazine

Building Bangladesh

Operated by the Navy, Khulna Shipyard Limited, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, is a rare example where a government-run industry is actually making money

In a country where government-run industries are synonymous with corruption and mismanagement, Khulna Shipyard Limited (KSY) has been making a profit for the last eight years. Located around 300 kilometres away from the capital, the KSY was built on over 68.97 acres of land in Khulna by a German firm called Stulcken Sohn in 1957.

It was handed over to the Bangladesh Steel and Engineering Corporation (BSEC) in 1972. The decision soon turned out to be a bad one, for the shipyard, which can repair 16-20 medium size ships at a time, has suffered occasional bouts of loss and had hardly seen any happy times. As the sad state of the yard persisted for 15 consecutive years, Bangladesh Navy (BN) has been given the responsibility of running the KSY on October 3 1999.

For the shipyard, there has been no turning back since then. Manned by 813 people, of whom 36 belonging to the BN, since then it has built 30 new ships, earning the government exchequer millions. “This year, up till April, our sales have reached an all-time high with a profit of TK 6.89 crore,” says an official of the yard. He believes the quality of its products, competitive price and timely delivery have earned the KSY the trust and admiration of local and foreign buyers.

As far as history is concerned, Bangladesh, a riverine delta that it is, has been a hub of shipbuilding. Our country is endowed with the beauty of nature; hundreds of rivers crawl through the lush green landscape of our motherland. We have always been seafarers, but the tradition of using the waterways for ferry goods and people has died away slowly as the subsequent governments have put more emphasis on constructing roads and bridges. Given that inland transportation of goods and commodities is cheaper, if proper attention is given to it, our water transport can do miracles for our economy.

The KSY can play a decisive role in the growth of water transport sector, which in turn, will foster growth and economic development. The official says his company is ready to take up the challenge. “We are doing phase-wise modernisation by introducing modern technology. We also have plans to reduce overhead cost and explore domestic and international market,” he says. A joint venture project to build a slipway is in the offing; construction of a medium size ship should be underway.

Another official says that what sets the KSY apart from other companies is that its products--the ships--are designed and tailor-made to meet the operational needs, and while striving to create effective business development, the KSY management places outmost importance on relationship development with its customers and suppliers. “Satisfied customers,” he says, “are a business's best investment.”

The government has its role to play to help the KSY materialise the dream of making it the best shipbuilding yard in Asia, which its relentless managers and workers have been trying to materialise. The company has achieved a quality management system as per as per ISO 9001: 2000 and is maintaining it in style. “It has also increased its production turnover in allied production sector,” the official says, “man-hour loss has been reduced.”

Inland water transport, as a sector, should be prioritised; the KSY needs to be armed with state-of-the art equipment and machinery to meet the challenges of the new millennium. The story of KSY shows us that if discipline and honesty are guided by innovation, local industries can flourish and can make industrialisation come true.

Our country has become independent through a bloody war. The dreams of the three million martyrs of our liberation war have been a society free from all forms of exploitation, an industrially developed country with a steady economic growth. Ventures like the KSY will surely bring the dream of golden Bengal a little closer.

This article was first published in the August 8, 2008 issue of the Star Magazine

Life Lost in Living

Spiralling price of essentials means that the health of the ordinary masses is at risk

For 55-year-old hawker Ahmad Ali, father of three, life in the last few years has been a miserable journey. The prices of essentials are rising sharply; but his income is proportionately decreasing. “People do not buy old books like the way they used to,” Ali says, as he sits near his makeshift stall in front of the Institute of Fine Arts at Dhaka University. Meat and fish have gradually evaporated from his shopping list as the price of rice has skyrocketed over the last few months. This trend, however disturbing, has repeated itself in the households across the country. In a situation like this, when 'silent hunger' stalks the bazaars, people, especially the poor ones, have to make a choice between going hungry and having food that is low on micronutrients.

