Friday, April 06, 2007

Tall Order, Fat Hope, Slim Chance: Restoring Order in Bangladesh

TAJ HASHMI

[This article is, sort of, an open letter to the Chief of the Caretaker Government and fellow Bangladeshis who want peace, prosperity and order. I apologize to everyone who thinks I am promoting autocracy to the detriment of democracy. I prefer a short-lived, honest and efficient autocracy to a perennially inefficient and corrupt elected oligarchy or “Democracy Bangladesh Style”. Nothing would make me happier than being proven wrong for drawing a not-so-bright prospect for Bangladesh with regard to having true democracy and the elimination of corruption, poverty and disorder under an elected government, in the near future.]

I find Charles Dickens very handy in explaining the state of the State of Emergency in Bangladesh. One is not sure if the country is going through “the best of times” or “the worst of times”. While the height of optimism would be the glorification of the period as a prelude to taking the people to “heaven”, the cynical view would be to ascribe the situation as a precursor to taking them nowhere but “hell”.

Celebrated both at home and abroad, the State of Emergency seems to be the last resort for the weak and desolate, honest and powerless people in the country. Consequently despite the present government’s taking some harsh measures, such as abrupt raising of fuel price by withdrawing state subsidy at the behest of the World Bank, the vast majority irrespective of class and political affiliation are supportive of the Emergency. They are so sick and tired of the anarchic situation that prevailed during the democratically elected regimes in the past that they do not seem to mind the suspension of some of their fundamental rights under this interregnum. Since the so-called democratic regimes in the past had hardly any respect for democracy, the rule of law, human rights and human dignity and ran the country as personal fiefdom, the people in general have no qualms about “losing” the elusive and non-existent fundamental rights.

However, as William Milam has aptly pointed out, “even civilianised military interventions have a limited shelf life in Bangladesh”; and covert military intervention without any “specific agenda and timetable for restoring fully civilian sovereignty” might backfire [“Remember the past, enjoy the interval”, Daily Times, April 4, 2007]. In accordance with this train of thought we may draw attention to the following slips and momentary failures of the present government to take advantage of its popularity to smooth over the obstacles to good governance, growth and stability:

1. Lack of transparency and sense of direction;
2. Failure to bring more corrupt people under detention;
3. Bringing flimsy charges against the handful of detainees said to have robbed billions from the public coffer;
4. Relying on traditional judiciary and outdated laws to incriminate the fabulously rich and powerful criminals having political connections.

Afflicted with inertia, the government seems to have lost momentum and any sense of direction. Undoubtedly it has done certain laudable jobs, especially with regard to the reorganization of the Election and Anti-Corruption commissions, detention of several godfathers and corrupt people, and above all, improvement of the law and order situation. Although these measures seem to have raised the hope and confidence levels of the people, they are not sure (so are most analysts and observers) if this government is (a) a transitory, momentary arrangement or (b) it has a long-term program albeit with sketchy and fuzzy agenda.

Despite not having any constitutional backing this Caretaker-cum-Emergency interregnum is better than what Bangladesh had during the last twenty five years, from Ershad’s autocracy to Khaleda’s dynastic oligarchy. And as I have mentioned above, the popularity of the current government by default is a by-product of the abysmal failure of politicians to behave and the high hope people have reposed in the government out of sheer frustration with politicians.

Now the ball is in the government court. If it does not play well, or undermines its own promises by demolishing the tower of tall order it has erected with fat hope of the people, both the ruler and the ruled would be in trouble. Since there is nothing constitutional about this government, it should keep up the good work, not worrying much about the constitutional and legal implications and intricacies, with the best of intention or niyyat only aiming at salvaging the nation from the morass of corruption and misrule.

It is quite unsettling as the government goes one step forward and one step back to square one – on the one hand, by behaving as if the country is under military rule (which is unconstitutional) and on the other, by adhering to the principles of civil code and the judiciary. By the way, the judiciary is no longer the promoter / protector of justice for the sake of it. It is high time that we see the real picture uncased out of the sealed packet. We want the government to tell everyone straight forward that it is an extra-constitutional (if not unconstitutional per se) quasi-military interim government, which has come into being to defend the constitution and protect the people of the country from the evil politicians, bureaucrats, traders and others. We believe this would appease the people at least for a couple of years.

Otherwise, the government will have to face scores of embarrassing questions and suggestions, as some Western diplomats have already done by asking as to when the elections would be held or even worse, suggesting when they should be held, violating all norms of diplomatic etiquette and protocol.

Since this is an extra-constitutional government under an extra-ordinary situation, the government cannot afford to commit an irremediable blunder by conforming to the ordinary law, dispensed by our judiciary. The hard core criminals with tons of ill-gotten money and political clout know how to sneak out of trouble through the legal loop holes. If the handful of corrupt politicians and businessmen who are behind bars succeed in proving their innocence, it would be a big slap in the face of the entire nation; and most definitely, would discredit the government.

Finally, instead of being ambivalent and promising a special brand of “home grown” democracy, the government should be rather relying on the people to deliver them democracy – socio-economic justice and political freedom – not elected, unaccountable governments, in the near future. By relying on the people and the circumstantial evidences this extra-ordinary government can punish the criminals and recover the stolen wealth and tarnished image of Bangladesh. #