Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bangladesh political history of exile


I had thought of not writing on Bangladesh for a while but then the stars seemed to have willed otherwise. On April 22, Sheikh Hasina, who had then an arrest warrant for murder - since stayed by a court - issued against her, was not allowed to board a British Airways flight from London to Dhaka. Bangladesh's caretaker Government, the airline's authorities reportedly told her, would not allow the plane to land if she was on it. With the report that Begum Khaleda Zia's impending exile was delayed by the unavailability of an 'appropriate' flight, delay in getting visas, and uncertainty about the Government finding ways to fund her stay abroad, questions pertaining to Bangladesh's political future have again sprung to the fore.

Neither development - provided Begum Zia is despatched into exile - was entirely unexpected. Many in Bangladesh's civil society and public spheres have held for a long time that the rivalry between the two leaders was destroying Bangladesh and both parties should throw up other, more rational leaders. Understandably, moves are under way for doing precisely that. But then, it is one thing for the civil society and business leaders to wish, and quite another for the wish to be fulfilled. By all accounts, the enterprise is having trouble getting off the ground. Hence, according to the proverbial knowledgeable sources, the 'Operation Exile'.

While the fate of the operation remains to be seen, the question arises: Is the present regime trying no more than pushing the two leaders abroad? Is the military, as the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Moin U Ahmed, said at a gathering of civil administration and civil society leaders and journalists at Bandarban cantonment on February 8, merely helping it to put Bangladesh back on the "right track through the concerted efforts of all"? His assertion on the same occasion that the Army had no intention of capturing power, has lost some of its credibility following his reading of the keynote address - 'The Challenging Interface of Democracy and Security' - at a regional conference of the International Political Science Association in Dhaka on April 2. He said in the paper that Bangladesh would have to construct its own brand of democracy recognising its own social, historical and cultural conditions with religion being one of the several components of its national identity.

According to the General, "own brand of democracy" meant a system marked by a balance among the powers of the Government, President and Prime Minister ensuring transparency, accountability and a sense of responsibility. Terming the armed forces as a "silent partner" of the people, he also said that power should not be concentrated in the hands of a dynasty or a party. "I believe the aspiring democratic process of Bangladesh and the current transition period allow us an opportunity to develop a new concept and find a new sense of direction to the future politics of Bangladesh," he said.

The impression that a drastic systemic overhaul is underway is clearly conveyed by the war against corruption, crime and violence that the Government seems to have launched and the tall poppies that have been felled. The ability of authoritarian governments to change societies root and branch through surgical operations from above is, however, rather limited. Peter the Great and Kemal Ataturk, for example, could not modernise Russia and Turkey respectively. Since it will not be easy for the present Government to meet the high expectations it has aroused among the people, discontent is bound to grow and, over a time, lead to political protest. This is all the more likely to happen because, Lt Gen Moin U Ahmed's talk revived memories of Field Marshal Ayub Khan's concept of a "basic democracy" and President Soekarno of Indonesia's concept of a "guided democracy". While the former was dubbed - and rightly so - as a "basic fraud", the latter bore the stamp of Soekarno's own "guidance" rather than of democracy. Both established authoritarian orders which failed.

The impression that the present regime is striking roots and is seeking to craft a political order different from a parliamentary one is suggested by the uncertainties that now prevail over the holding of parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. In his maiden address to the nation over radio and television on January 21, Mr Fakhruddin Ahmed, who had assumed office as Chief Adviser to the caretaker Government on January 12, pledged to transfer power to an elected Government at the earliest through holding a free, fair and credible general election after reconstituting the Election Commission (EC) and preparing a flawless electoral roll. While he did not mention any timeframe, the emphasis was clearly on holding the election at the earliest. Chief Election Commissioner Shamsul Huda, however, said on April 5 that no election would be held before at least 18 months, the time required for preparing voters lists and photo identity cards. He could not say whether the election would be held immediately after 18 months as there would be a lot of other things to do, including the creation of a congenial atmosphere for the poll.

Mr Ahmed has doubtless provided a definite indication of sorts when he said during his second address to the nation on April 12, "I would like to categorically state that the present caretaker Government will not stay in power a day longer than it is necessary. I strongly believe, it will be possible to hold the much-awaited parliamentary election before the end of 2008". If things work according to schedule, the next parliamentary election will be held almost two years after the present caretaker Government took over on January 11, 2007. Much has happened since then and much will no doubt happen before 2008 is over.

New Delhi needs to watch the situation carefully - particularly whether the caretaker Government curbs the continuing illegal migration from Bangladesh and departs from the earlier Government's policy of fomenting insurrection and terrorism in north-eastern India - and not go overboard in welcoming it. Civilian Governments propped by military power generally prove to be ephemeral. In Bangladesh, Lt Gen Ziaur Rahman had no trouble removing Khandkar Mushtaq Ahmed and Abu Sayem as President and becoming President himself. Nor did Lt Gen HM Ershad have any problem following the example after defenestrating Presidents Abdul Sattar and AFM Ahsanuddin Chowdhury. While hoping for the best, India needs to strictly follow a policy of quid pro quo with the present regime in Bangladesh. It must retain bargaining chips for future contingencies, particularly since the Bangladesh Army now has a substantial Islamist component and it is no stranger to coups. #

Hiranmay Karlekar is a columnist for The Pioneer, New Delhi, India