“Micronutrient deficiency in a society takes place slowly and silently,” says a professor at Institute of Food and Nutrition at Dhaka University. She says that as prices increase, the poor make a conscious decision and go for food items that are cheap. “And we all know that these things, which do not have the right micronutrient may cause a whole lot of diseases,” she continues, “We call this micronutrient disorder. It gives birth to diseases as ghastly as night blindness, which happens because of improper Vitamin A intake; Iodine deficiency disorder and anaemia--diseases that cripple the human body and are capable of killing the productivity of an entire nation.”

What is particularly telling is that this silent hunger remains unnoticed till a large number of people fall victim to it, drastically decreasing the growth of an entire economy. “Contrary to famine or famine-like situations, there is no drama involved in it. People do not die en mass, the rich and the mighty hardly notice it until an entire generation is wiped off,” she says. She believes the root causes must be addressed; “Here,” she says “we are talking about things as basic as providing the masses with cheap cereal and non-cereal food items.”

For that to happen prices have to dramatically go down, which, as the Ramadan has come, seems to be a remote possibility. “The situation is strange,” says economist MM Akash, “because even though wholesale prices of the essentials are decreasing on both local and international markets or have remained constant, prices have been spiralling out of the reach of the ordinary people at the retail market.” This means that a nasty form of speculative trade is at work and the middlemen are reaping extraordinary profit from this unnatural situation.

It also means that some people, a minority of the entire populace though they are, have remained outside this so-called price hike--they can spend hundreds on trivialities such as having burger a at one of the many up scale fast food joints that have mushroomed the claustrophobic landscape of the capital. “This wrong demand effect is coming due to a very high-income inequality,” Akash says, “It's driven by cheap unearned income and black money.” This trend contributes to further price hike, which for its turn gives birth to inflationary pressure.

The supply of the essentials has remained vigorous, there is no scarcity of pangash or beef in the bazaar, some customers are buying beef at 200 tk a kg, or will still buy it if prices increase to 500 Tk a kilo, the silent majority of the country are finding it difficult to find their day's meal.

The solution, Akash thinks lies in the creation of an alternative supply channel. He says, “You can never expect private profiteers to run their businesses on an ethical basis.” The alternative supply channel, he says, can take the form of rationing; the fledgling Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, which has been rendered ineffective by flawed policies of the subsequent governments, can be reinvigorated. The government can set up small stores and Operation Dhalbhat of the Bangladesh Rifles has to be extended to the remote areas of the country.

Ahmad Ali, meanwhile, slaves away another day. He has earned around 200 Taka today, he needs to pay a toll of Tk 20 to the police and 10 more to the 'owner of the footpath', still it is enough to buy home a kilo rice and some kachki fish. “My wife cooks kachki fish well with potato,” he says, “it tastes superb if in the curry the potato is one third of the fish. But with what I have earned today I won't be able to buy more that 250 gram of kachki.” A hard choice here, too.

This article was first published in the September 5, 2008 issue of the Star magazine

Revolution Calling

Since its founding as the Communist Party of India, a part of which later formed the Communist Party of Pakistan on March 9, 1948, the communist movement of Bangladesh has gone through a tempestuous time. Almost throughout the Pakistani era the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), which spearheaded the independence of Bangladesh, was banned. During Bangladesh's independence war the party formed several guerrilla groups that carried out armed resistance against the occupying Pakistani army. After the liberation, it gave support to the Sheikh Mujib-led Awami League government, which Mujahidul Islam Selim, who has just been re-elected general secretary of the party in the Ninth Congress, thinks was a mistake. “It is indeed true that we have lost some golden opportunities. We should not have given a blank support to the AL; we should have tried to consolidate our independence as a nation, at the same time we could have tried to project ourselves as a real alternative to the AL,” he says.

Selim admits that it was right to support Bangabandhu's progressive policies like nationalisation and non-aligned foreign policy but adds that it was unwise to not criticise his weaknesses and mistakes, such as his backing off from land reform, his giving himself up to imperialism, his party's mismanagement and corruption. It actually has taken a lot of hard work for the party to shed the image of being a stooge of the AL. Since the mid nineties, the CPB has been following the policy of creating what the party calls 'a left alternative', Selim says, “A left alternative is the only viable option to come out of the present crisis. And the leading role of the communists is essential to build up such an alternative. It not only has a future, it has eternity in front of it.”

