IS AWAMI LEAGUE THE ANSWER?
AL in power is the best option at this time because between the two major parties, it has a much better vision and plan of execution for Bangladesh
Recent political debates in Bangladesh are swirling around two main topics – the January 5 general election, and the proceedings of International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). Though these two topics should be discussed separately, they have been unnecessarily tangled together by some members of the political and the civil society inside Bangladesh and abroad.
Now that they are knotted together, they need to be discussed alongside each other in order to show why the Awami League is the best option to govern the country at this point in time. I would like to put forward my case by taking readers through a set of questions crucial for the future of Bangladesh, and my responses to these questions. First question, is it necessary for Bangladesh to deal with crimes against humanity committed during the liberation war that happened more than 40 years in the past?
Yes, absolutely. For any nation to move forward together, it must resolve issues of the past. Otherwise the divisive debate keeps going on. There are plenty of examples that show us how dealing with the past is necessary to move a nation forward. South Africa dealt with the apartheid era injustices through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The US had to address slavery through a war, and its racial inequalities through enactment of laws protecting civil rights. On the other hand, Turkey is still ignoring its past behaviour towards Armenians, and for that the nation is not able to fully integrate with the European Union.
Bangladesh was born through a bloody war of independence. A small group of people from East Pakistan wanted undivided Pakistan in the form of an Islamic state. These people collaborated with the Pakistan government and the army, and participated in atrocities against their fellow countrymen including women and children. The heinous crimes committed by them were no doubt crimes against humanity.
Though the political position taken by these people during the war can be argued for, no one in their sane mind can either accept their crimes or let those crimes remain unresolved. Between 1975 and 2009, Bangladesh neither had a government that was willing to tackle this issue, nor the political and economic strength to take on the task of war crimes trial.
Now is the most appropriate and opportune time to take care of this behemoth of unfinished business because Bangladesh is on a much better footing politically and economically to withstand any international pressure.
Sheikh Hasina and her government has courageously picked up the opportunity, and carried on with the task despite immense pressure from inside and outside the country. The Hasina government deserves praise for setting up the International Crimes Tribunal and for trying crimes against humanity. One might ask, could the crimes against humanity be handled differently?
Yes, possibly, but sincerely, no. There are a few options that could have been considered including doing nothing, a trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC), and forming a Truth and Reconciliation commission similar to the one in South Africa. Though a few people would love to agree with option 1, it is not an option for the people of Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government tried option 2, which could have been the best solution from the perspective of international acceptability but, regrettably, the ICC expressed its inability to take up this task. Instead, they suggested Bangladesh does it on its own.
It is not clear why ICC refused, but a good guess would be that a number of powerful countries would be embarrassed by the facts that would be unearthed by the ICC through such a process. The Bangladesh government had no other choice than to move forward with the ICT option. The formation of a Truth and Reconciliation commission was suggested by some, as it would have been the most humane option.
A humane way to address the crimes against humanity would have satisfied all; certainly the people of Bangladesh would have accepted that option only if it was a practical one. Those who committed those crimes in 1971, had 40 years to decide whether or not they want to pledge their allegiance to the sovereign state of Bangladesh, and accept the fundamental principles Bangladesh was founded on.
Wretchedly, they chose the wrong direction in 1971, and continued to pursue the same misguided goals till this day – committing similar crimes and atrocities against humanity. If anyone in their right frame of mind believes that perpetrators of 1971 has any inclination to change and conduct politics following the principles of the Muktijuddho (the liberation war), then they live in a fools’ paradise.
If we simply consider why Jamaat’s registration with the Election Commission was cancelled following a Supreme Court order, and their continued violent and terrorist political activities, it will become very clear that those criminals have no desire to denounce their past and come clean. Unless there is any other compelling option on the table, the option chosen by the Bangladesh government is the only practical one and we must finish the unfinished task of the ICT. Question is can BNP be trusted with the completion of ICT trials and execution of verdicts?
One should hope that the political party in government should not derail the process; unfortunately, that is not the case in Bangladeshi politics. It is an established fact that BNP has created the environment for anti-liberation forces to come back and re-establish themselves socially, financially, and politically in Bangladesh.
Ershad has also significantly contributed to the conducive and thriving environment for fundamentalist anti-liberation forces that BNP had reconstructed. Though the AL government magnanimously announced general amnesty in 1972, it did not do so for the main culprits. Also AL’s brief political pact with Jamaat was deplorable, even if it was a tactical political move.
