Monday, October 01, 2007

Fakhruddin goes global: a non-leader in charge of a non-government


By presenting a truncated as well as negative narrative of democratic struggle in our country, the chief adviser has wittingly or unwittingly presented a totally distorted view about Bangladesh as a pariah state where democracy failed to work

THE temporal distance from January 12 to September 27 is only eight and a half months. The spatial distance from Bangabhaban, Dhaka to United Nations Headquarters, New York, though about eight thousand miles, is also not much in this space age. But the time-space distance, from Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed taking oath as chief adviser to his addressing the UN General Assembly, is immense in the context of the democratic credentials of the country.

On January 12, the country was a struggling democracy. There was a nervous expectation that the Fakhruddin government would act as a facilitator in repairing the political hitch centring the election to the ninth parliament and the country would continue with democratic and constitutional governance. A domestic problem would be solved domestically.

On September 27, the chief adviser drew global attention to democracy deficiency in Bangladesh, as if our domestic problem is a matter of international concern.

In his 15-minute address to the UNGA session the chief adviser did not mention anything about the legacy of democracy in the country. There was not even a word about the glorious democratic struggles of the people in the pre-independence and post-independence days or about the victory of people’s struggles against the military dictatorships and quasi-military rules in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But he made an unqualified denunciation of the post-‘90 political governments: ‘While Bangladesh has held three elections in the past two decades, our democracy has been brutally undermined by ruinous corruption.’ He also stated, ‘The fabric of our democracy had been torn apart by years of catastrophic corruption.’

Thus by presenting a truncated as well as negative narrative of democratic struggle in our country, the chief adviser has wittingly or unwittingly presented a totally distorted view about Bangladesh as a pariah state where democracy failed to work.

A metamorphosis that has not taken place: The problem with Fakhruddin seems to be that he has remained, essentially, what he had been all through his active life: a career bureaucrat. But he has desperately tried to metamorphose himself into a paramount leader of the eighth largest country of the world ever since he accidentally became the chief adviser on January 12.

In his university days, Fakhruddin had a bitter experience with elections. Never an activist, he was chosen by the National Students Federation (NSF), the student front of the Ayub-Monem regime, to contest for the post of vice-president of the SM Hall students’ union. He lost to one who was less brilliant than him as a student.

He does have a reputation as an efficient officer in the service of Pakistan and Bangladesh governments and as a World Bank bureaucrat. He earned respect as a governor of the Bangladesh Bank and chairman of the Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), a micro-credit organisation.

But nothing in his past prepared Fakhruddin either to play the leadership role of a politician or put on the shoes of the head of the government.

So, when Fakhruddin tries to play the political-cum-government leader, he flip-flops. He announced in March that he would hold a series of ‘exchange of opinion meetings’ with local leaderships at various important places outside capital Dhaka. The purpose would be to know, first-hand, people’s views on vital national issues including, in particular, the holding of the general elections. Generals Ayub Khan, Ziaur Rahman and HM Ershad all held such meet-the-people programmes to build up their political props. The first such event took place in Chittagong on March 27 and the chief adviser announced a crusade against three Ms –– money, muscle and the misuse of power. He held several more meetings but the programme was discontinued later without any notice.

Secondly, the chief adviser made a mess while trying to handle the campus situation in August. Professor Zillur Rahman Siddiqui has recounted in his column in the daily Shamokal his experience with such an incident which took place in 1976. He was then vice-chancellor of the Jahangirnagar University. Army men were watching a football match of the students on the campus playground. As a sequel to an altercation, there was a clash between an army man and a student. The army man later brought in reinforcement from the adjacent Savar Cantonment and they beat up the students indiscriminately. Prof Siddiqui, who resided in Dhaka, was informed of the incident. He contacted General Ziaur Rahman, who immediately sent a colonel to the spot. Prof Siddiqui also rushed to the university. By the same evening, the dispute was ended and the parties reconciled.

Now, when the clash between the army men at the army camp at Dhaka University playground and the students of the Dhaka University took place on August 20, the situation was allowed to drag till August 21. Then, the chief adviser held a meeting of the council of advisers where the army chief and the acting vice-chancellor of the Dhaka University were invited. He publicly expressed regret at the incidents and also a decision was taken to wind up the army camp from the university campus. He thus helped to magnify a local matter into a national crisis.

But the decision of winding up the camp takes time to take effect. By this time agitation spread all over the country and took a violent turn, with political overtones. On August 22, curfew was imposed. Police started cases against 82 thousand persons –– almost all unidentified. The police arrested some university teachers and took them into remand and sent them to jail. The university teachers met the chief adviser and the army chief. Eventually, the chief adviser in his address to the nation on September 9 announced that cases only against 36 teachers and students out of the 82 thousand would start and none other would be implicated or harassed in these cases. Yet, the police later arrested two more persons from Dhaka and Chittagong in connection with the campus upsurge. So the after-effect of the August 20 incident will possibly haunt the campus so long as the cases are not settled.

Dr Fakhruddin, who fumbled in tackling a campus situation, will be called upon, as the head of the government, to carry on negotiations with the politicians if there has to be any election in the country. This is because the government will have to create a congenial environment for holding the elections. Let us keep our fingers crossed.

In his UN address, the chief adviser has said as a matter of fact: ‘As stipulated in our Constitution, the non-party caretaker administration acts as a bridge between successive political governments. Our task, first and foremost, is to ensure a free and fair election, and we are fully committed to that responsibility’. His mettle as a leader will be tested when the time will come for his government to redeem this pledge.

A government in a void: The potency or fragility of the Fakhruddin government itself will face a test when the question of electing a government will be on the agenda. Fakhruddin has made an extravagant statement in the UN address: ‘My government is fully committed to ensuring that our reform initiatives are comprehensive and irreversible.’ How will he or his government ensure this?

A person of Dr Fakhruddin’s calibre should not be unaware that he is running the show of a government which is operating in a virtual void. His caretaker government was not formed in conformity with the provisions of the constitution nor does it operate within the constitutional bounds. At the practical level, the mainstay of his government is the support of the military. The military is under the president. And chief adviser himself and his council of advisers as a body are responsible to the president.

The life line of the Fakhruddin government is the unique equation between the president and the military, established at the time of the promulgation of the emergency on January 11. The Fakhruddin government is the offspring of the January 11 development. It is a government the example of which one will not find either in any textbook or any other government in practice anywhere in the world. #

This article was first published in the New Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh, September 30, 2007

NM Harun is contributing editor of New Age. He can be reached at: badrun