But the creation of a left force parallel to the two big bourgeoisie parties is turning out to be a difficult job, as the other small left parties, whenever the elections come, form alliance with the AL. Another difficulty that the CPB faces in furthering its goal is the threats of terrorist attack that have been plaguing the country for the last couple of decades. In fact, the party was one of the first targets of bomb blasts. Six people died in twin explosions at a CPB rally in downtown Dhaka on January 20, 2001. Seven years after that grisly incident, the killers are yet to be brought to justice. A government led by Sheikh Hasina was in power, and some leaders of the ruling AL summarily blamed it on the internal feud of the CPB. When the party protested such foul play, the party's rally was attacked by goons belonging to the AL, and Selim, along with his comrades, was assaulted on the streets of the capital. It is indeed ironic that when five years later grenades were thrown at an AL rally and assassination attempt was made on the life of Sheikh Hasina, the BNP government blamed it on the AL leadership, saying the attack was an outcome of an internal squabbling of the party's top leadership.

Selim believes a bright left future is awaiting the country. “Bipolar politics is a total failure,” he says, “The bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie has been proven.” He thinks the ruling classes, especially the plundering capitalism, have established their domination over the so-called big parties. He says, “They want to establish such an arrangement that there will only be alternations of governments between the two parties, the reactionary polices of the state will continue to remain the same.”
But experiences, he says, tell us that these two parties are not civilised enough to share the plunder in a peaceful way and this culture has precipitated the anarchy centring around power, because power is so lucrative that the holders of it will not hesitate to do anything to come to power by hook or by crook. “But this arrangement,” he says, “having failed the ruling classes, is now seeking to dominate over not only the two parties but also wants to set up their own alternative.”

The party in its Ninth National Congress has called the present crises a systematic problem, saying the problems that the country is infested with cannot be done away without a total revolutionary change. Selim explains: “At the present moment there is a free market economy and a dependence on imperialism; even if we go to power and pursue the same policies no change will take place in the lives of the masses. Revolution is a must.”

The party thinks the country must reinstate the constitution of 1972 and the founding principles of secularism, democracy, socialism and nationalism should be re-established. Selim sees no contradiction between revolution and Islam, the religion that the majority of Bangladeshis practice. “If one puts it in proper context, one has to admit that Islam has brought about the biggest revolutionary change in human history. There is no contradiction between Islam and revolution or the issue of emancipation of the people,” he says.

The country, however, is still far away from a revolutionary change that will shake the base of its polity. The CPB has 30, 000 members in total; of them there are 7, 000 red card holders. Even though the party has bagged five seats in the elections of 1991, its support, as far as the arithmetic of popular votes is concerned, has slumped over the decades. A thriving left force in the country's politics, however, is a must for democracy to survive. Only time can tell whether the CPB can build a third alternative of like minded left parties that will bring about revolutionary change in the lives of the toiling masses.

World's Window

The terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 has changed the course of world history

Seven years after 19 young Muslim men belonging to a then little known terrorist outfit hijacked four commercial airliners to launch one of the ghastliest terror strikes in history, the mark that the event has left on world psyche can still be felt. The world knew little about al-Qaeda (Arabic for the base), which masterminded the attacks, but the Muslim world at that time was brimming with angst, especially because what the Muslims in the streets of Cairo and Quetta saw the United States' unjust support of Israel and the latter's occupation of the holy land.

The history of terrorists using Islam, which literary means peace, to further their political agenda is not old. It dates back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a time when the US, alarmed by the communist invasion of the Central Asian country, supported the Afghan guerrillas with arms and military logistics. Not only in Afghanistan, which has always had a strategic importance as a gateway to Central Asia, the US used Islam in Indonesia, Iran and parts of Africa to fend off the red flag. It supported brutal dictatorial regimes in the developing countries, gave them military hardware, which the juntas used against its own populace. From Gen Augusto Pinochet of Chile to Saddam Hussein of Iraq, the US, the champion of the free world, found friends in the men who 'gassed their own people', who butchered thousands-- all this with the weapons made in the US.

