Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Why we are not surprised?

WILLIAM B MILAM

IN leaving that world for the ‘dirty’ world of politics will Muhammed Yunus become just like all the other politicians, particularly like the normal Bangladeshi politicians who see self-aggrandisement as the only objective? Or is he a true patriot who is willing to risk his reputation to help the forces in his country that are trying to restore confidence and probity in government and put it on higher planes of political, economic, and social development?

Suddenly the two mortal enemies, the lady leaders of the two major political parties in Bangladesh, are agreeing with each other and saying the same thing. It sounds almost as if they have rehearsed it, though they would have had to be in the same room to have done so. Since that seems unlikely, could they have reached this meeting of the minds through Extra Sensory Perception (ESP)?

There is a large degree of irrationality and superstition in Bangladeshi politics, but an ability to learn by ESP is about the last thing Bangladeshis would believe about these political leaders. They weren’t much good at anything except political disruption for the 16 years that they traded off power. Had they been good at ESP, they certainly would have figured out that the electorate wanted good governance more than anything else. How could the leaders have missed that signal?

So why, all of a sudden, are Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), and Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League (AL), singing the same tune in the same key? It must be because, after a hiatus of 16 years, they both perceive that their interests are again identical. Both are calling for elections soon. Just fix the electoral mechanisms and get on with it, they say to the caretaker government, and to their publics. Could it be that they suspect that the longer an election is delayed, and the more time given to a new third party to develop a platform and make itself known, the weaker are their prospects in that election? Do their interests converge again on a single point: the need to forestall the growth and development of a new party that might take the centre of politics away from them?

They have agreed once before. In 1990, the two ladies and their parties agreed on a one-point agenda to bring down the autocrat ruler of the day, General Ershad. This agenda was for joint action against him and for an interim government to oversee elections once he had fallen. Implicit in the agreement was that they would not to be divided again, as Ershad had so skilfully divided them in the past. The two leaders had scarcely spoken to each other since Hasina returned to Bangladesh in 1981. Ershad, after he took power in 1982 in a military coup, found it easy to keep the opposition divided, because its two lady leaders themselves were so divided to begin with.

Had the two leaders cooperated closely, and remained united, Ershad could not have held on for so long. They learned that lesson in 1990 after many futile attempts, marred by disunity and discord, to bring him down. Now they appear to be together again; rumour has it that they are in touch through intermediaries and aiming to repeat the 1990 scenario. But this time they will be opposing themselves. After their record of the past 16 years, most Bangladeshis, except for the hardcore party faithful, think these two leaders are a large part of the problem, not the solution.

The eight years of sporadic, but often powerful and violent, attempts to bring Ershad down inflicted much damage on the Bangladesh economy and exacerbated the divisions in the society. The public universities were deeply politicised, perhaps beyond repair. Worse, the parliament was turned into an anti-democratic mechanism that both the government and the opposition used to undermine each other and gain the upper hand. It became accepted practice for the opposition to take to the streets at the slightest provocation (or for that matter, without any provocation). Hartals became a common, almost everyday occurrence. Bringing down the government was the be-all and end-all of politics.

These practices continued to be the modus operandi of politics after Ershad had fallen and free and fair elections chose the government of the day. It is interesting to note that all through the eight years of opposition to Ershad, the opposition parties could not agree on anything beyond that one-point agenda. Finding a common enemy did not help the BNP or the Awami League find any common ground other than their hatred of Ershad. Their mutual antipathy continued into the post-Ershad era and was the central theme of Bangladeshi politics and the reason why real democracy could not develop there.

Clearly the two major parties did not adapt to the changed circumstances that their victory over Ershad brought about. They could not conceive, it seemed, of democratic give and take, serious debate in Parliament, and compromise on political issues. Overcoming the political enemy by any means necessary and available remained the central focus; governance and policy implementation were lesser concerns. Both parties remain trapped in ideological struggles of the past and driven by memories of atrocities committed in the name of those struggles.

There is, thus, a vacuum at the centre of Bangladeshi politics which could be exploited by a party truly of the centre which promised to focus on governance. This is the spot that Muhammed Yunus appears to be aiming for with his new party. Whether the new caretaker government and its army backers favour this or not is unclear. They have done nothing to discourage it, as far as I can see. On the other hand, the announcement the other day by the chief of the caretaker government that it could not yet set an election date gives Yunus and his organisers more time to pull it all together.

The question arises among his friends and admirers as to whether Yunus will, by entering politics—especially the dog-eat-dog variety of politics practised until now in Bangladesh—tarnish badly an otherwise unblemished reputation. He is probably, at this point, South Asia’s most celebrated figure, a man who is justly famed for devoting himself to the elimination of poverty and for his creation of microcredit, now used worldwide in the fight against poverty.

In leaving that world for the ‘dirty’ world of politics will he become just like all the other politicians, particularly like the normal Bangladeshi politicians who see self-aggrandisement as the only objective? Or is he a true patriot who is willing to risk his reputation to help the forces in his country that are trying to restore confidence and probity in government and put it on higher planes of political, economic, and social development? Those who know him can only believe the latter.

The other question is whether, with the best of intentions, he is getting in over his head. Politics is a mean game anywhere, and nowhere meaner than Bangladesh — at least until now. The answer to that question depends on how well the caretaker government does its job in cleaning up the political culture so that reformers like Yunus will have a chance to make a difference. #

William Milam is a former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC

The article first published in Daily Times, Lahore, Pakistan
Link: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2007\03\07\story_7-3-2007_pg3_2