Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Iajuddin's contribution to a looming political crisis in Bangladesh

A.H. JAFFOR ULLAH

Whenever one talks about a looming political crisis in Bangladesh one thinks about one of the two major political parties, namely Awami League (AL) the party that made Bangladesh a free nation and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the party that is bent on Pakistanization of Bangladesh is the root cause of the problem. But when someone tells you that a lone retired soil science professor, who became the president of this 145 million people through the courtesy of Khaleda Zia, is the mischief-maker, then a knowledgeable person from the land would pooh-pooh the notion. Contrary to what you may think this is the reality. Make no mistake about it that Iajuddin being the puppet in the hands of BNP high commands has contributed to this new crisis, which may cause a great harm to the nation we lovingly call the Sonar Bangla.

As I have mentioned already, Bangladesh is now facing a monumental crisis, politically speaking of course. In late October 2006, the five-year term for BNP-led government came to an ignominious end. As per the constitution of the land, a neutral caretaker government headed by a chief advisor (CA) and ten members or advisors should be in place to conduct a free and fair election to pave the way for a new administration. The departing ruling party (BNP) by juggling the retirements of a few justices made sure that a person who is sympathetic to their party would become the CA of the caretaker government. They also appointed a few election commissioners who would toe the party line to ensure a BNP victory in the next election. The AL and other opposition parties in Bangladesh had been saying all along that the Election Commission should be recast to make a level playing field so that every political party is on equal footing entering the election process.

In the last week of October 2006 Bangladesh faced a mini crisis on the issue of electing a Chief Advisor of the much anticipated caretaker government. The leading candidate who was favored by BNP withdrew his nomination buckled under political pressure from the opposition. The president, Iajuddin Ahmed, did the unthinkable. Instead of appointing the next person in line who is also a retired justice of the Supreme Court he appointed himself to be the next CA of the caretaker government. Reluctantly, the opposition agreed to the proposal made by Iajuddin but they said that the president should show his neutrality while managing the next caretaker administration. Next, a ten-member advisory committee was formed in a hurry who are from civil society and nonpartisan. Thus, the caretaker government had only one partisan member but the trouble was that he made sure that most powerful portfolios stay with him.

To have Iajuddin as the Chief Advisor of the caretaker government was a disaster from day one. The opposition parties were demonstrating in the streets allover the nation to place their demands to block the appointment of the leading candidate for the position of CA of the caretaker government and to reform the Election Commission. Blinded by his love for BNP he wanted to deploy army to squish the demonstration called on by the opposition. The newly appointed advisors showed their annoyance to this move by the president. He rescinded his order to post army in the street under pressure from the new advisors. From day one Iajuddin was toeing his party line and he wanted to crush the opposition’s protest programs.

Another thing was quite discernible. Iajuddin was in no mood to consult the 10-member advisors on issues that have bearing on the upcoming election. The essence of the caretaker government is to make a favorable climate for a fair and free election. Iajuddin was doing just the opposite. To show that he is omnipotent when it comes to governance, he mistakenly thought that the nation is now under the presidential rule. It was far from being true. The constitution allowed the president to become the CA of the caretaker government despite some expert opinion that his ascension to the new position was unconstitutional for he did not follow the procedure outline in the constitution. When it was explained to him that he was wearing two hats and the real power lies with the CA of the caretaker government, he then understood where he erred. Iajuddin proved one thing for sure – people can still learn when they are old!

The main opposition party, the Awami League, and its 14-party alliance still pressed hard for Election Commission reform and they in consultation of the advisory council of the caretaker government came out with a 'package deal' agreeable to all parties including BNP. But in the final hour Iajuddin would not go along with it. He adamantly refused to let go one Election Commissioner. Bangladesh again plunged into a crisis and one could squarely blame it on Iajuddin because he was again toeing the party line.

On December 9, 2006 the crisis deepened a further when Iajuddin called the army to man the streets of Dhaka and elsewhere when his trusted advisors advised him to the contrary. A day later on December 10, 2006 four advisors of the ten-member team who were in the office for only 43 days tendered their resignation. The bottom-line was that they all thought they were ineffective in shaping up the policy to make a favorable environment for a fair and free election. Iajuddin is asking the four advisors to reconsider their decision to resign from the caretaker government.

The resignation of the four advisors took everyone in Bangladesh by surprise. These advisors were repeatedly hinting that Iajuddin was not listening to them and he has become a despot when it comes to making decision on key issues.

The chief of Awami League, Sheikh Hasina, sounded the alarm bell when she said that her party may boycott the election. Her reasoning is that Iajuddin is working to benefit only one party (BNP) and when the advisors are trying to make an environment for fair and free election Iajuddin is doing just the opposite while making others in the caretaker government very uncomfortable..

In the hindsight Hasina made a mistake in late October when Iajuddin declared himself to be the CA to caretaker government. At the time the opposition gave a benefit of doubt to Iajuddin and thought that he would take a neutral stance as far as the next election goes. But the events of the last 43 days have proved that a party man like Iajuddin is beyond any reform.

For a perspective on Iajuddin let me state that he was a very mediocre academic who did his doctoral degree in early sixties and vegetated in the campus of Dhaka University since then. In late 1970 and early 1980s he became a vocal champion of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the founder of BNP, while being a full professor of the soil science department. With the help of BNP he held some important position at DU and in the government until he retired from the job. When Khaleda Zia booted out her first choice of the president of Bangladesh, Badruddozza Chowdhury, in 2002 because he would not toe the party line, she replaced him with Iajuddin who was not known beyond the four walls of Dhaka University. Khaleda Zia is elated now knowing how subservient this person is.

I chanced to read a few editorials from Dhaka’s newspapers on December 10, 2006 and most of them are very negative about Iajuddin's performance as the CA of the caretaker government. One editorial even mentioned that his midnight address to the nation on December 9 seems like it was prepared by the BNP in which he squarely blamed Awami League for fomenting the trouble.

Iajuddin still does not know that he is not the part of the solution but part of the problem. He lost his credibility and with his stubbornness while taking the nation to a spiraling downward journey. Bangladesh is facing a crisis already and there is this chance that the opposition may boycott the election in January 2007. It really took one person to make a mess of monumental proportion. Iajuddin became so blinded by his love for BNP that he breached the first rule of being the caretaker government – “Thou shalt be neutral.” Who is going to tell this Alzheimeric person that he ought to be neutral if he wants to be the CA of the caretaker government? With a person like him at the helm Bangladesh hardly needs an enemy to destroy the democratic norm in this impoverished nation of 145 million teeming masses. #

A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, United States