This trend, however disturbing, came to a welcome halt after the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the so-called cold war. Even before that, long before Lenin's statues were dismembered by angry mobs in Moscow and Budapest, a silent but quick change was reshaping the world politics. Only chaos ensued when the Red Army was withdrawn from Afghanistan--different factions of the Mujaheedins fought with each other; corruption was rife, mismanagement was the order of the day. At a time like this, a group of Afghan students belonging to different madrasas formed the Taliban, and within a short span of four years overran the capital Kabul. The country's beleaguered communist President Mohammad Najibullah, who was hiding at a UN compound in Kabul was beaten and castrated before he was hanged from a traffic light in the downtown capital.

The arms that the Talibs used to kill were made in the factories of the free world. By 1996 the table were turned, the Taliban and its friend al-Qaeda had arrived the scene. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the US-led Gulf War I, which drove Saddam's men out of the oil-rich kingdom, polarised opinion and the US presence in the Middle East fomented discontent in the Muslim world. It only reconfirmed an idea already engrained in the psyche of the Arabs, that the US, the plunderer of the natural resources of the region, favoured the fat old kings of the Middle East. The latter remain unpopular in their countries, and the US support has made it even worse. It is not difficult to imagine what can happen when disgruntlement is coupled with vengeance and brute force. Osama bin Laden, a former Mujaheedin ideologue, soon hit the headlines, becoming the US's enfant terrible: on August 8, 1998 hundreds of people were killed in simultaneous car bomb explosions at the United States embassies in the East African capital cities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. In response, the US launched 'Operation Infinite Reach' to strike a series of cruise missile at different targets in Sudan and Afghanistan.

It is in this back drop that the attack on the US on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001 has taken place. Since then, the world has witnessed two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and numerous big terrorist attacks in London and Madrid. The wars and attacks have predictably polarised opinion, with some Muslims considering the war on terror an attack on the Islamic world, calling it a ploy to destroy Islam. Terrorists, on the other hand, are indiscriminate in their targets--in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine hundreds die every month in terror attacks of different colours and hues, in almost all cases the victims are unarmed women and children.

Seven years on, the war that has been waged on the US, and is now being compared with the Japanese air raid on US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, is showing no sign of abating. On the contrary, the war on terror has alienated the majority of Muslims from the western world. The gulf between the east and the west has widened even dangerously. The logics behind the Gulf War II and the occupation of Iraq have increasingly been questioned in the west itself, as the photos of maimed Iraqis, especially children are shown in the television.

And yet Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11, as the media has abbreviated the event, remains at large. The string of operations that has been launched to capture him has embarrassingly failed. Winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses, which is the bigger battle in the war on terror, has remained neglected. The price of this neglect is going to be higher, there is no denying it.

The 2993 men and women (including 19 hijackers) did not know that their death would change the lives of millions. Their deaths have left the world dangerously divided, perilously close to the end of the old world order.

The Unpunished Crimes

Three years ago, on August 17, 2005, 63 near simultaneous blasts rocked Bangladesh. One rickshawpuller died from his injury and many more were wounded; Bangladesh woke up to the terror of extremism the presence of which its government had been so vociferously denying. Even though Bangladesh has otherwise been known for religious harmony and tolerance and has always taken pride on its Sufi past, religious extremism on a large scale was first introduced to the world's third largest Muslim population during the Afghan war.

The war, funded by the west to fend off an infiltration of the Soviets in the South asian sub-continent, saw the arming of the Afghan Muslims; the word Mujaheedin reached an iconic status with the photograph of a rocket-propelled-grenade wielding bearded Muslim hitting the cover of the Time magazine and Sylvester Stallone in Rambo joining a gang of Mujaheedins on behalf of the world's 'freedom loving people.' The hills of Kandahar and the lush vales of Herat were soon flooded with angry young Muslims from all over the world. These 'foreign fighters' also included Bangladeshi students who went to study in Peshawar, Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan and especially known for the Afghan refugee camps that dotted the treacherous terrain of the country.