BNP’s political alliance with Jamaat, on the other hand, is ideological. Present day AL and BNP are not very different except for a few important aspects including the principles of the liberation war. AL wants to uphold the fundamentals of the liberation war by creating a political environment that is secular, free of fundamentalism, and ensures equal rights for all citizens, including minorities.
BNP, on the other hand, does not give much importance to secular politics, and believes hurting minority communities is a small price to pay in order to keep India on notice. From that standpoint, BNP has no problem allying with Jamaat. In return, BNP enjoys some fruits of its alliance with Jamaat, the most important of which are the Taliban-like cadre Jamaat can unleash as and when necessary, and the power of the purse it can bring to the table. Could, or would BNP give up this political advantage by severing their ties with Jamaat?
On the question of “could,” BNP would harness long-term benefits for themselves as a political party and for the nation if they did. On the question of “would,” one can only wonder how. It is difficult for BNP to untangle itself from Jamaat, especially when they believe the survival of both BNP and Jamaat are at stake if they cannot come to power soon.
The calculation was, and still is, for BNP and Jamaat to come to power by any means before the ICT verdicts are executed. In power, they will surely undo everything the AL government has achieved through the process. No wonder, Jamaat, with full backing from BNP, is doing everything they can to overthrow the AL government including unleashing unprecedented violence and mayhem along with international pressure aided by a vested interest group of civil society in Bangladesh.
Short time before the election, Khaleda’s appeal to Jamaat leaders for continuing the violent activities and the provocative messages from Tarique Rahman clearly demonstrates BNP’s allegiance with Jamaat. BNP, in power, will have no other choice than to throw away the ICT process because people convicted by the ICT will be helping them run the administration.
Above should provide enough evidence as to why Sheikh Hasina led AL government is the only option at this time to resolve the matter of crimes against humanity once now, and for all of Bangladesh’s future. Besides the issue of crimes against humanity, there are other relevant aspects to the question of which party is the better option for forming government such as: which is a better choice from the perspectives of corruption, development, foreign policy, and other social indicators?
Both AL and BNP are saddled with corrupt politicians, and the corruption in Bangladesh politics is not likely to go away anytime soon. Our big democratic neighbour, India, is not able to uproot corruption from politics and the administration after having more than 65 years of uninterrupted, democratically elected governments in power.
Though no one should condone corruption, it is a shocking reality of any society including the most advanced nations. In some countries, corruption happens in the disguise of lobbying and other forms of favoritism in the upper echelons of the government, and in countries like Bangladesh it happens at every level. Given that corruption is not going away completely anytime soon, the more important question for Bangladesh is which party would be less corrupt, and likely to pay bit more attention to it than the other.
AL is the likely answer. How, you ask? In the just concluded AL government, there were a few veteran politicians with no corruption charges inked against them. Can BNP show that many ministers with similar clean records? Then if we tally up the number and size of various corruptions by past two governments, the balance will be tilted downwards on BNP’s side. Also, AL has shown more inclination in dealing with corruption as demonstrated by the removals of ministers such as Abul Hossain and Suranjit Sengupta. Can BNP show similar examples of dealing with corruption allegations?
During its tenure in government, AL has demonstrated remarkable progress in sectors such as infrastructure, energy, agriculture and food safety, education, terrorism, foreign policy, foreign currency reserves, and many others. We can argue about AL’s relation with India, but the truth is if any government can get the Teesta and Land Boundary Agreements signed with India, that would have to be AL.
If we have to choose between Pakistan and India as our ally, India has to be our choice for so many reasons. BNP will not be able to build a fruitful relationship with India because of its unsavoury political ties with the fundamentalist quarters, and its active and passive support for terrorism as demonstrated by the previous BNP government. Not to forget that the AL government has legally fought and won the water rights issue with Myanmar.
But not everything is positive in the AL foreign policy. The AL government formulated, and then lost the Padma Bridge loan from the World Bank. It has damaged Bangladesh’s relationship with the West due to the mishandling of World Bank loan and Grameen Bank, and due to its dogged pursuit of the January 5 elections with the so called “all party” government in power.
But for the first time since 1975, the AL government has shown that Bangladesh can stand firm and tall against all powerful external pressures. One can argue that the AL government defied world pressure for the wrong reasons, but the truth that is hidden underneath the surface is: the AL government has set an example of how to stand firm against outside pressure. This will also be a lesson for the civil society in Bangladesh. Hopefully in future, they will pursue a desired outcome of any internal political issue domestically without egotism before lobbying through their foreign friends.
On the question of overall development of the country, the AL government has made significant progress in increasing power generation, increasing agriculture output, reforming education (K – 12), developing infrastructure, increasing foreign currency reserves, and many other sectors. Since AL came to power in 2009, Bangladesh has seen gradual decline in load shedding.
