Monday, January 18, 2010

Hasina's First Year

The Awami League-led Mahajote, which won an electoral landslide in the last general elections, has finished its one year in office last week. In the run up to the polls the alliance promised to bring a digital Bangladesh, a country free from poverty and economic exploitation, a golden Bengal where only rule of law will prevail. As the Awami League enters the second year of its third term in office, we try to explore some important issues of the day: What are the government's major achievements? What are the setbacks the government has faced in its rule? And, more importantly, what lies ahead for Sheikh Hasina and her young government, upon which the country has bestowed its future?

In the last general elections, throughout electioneering Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League and Mahajote, showed brinkmanship; unlike her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) counterpart, she had shunned mud slinging and character assassination and, on top of it all, the Awami League's (AL) Vision 2021, her manifesto for change went down well among the young voters, who made up 32 per cent of the electorate. Sheikh Hasina promised change, and the voters answered her call by voting overwhelmingly in her favour. When the results came out, it became apparent that Bangladeshis had rewritten history; a silent revolution had taken place on December 29, 2008. While the BNP, the AL's archrival, lost 163 seats, the AL gained 168.

While forming her cabinet, Sheikh Hasina surprised many by choosing fresh young faces for important ministries. For the first time in the country's history, Home and Foreign Ministries went to women ministers. Most of Hasina's young colleagues have had an untainted past. The parliamentary standing committees were formed in the first session of the parliament and some chairmanship of these important bodies went to opposition MPs. "For the first time in the history of Bangladesh in the parliament all the standing committees are functioning with four chairpersons from the opposition. Committees are the most important part of the parliamentary system; the committees work round the clock in Westminster democracy. It is a big achievement," says Waliur Rahman, a political analyst.

Post-poll violence, however, turned out to be difficult to contain; and no sooner had Hasina and her nascent government tamed the spiralling lawlessness, it faced the biggest challenge in its term in office: the BDR mutiny. On February 25, last year, barely two months into Hasina's second term in office, a bunch of disgruntled bloodthirsty jawans of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutinied at the forces headquarters in Pilkhana killing 57 army officers who were deputed to the country's border security forces. Faced with the prospect of a civil war breaking out for the murderers were armed to the teeth, the government showed maximum restraint, and two days after it broke out, the mutiny was quelled. The government arrested the masterminds of the massacre within a week and the trial of the killers is going on.

This year farmers have got electricity for irrigation at the right time and the supply of fertiliser has been adequate.
One of the biggest successes of the government is the stimulus economic package that it has rolled out to withstand the ongoing global economic recession. By the beginning of its second year at the helm, all the major indicators are showing an upward turn and Bangladesh has shielded its financial interests well. In the last year, manpower export has also increased. Economist MM Akash thinks some of the government measures have successfully thwarted the threat posed by the ongoing global economic meltdown, but he, however, cautions that there might be a thorny road ahead. "The price of rice is increasing on the market, and the manipulation of the middlemen is increasing by day. Only time can tell how it handles the situation," he says.

On the agriculture front it has all been rosy. Enough supply of power have ensured that the farmers have got electricity for irrigation at the right time, supply of fertiliser this year has been adequate and Sheikh Hasina and her government can be given due credit for the food autarky that the country has achieved. Mujahidul Islam Selim, general secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, thinks the success in food production is due to the government's new agriculture policy, which has seen an increase in giving subsidy and agricultural loan to the farmers. "Beside these initiatives, the government also needs to smash the hands of the middlemen and party-cadres who reap the most benefits of the food production, depriving the farmers of their due share," he says.

Awami League MP Abdur Razzak calls food security the most important issue of our time. "There has been some significant progress in this field and if the government continues the help that it has extended to the farmers, we can expect another bumper food production in the new year," he says.

Hasina's government faced the biggest challenge in its term in office: the BDR mutiny.
Political analyst Dilara Choudhury thinks the biggest success of the government is the formation of a non-communal democratic education policy. "After being given the charge of the education, Minister Nurul Islam Nahid has formed a new Education Policy that aims to ensure education for all," she says. This is the first time that textbooks have been distributed free of charge to all the students at different educational institutions on the first day of their class. Nahid also plans to put more emphasis on vocational training to meet the rising challenges of the new millennium. "If he keeps his promise, we can expect our education system to be on a firm footing within a few years," Dilara says. Selim agrees; he says, "The government can claim some big achievements in the educational sector."

The government has also taken some steps to save the rivers from the encroachers, who, blessed with the impunity of the subsequent governments, have grabbed government land. In the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Sheikh Hasina and her government's leading role in favour of the countries adversely affected by the rising Carbon-dioxide omissions has earned her kudos.

The government has successfully fought the legal battle of punishing the killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. " It will, once and for all, flag the fact that nobody can get away with murdering somebody meaning that the rule of law is being established through the process of this trial," says Waliur Rahman. War crime trial is also in the offing.

But the government's success is blotched with its failure to pursue its drive against corruption as vigorously and relentlessly as it should be. "It is, again, a must for the establishment of rule," he says.

Sheikh Hasina promised change, and the voters answered her call by voting overwhelmingly in her favour.

Decentralisation of power got a big blow when the MPs were made advisers of different Upazila Parishads (UP). In the absence of complete rules of business, the Parishads are functioning on temporary rules of business, which does not define the role of the body's Vice Chairperson. "The way the UPs are handled is disappointing," Dilara Choudhury says. She thinks that the government has failed to keep the promises that it has made in the run-up to the elections.

Another problem with the temporary provision is that it gives more power to the elected representatives of the people than the bureaucrats. "The recommendations of the Local Government Commission have also not been implemented," she says, "We expected the government to decentralise power. We hope that in the near future the government will change its outlook and strengthen the local institutions."

Some of the government measures have successfully thwarted the threat posed by the ongoing global economic meltdown.
There have also been allegations that the government has failed to rein in on its student wing, some members of which have allegedly been involved in manipulations of government tenders, and, in worst cases, extortion. "Even though its top leadership has remained untainted by corruption, it has not been able to control some of the leaders of its mass organisations," MM Akash says.

Abdur Razzak is disappointed by the government's performance in ensuring energy security. "The government could not generate enough electricity in 2009. I have remained an optimist though; I think the new projects will generate adequate electricity in the next two years' time. I hope they work," he says.

The Awami League government has promised to set up the war crime tribunals.

Besides a couple of hiccups such as these, the government's stride towards its own Vision 2021 has been a promising one. Dilara thinks the government's first term in office has gone rather well. "There are some major achievements," she says, "and as the first year of any government, it has had some achievements it can be proud of." She says that the law and order situation in the country has been good.

Waliur Rahman suggests that the government restart the jail killing trial. "As a witness of the trial I can tell you that it has not been properly done. The government must immediately restart the trial process," he says.

He also thinks that in the next one year the government must also think seriously to create the post of National Defence Adviser. "I think we badly need it to face the challenges of terrorism and other internal and external threats," Waliur says.

Dilara also suggests that the government ensures energy security. "It is a must. Without it there will be no investment," she cautions. Waliur agrees, but he thinks the new projects that the government has taken will work well. "It is just a matter of time that our energy needs will be fulfilled," she says.

In one of her election speeches Sheikh Hasina had famously said, “Boat (the AL's election symbol) has brought you independence, repeat your choice this time too, it will give you economic freedom.” So far her government has made significant progress in achieving that goal. Only time can tell if her government can strengthen these achievements and bring about the Golden Bengal that our founding fathers have dreamt of.