The war eventually ended, the Red Army went away defeated. Interestingly, even before the last Soviet tanks left Kabul, a new ideology was sweeping over the shore of Karachi, Bombay and Chittagong: the gun was about to be refixed at a new enemy--the US and what it stood for. A new front opened and splinter groups, quite independently, started to launch their own little battles--in Kashmir, Ahmedabad and Dhaka. Jamaat-ul-Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), which accepted responsibility for the August 17 blasts, belongs to the latter.

The blasts have been significant in the political history of the country. “Firstly,” says Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (rtd), a national security expert, “no such large scale near simulations blasts have ever taken place in the country before. It has also proven the organisational capabilities of the extremists.” In fact, that the JMB, through these attacks displayed their strength and agility to carry on with their grisly acts, the group later masterminded a string of suicide attacks on the judges in different court buildings of the country.

The 17/ 8 attacks also brought an end to the state of denial that the Four-party Alliance-led government was in. The then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia cried foul when newspapers carried numerous stories on the presence of extremist outfits, terming it a ploy to malign her government's image abroad. Her Industry Minister Matiur Rahman Nizami, at the height of arrogance, called the news of the atrocities committed by Bangla Bhai, a criminal who led a marauding gang of miscreants in the country's northeast, a figment of imagination of the media. The simultaneous blasts of August 17 put an end to that stance, the wheels of the law, however slowly, started to grind. At the fag end of her government's rule, Khaleda's police arrested the top leaders of the JMB and lodged cases of murder.

The lynchpins of terror were hanged last year. The strengths of the JMB have been reduced significantly, but recent newspaper reports suggest that the group is regrouping itself and its members have recently met a number of times to form new committees in different remote areas. Brig Anam agrees; he says, “They have been significantly weakened. But whether their organisational capability has been blunted is a matter of conjecture. The fact that they could manage simultaneous blasts means they have some core members who propagated the acts and are lying in suspended animation, which in an opportune moment may spring into action.”

In fact, out of the 169 cases filed against the JMB members, the trial of only 37 cases has been completed; investigation of 34 cases is yet to be finished; trial is continuing in 98 cases and all five accused in one case have been given release order by the court.

The literal meaning of Islam, the second largest religion in the world, is peace, it also means submission or total surrender of oneself to Allah. Throughout its history Islam has never propagated violence, on the contrary, the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) always used war for defensive purposes. Islam, which has liberated millions across the five continents from the clutches of feudalism and slavery, abhors violence of all kinds. Extremism of the kind that the perpetrators of August 17 blasts preach, has no place in Islam.

The real war on terror needs be fought on all fronts; the key lies in winning the hearts and minds of the toiling masses who live in abject poverty and deprivation. The imams of different mosques and other Islamic scholars can play a pivotal role in making people aware about the evil of terror. At the same time, the government must make sure that the cases against the terror suspects are dispensed quickly; keeping in mind, too, the universal standards of respect for human rights and rule of law. The new terror cells, which are stemming up need to be nipped in the bud to ensure our development as a free, progressive nation. Bangladesh has never been a hub for terror; we have to be on our guard to make sure it does not become one in the future.

For a Free Election

Even though the government and the Election Commission have carried out some reforms in the electoral process to make it free and fair, honest, competent candidates are still difficult to come by

In the last 16 years of quasi-feudal democracy Bangladesh has witnessed three parliamentary elections in which power has swapped hands thrice. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, who ruled the country and their parties with an iron fist, led Bangladesh’s politics into a new level of violent confrontation, making the national parliament Jatya Sangsad ineffective. Even though both the parties bowed to people’s demand and established parliamentary democracy in 1990 after the ouster of Ershad’s dictatorial rule in a mass upsurge, the post of the Prime Minister (PM), in the hands of Khaleda and Hasina, quickly replaced the power of the president. Everything remained in the hands of the PM; it was she who called the shots; she could hire and fire anyone she deemed fit. Whereas in other Westminster democracies, the PM is only the first among the equals, in ours the PM has enjoyed absolute power. A new law has been promulgated to bar floor crossing; the standards of the MPs, in any case, have never been up to the mark. Buying and selling of party nominations have been rampant as some businessmen have seen the election as an opportunity to earn a quick million, a venture in which a one-time investment of one or two crore (paid directly to the Madam or the Netri) could bring both money and power, for the sheaf of paddy or boat has always been good enough to make a few thousands butterflies flutter in the stomach of the voters.