If we can leave aside the debate over the environmental issues surrounding the Rampal coal-fired power plant, the AL government has, for the first time, come up with a concrete plan for generating power in excess of the projected demand in the near future, and they are actively pursuing that plan. For the first time in Bangladeshi history, the AL government has consistently delivered textbooks on time to all students, going against all odds. The AL government has, and continues to pursue positive reforms in the education sector.
The list of achievements for the AL government stacks up quite tall. It certainly could have done a much better job in promoting and convincing the fellow countrymen of its successes. They tried an ill-advised, measly promotion of its achievements by taking over the billboards of Dhaka city. Despite all the mistakes of last five years, AL’s achievements rise well above BNP’s previous government. Now on to the most important question – was it right to hold the January 5 election without the other major political party, BNP?
Yes, very much so. The January 5 election seems highly controversial at this moment, but 15 years from now, it will most likely be seen as one of the most important milestones for Bangladesh’s democracy. When the smoke and dust so deceitfully created by the opponents of the election settles, people will be able to see how this election helped lay a strong foundation for democracy in Bangladesh.
Yes, the election was boycotted by a number of political parties including the main opposition; and yes, most of the seats were uncontested; and no, there wasn’t a good voter turnout; and yes, there was massive violence; and yes, there was enormous pressure from outside; and lastly yes, the election was held under a political government – the most important problem cited by the opponents which led them to vehemently oppose and boycott it. Ironically, holding elections under a political government is where the most important milestone for Bangladesh’s democracy lies.
The caretaker form as a poll time government was necessary when it was created. But it cannot go on forever. If politics of the last 20 years or so is any indication of what to expect in the foreseeable future, as far as reaching any political agreement between two major political parties goes, there is no hope for the AL and the BNP to find a way out of the caretaker government in a congenial manner. Does that mean that Bangladesh has to live with the caretaker government forever? There are many countries in the world where democratic institutions, political parties, and democratic processes are way too inferior to those of Bangladesh. But those countries do not adopt a caretaker or any special form of poll time government.
Caretaker or any poll time government that does not represent the people, is a very weak and dangerous form of government. How can we trust a non-representative government more than a government of elected representatives? Is our experience with caretaker government process very clean? The experience with the most recent caretaker government of Fakhruddin-Moinul has arguably left a long-lasting bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. Hasina, Khaleda, and most importantly, the democracy in Bangladesh suffered during that government. Hasina remembered the danger posed by the caretaker government, and took it upon her to make sure that an unelected government can never again come to power.
The Caretaker government format had to go at some point. Some may argue that now was not the right time. Then the questions that naturally come up are “when is the right time?” and “what is the process to get there?” the AL government had the answers to those questions, and they responded. No one else including BNP had come up with any alternative path and timeline. BNP was simply interested in using the caretaker government formula to come to power.
Hence, it is not unexpected that they would fight the election under the AL adopted process tooth and nail because they thought they had no chance of coming back to power. But the violent form of their fight was completely unwarranted. AL would have fought it too if the roles were reversed. It is inevitable that somebody had to get rid of the caretaker government at some point. AL simply hastened it, and for that, Bangladesh is that much ahead in solidifying democracy. This was a victory for democracy. We may not realise it today, but we will some day. When we do we will also recognise how courageous Hasina was.
Our democracy may be weak and fragile, but the caretaker government certainly made it weaker. If BNP had the prescience, they would have used this as a political opportunity. Keeping AL under pressure for doing away with the caretaker government, they could have gained extra mileage against the election time government, and could have taken part in the elections. There was genuine possibility of BNP winning this election.
It would have been impossible for AL to rig the election with the BNP as a major shareholder of the government and under the close watch of the international community. But BNP decided to forego this opportunity of being part of this historic democratic advancement, and having a serious shot at fulfilling their desire of coming back to power. That is BNP’s loss, AL’s gain. Politically AL has achieved exactly what it hoped for.
AL in power is the best option at this time because between the two major parties, it has a much better vision and plan of execution for Bangladesh. AL now has the opportunity to show the nation that it cares. It must now be mindful of taking care of a few important things, among others, including:
Strengthening all democratic institutions, especially the Election Commission, so that they can function independently and beyond doubt.
Completion of all the high profile war crimes cases within the shortest possible time.
Execution of pending agreements with India.
Checking corruption within its government and party.
Completion of a few major development and power projects.
AL must work under the assumption that it is not likely to get elected again, and the time to deliver starts to run out as soon as they assume power.
JANUARY 28, 2014