Monday, May 20, 2013

Time's Arrow

The acrimony between two leading ladies of Bangladesh politics has finally received the international attention it truly deserves. The country has long been the lone poster-boy for ‘moderate Muslim democracy’ in the world, and now that that image has gone through some battering is reason enough to make the United Nations and the United States worried. A few weeks ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed his concern over political violence in the country, hoping all the major political parties find a way towards a peaceful solution. That rather saintly advice has, quite expectedly, fallen on deaf ears. UN’s latest move has come last week when Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, the organisation’s Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, made a hectic visit. From newspaper editors to politicians, the envoy met an array of people in his sojourn in Dhaka.

However, the 56-year-old Argentine might have found Bangladesh, especially its politicians, as perplexing as ever. In any other civilised country, it is the incumbent that usually remains in power, limiting its responsibilities to routine activities and lets the Election Commission (EC) oversee the polls. Then again, Bangladesh is no ordinary country. Had we followed the ‘civilised way’ of holding elections, no other party but the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), would have won the election since 1991. In the general sense of the word, Bangladesh’s politicians consider the country their fiefdom. They believe it is their birthright to rule their subjects, and bending rules ‘a little’ (read: Rules? What are they?) is the necessary evil one must do to keep the ‘right’ party in power.

 There is no surprise then that no incumbent political party has ever lost while it is in power while the EC has overseen the poll process: Awami League (1973), BNP (1979), Jatiya Party (1986), Jatiya Party (1988), and BNP (February, 1996). Of them, only the election in 1973 can be called free and fair; most of the others were a sham. Interestingly, in all the elections held under a neutral caretaker government, the ruling party lost: Jatiya Party (1991), BNP (1996), Awami League (2001), BNP (2008). The trend tells us that as in other nascent democracies across the globe, ordinary Bangladeshis do not want to see a political party rule the country twice in a row. Fernandez-Taranco’s visit has an eerie resemblance with Right Honourable Sir Ninian Stephen’s move to bring a political settlement in Bangladesh in 1996. And the funny part is Sir Stephen also came to mediate between Khaleda Zia (then the Prime Minister) and Sheikh Hasina (then the Leader of the Opposition). In the early 1996, Hasina-led Awami League (AL), coupled with Jamaat, launched violent street agitations across the country, resulting in one general strike after another that crippled the country’s economy. The aim was to make Khaleda’s government pass an amendment to the constitution that will introduce caretaker government. Sir Stephen’s mission failed.

There is a fear that Fernandez-Taranco’s might as well. The country’s recent political history also stands against the latter’s move. No political dialogue in Bangladesh’s history has ever seen success. Then again, there’s always a first time for everything. Ordinary Bangladeshis will collectively heave a sigh of relief if the politicians reach a consensus on the election-time government. Having said that, it will be difficult for the AL leadership to agree to hand over power to a group of people who are not party loyalist. At best, it can propose an interim government with Sheikh Hasina or the Speaker as its chief; of other 10 cabinet members, five will be from the AL and the rest from the opposition. Given the amount of mistrust it shares with its AL counterparts, it might not be possible for the BNP high command to accept such a proposal. Fernandez-Taranco has said something interesting at the presser last Monday. He thinks a settlement can be negotiated, as there are many common grounds. Asked what will happen if the dialogue fails, the envoy says Bangladesh’s history is a good indicator, and the political actors can clearly understand what the consequences will be. Are the Begums listening? This article was first published in

The Daily Star on May 17, 2013