The aborted parliamentary election of the immediate past is a case in point. Both the parties have compromised with their political belief. A bad precedent has been set in which the Awami League has given nominations to shady businessmen who have discovered a new-found love in the ideology of the party, ignoring its own trusted leaders. A vulgar tussle has ensued between the party and Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party for the support of deposed dictator Gen HM Ershad with the latter promising to withdraw cases of corruption against him and the former agreeing to make him President for six months. It was, actually, the possible jail term of the former military ruler, who had already aligned himself with the AL that prompted the AL-led Grand Alliance candidates to withdraw their candidatures from the elections, which paved the way to the emergency; Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed-led caretaker government assumed office in the backdrop of a possible civil war-like situation, the dress rehearsal of which had taken place in October 2006, in which the capital witnessed a flurry of pitch battles between AL and BNP loyalists.

After assuming power in January 11 last year, the current caretaker government has set before itself the task of reforming the country’s politics. The Anti-corruption Commission has been revitalised; most major corruption suspects have been arrested; institutional reforms have been carried out. But the fact of the matter is these reforms are turning out to be inadequate and the risk is there that the country and its politics may slide back to the heydays of quasi-democratic dictatorship of the last 16 years.

The Representation of People Order (RPO) has rightly incorporated many changes that the people have been eagerly waiting for. While the new RPO empowers the Election Commission (EC) to scrap the candidature of any candidate, the system has some loopholes, through which the thugs and goons can resurface to influence the people’s verdict. The RPO makes it mandatory for the political parties to get registered with the EC to participate in the election, it also requires the parties to have in their constitutions that they do not have auxiliary organisations of students, teachers and workers, or overseas chapters. A good move though it is, it has drawn criticism from the parties, who call the provision undemocratic and unconstitutional. Even if the parties agree to this clause, chances remain high that their possible declarations will remain on paper; they will never sever their ties with these professional bodies. Implementation of this clause is going to test the patience and prudence of both the EC and the political parties.

Any person who is declared a war criminal by local or international courts, according to the new law, has been made ineligible for contesting the polls. But, the government has done nothing to probe into the war crimes, and bring the criminals to justice to make the upcoming election more meaningful.

The provision for a ‘No Vote’ is exemplary, 30 percent of it cast in an election, unlike the existing provision of 50 percent that the RPO has, should be good enough to scrap the election in a particular seat.

Another prerequisite for the parties that the EC has made to get registered with it is that they must maintain bank accounts in any of the banks and electoral donations of Tk 20,000 or more must be made in checks. The provision of fining the parties for violating this clause is set at Tk 10 lakh, which, given the magnanimity of the crime, is too meagre.

The toughest task of all, is, perhaps, to find honest competent candidates, something, as the political history of the region suggests, has to come from within the political culture of the country. The government has a lot more to do to create a level playing field for everyone, so that a free and fair election can take place at the end of the proposed road map. What lies between now and the peaceful transition to democracy is an abyss of darkness the kind of which we were mired in during the gory days of late 2006.

It is not expected to see the country, after all the efforts that the government has made, to go back to the days of anarchy and lawlessness. The current government is a constitutionally mandated one; its prime responsibility is to hold a fair election, which will be free from the power of money and muscle; a new parliament will rule the country where the presence of the corrupt and war criminals will not be dominant. The next election will be flawed if the corrupt and war criminals make their way to the parliament, like the way they have done in the previous ones. Our democratic future is hanging in balance; one only hopes that in the next four months the government will be able to sweep clean the junk that the others have made in the last three decades.