Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Dhaka regime’s messy surgery

WITH the two major political parties forcibly sidelined, who is left to fix a broken polity? The fact that the writer of this article is compelled to remain anonymous is perhaps indicative of the sudden democracy deficit in Dhaka.

Bangladesh’s political orchestra is reaching a crescendo, at least for this passage. What comes next may be a long, deafening silence. As the two political dynasties were made to exit the country, the remonstrations of the two heads were heard far and wide. The military-backed interim government’s tackling of its envisioned ‘minus two’ rescue plan for the polity has been neither smooth nor discreet. Despite the noises made out of entrenched political camps, however, it has become clear that there is no turning back for Bangladesh. The tables have been turned.

In January, when the military-backed regime took power with an initial ‘emergency’ mandate of 120 days (which will end on 10 May), there was no timeframe in place for elections. Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed and his military backers provided such a timeline – elections by the end of 2008 – almost as a gift on the eve of the Bengali New Year. But even as the chief adviser was delivering his address to the nation on 13 April, rumours were already rife of plans to exile Begum Khaleda Zia, chair of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Talk of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, president of the Awami League, being barred from entering the country was also being heard. For most of April, Dhaka was a city of rumours.

With all forms of political activity banned, there was very little opposition to the action against the heads of the two main parties when it finally took place. With the anti-corruption dragnet picking up politicians from across the political divide, no one dared to speak out. There had been pressure on Khaleda Zia to leave the country since her son Tarique Rahman’s 7 March arrest. But it was not until her second son, Arafat Rahman, was picked up in a midnight raid at her residence that, on 17 April, she agreed to depart for Saudi Arabia with her immediate family. One down, another to go, it seemed.

The wait was not long. With no foreseeable obstacle to the plan, on 18 April a government press notice stated that Sheikh Hasina had become a “national-security risk”, and was therefore barred from returning to the country from a trip to the US. A day after Hasina had declared the interim government “unconstitutional” in an interview, the government publicised the corruption charges against her. Suddenly, the accusation of political murder was added – a charge that carried with it an arrest warrant. With the travel ban in place, Hasina made an attempt to return to Bangladesh, but was denied entry to an airplane in London on 22 April, the morning the warrant was issued.

Dangerous vacuum

While the attempt to cleanse the political culture overnight is a grand adventure worth applauding, trying to fill the vacuum left by such a sudden removal will not only be difficult, but dangerous. Politically, the first signs of cracks were seen immediately prior to Khaleda’s planned departure. Many mid- and senior-level BNP leaders had been lying low for fear of prosecution on corruption charges. On the evening of 20 April, they found an armyman-turned-BNP politician, retired Brigadier Hannan Shah, holding consultations with the party chairperson. (Khaleda had already been under house arrest for weeks.) With no one to vouch for or denounce his contention, Shah declared that Khaleda wished to reorganise the party and dissolve the existing committees. Some senior BNP leaders feared a split, while others pointed towards arm-twisting by the army to force-feed the party its agenda.

The Awami League is said to be going through similar gyrations. Both of the parties are showing the inherent weakness of an unyieldingly hierarchical political culture. Does this mean that the interim government should be cheered for dismantling them? Perhaps not. While the international community seemed to have given the military-backed government an initial nod, it appears that the announcement that national polls will be held by late 2008 (along with the Election Commission’s elaborate promises of national identity cards, a new voter roll and revamped election rules) might become a means to another end.

On 2 April, the army chief and de facto head of the country, General Moeen U Ahmed, announced: “The aspiring demo-cratic process of Bangladesh and the current transition period allows us an opportunity to develop a new concept, and find a new sense of direction to the future politics of Bangladesh.” This ‘new concept’, of course, may not necessarily refer to the traditional participatory electoral process known to Bangladesh’s electorate. Ahmed went on: “Bangladesh will have to construct its own brand of democracy, recognising its social, historical and cultural conditions, with religion being one of several components of its national identity.” This talk of a ‘new brand of democracy’ was widely and fervently discussed in Bangladesh for the better part of early April, and many political observers characterised it as the first public indication that the armed forces were to implement their own plans for the future of Bangladeshi politics.

However, like some of the other peoples of Southasia, Bangladeshis have seen previous military-backed governments with ‘unique plans’, and scepticism was in the air. By late April, there was already word of tension within the armed forces themselves. Ahmed’s term as army chief ends in June 2008, which is just prior to the currently stipulated timeframe to hold the national polls. General Masud Uddin Chowdhury, the key proponent in formulating the current emergency rule, is slated to be the next chief. While the actions taken by the interim government might have wide-scale popular support – as is believed in the absence of credible public opinion polls – senior army officials would be reluctant to return power to civilian hands without ensuring safeguards, for a backlash from political quarters that have come under the anti-corruption sweep is a certainty.

In the heady atmosphere of early 2007, many had initially thought of Nobel Prize winner Mohammad Yunus and his brand new political party Nagorik Shakti, born under the blanket of emergency rule, as a possible successor in the making. But with bitter reactions from various quarters, and given the current subdued state of politics, Yunus has kept relatively quiet. Many observers have also pointed out that, while the BNP has suffered severely in the recent anti-corruption drive, its chief ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, remains unscathed, with no more than a few minor leaders behind bars. The place of the Islamist forces in the army’s radarscope will be something to watch. The execution in March of six activists of the militant Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, convicted for the highly publicised serial bombings of 2005, might have brought to an end one chapter of Bangladeshi militancy. Nonetheless, the patronage received from the Jamaat and the complex web of Islamist sympathy towards such fundamentalists – including from within the army – remains to be probed.

Meanwhile, talk of the political ambitions of military leaders backing a transitional government will undoubtedly continue and progressively escalate until the brass returns to the barracks. But all the talk of establishing a new political party with army support, and of bringing together various splintered political entities, seems to be driven by uncertainty rather than intelligence. In a country that is in desperate need of a clear plan that leads back to the people’s mandate, uncertainty coupled with raw power can be a deadly mixture. Social, cultural, political and economic systems cannot be purged overnight by diktat, as the generals seem to think possible. In the meantime, the Dhaka intelligentsia is having second thoughts about this cleansing. #

This analysis was first published in HIMAL magazine,