WHY SHOULD THEY GET A SECOND CHANCE?
Bangladesh needs a political future in which no mainstream parties are attached to terrorism
Normally I would not comment publicly on Bangladeshi politics for the simple reason that I am an outsider. As it happens though, having spent seven years here – off and on – since 2006, I have grown particularly fond of Bangladesh and its people, and the quirks of both.
The impasse that led to the last Emergency in 2006 was quite an education for me in the politics of this country. To watch a comparable impasse play out again, though with so far a different outcome, has been fascinating to watch. I am confounded, however, by the reaction of large segments of the public and the punditry.
It is entirely understandable that BNP supporters are full of venomous condemnation of the elections that just transpired, and that AL supporters are full of self-satisfied mirth, even if some of them have the grace or smarts not to gloat openly.
What is perplexing is that a swathe of people who are not hard-core supporters of either party, the so-called swing voters along with a set of non-partisan commentators, seem to be enjoying blaming the government for somehow staging and pulling off what they regard as a sham election.
The Awami League has, in cricketing terms, played a straight bat. Everything the BNP has bowled up has been blocked or flicked to the boundary with ease. The BNP had only one kind of bowling – concede to our demands for a caretaker government, or we will bring the country to its knees.
The AL imperiously refused to concede this demand, out-politicked the BNP at every turn, and, despite enormous violence by BNP’s leading ally, eventually held the election, leaving the BNP bereft. The BNP had no strategy beyond a stubborn demand, no Plan B, and as a consequence finds itself excluded from parliament.
So why now is AL cast as the villain of the piece? It seems there is a concerted campaign to paint the election as a farce. However, if it was a farce, it was because the BNP refused to present candidates – not because the AL had the temerity to ignore the strident BNP demands.
Even stranger is the eagerness of notable sections of Bangladeshi intellectuals and the international press to argue that a new election is required so that the BNP can recuperate its position. Yet I cannot think of any instance in developed democracies where the disastrous and self-defeating policies of any party is rewarded with fresh polls, let alone an outpouring of sympathy from local intelligentsia or foreign diplomacy.
I don’t wish to sound like an AL apologist, heaven forbid! There have been scandals aplenty during its tenure (though even that kind of corruption is not unique to them). There is also a tendency towards authoritarianism, which also makes the main opposition’s self-implosion a concern.
But how is it AL’s fault that BNP has been such a miserable failure? Why should AL give BNP voters a second chance? Why don’t BNP voters force their party to adopt better policies or start finding a new horse to back?
BNP had stuck to the demands of the caretaker government, which was a total aberration for a place that, in all other aspects, tries to follow the Westminster system. BNP supporters have made much of the fact that allegedly the polls were heavily rigged.
In truth, all independent observers have placed turnout estimates far closer to that of the Election Commission than to the claims of BNP. There may be a case to be made for irregularities or even the EC being too compliant to the party in power. There are definitely grounds for devising a better election-time administration that both will accept.
But given that BNP’s only contribution to the pre-electoral process was to boycott the election and encourage violence among its allies, they are hardly blameless for the situation.
The most disturbing aspect of the election from my point of view was the escalation and stridency of the rhetoric of the BNP, which in many respects advocated violence as the only solution to the impasse.
This nexus between violence and rhetoric is one of the major points of difference between the two parties. I’m not saying that the AL does not use violence, but I can find no evidence of AL spokespeople talking of “civil war.”
The AL too has used hard programs when it was in opposition. But there is such a world of difference between people killed during political clashes in designated places versus commuters burned in their buses.
What I find appalling and what has compelled me to write this piece, is the degree to which BNP seems to be given a free pass by so many – intellectuals and citizens – for the enormous and unique sort of violence it has wreaked on the people in the name of political programs.
The fact that over 500 people have been killed over the election, mostly it seems at the hand of Jamaat-Shibir, should not be glossed over. To emphasise a rush to fresh polls is in fact to minimise the violence that marred much of last year.
I have read in the American press that the BNP-Jamaat coalition is a tactical alliance. Why is a tactical alliance okay but an ideological one not? As I write this piece, the hartals and blockades have been cancelled and the streets of Dhaka have returned to their normal state of chaos.
It is as if nothing has happened. The resilience of the people has reasserted itself and life returns to something approaching normality. Will it last? Will fresh polls alone solve everything? Will Hindus be safe in a Bangladesh ruled by a BNP more deeply obligated to ever more aggressive Islamists?
The emerging evidence seems to suggest that the folly of their stance has penetrated BNP thinking. Khaleda Zia is still demanding a fresh election but with a much softer agenda, but the fact that India and China and others have endorsed Sheikh Hasina as the new prime minister makes the possibility of a fresh election remote.
Bangladesh needs a durable solution to democratic transitions for sure. But it also needs a political future in which no mainstream parties are attached to terrorism.
To conclude on an optimistic note, it is possible that the electoral suicide of the BNP has created the opportunity for a new political paradigm to emerge in Bangladesh, one not based on dynastic politics or corruption. One certainly hopes so.
JANUARY 22, 2014