Monday, August 09, 2010

End of Battle

Dr. MOONIS AHMAR

THERE IS no way Bangladeshi politics can rid itself of the personal schism of the two ‘begums' unless one leaves the scene.

Eighteen months after the assumption of power by Awami League (AL) and the crushing defeat of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the last general elections, political environment in that impoverished South Asian country is as polarized as it was before. There is no respite as far as charges and counter-charges against each other are concerned. In order to exert pressure on the AL led government, BNP leader Khaleda Zia announced general strike on June 27 and also decided to continue the boycott of parliament.

Bangladesh is a democracy in terms of holding elections but in reality, like many post-colonial states, it has not settled down as a stable country. Rampant corruption, energy shortages, poor infrastructure, climatic change causing serious environmental degradation and deepening of poverty are the issues which question the credibility and legitimacy of those who wield power but are at the same time also involved in the excessive abuse of power.

Indeed, 160 million people of Bangladesh are paying the price of unabated political strife between Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister and Khaleda Zia, the former Prime Minister. Both begums, regardless of enormous price of their confrontation are unwilling to patch up their personal discord and schisms. Both have not learned lessons from the past and are still a victim of paranoia and personal grudge against each other. Both are oblivious to the plight of millions of people of their country who live in an abject poverty and have no promising future.

When this writer asked the editor of a Dhaka-based English weekly magazine, "Is there any sign of reconciliation between the two parties or are they adamant on confrontation?" she responded: "No sign of reconciliation whatsoever. And Awami League is going all out to keep BNP down by using the war criminal trial. BNP is most of the time out of parliament in protest, so that parliament too is totally an ineffective tool for any democratic practice. When BNP is in power, it uses corruption and criminal cases to keep Awami League in submission and vice versa. There is no reconciliation in the foreseeable future."

The problem is around 70% of the population of Bangladesh is under 35 and by engaging in a relentless war of words and political confrontation, both Awami League and BNP seem to augment the level of pessimism and gloom particularly among the young people. When asked the question that what is the present situation of their fight, the editor responded that, "it is still very much on. They cannot see eye to eye on a single issue. When they come face to face, on very rare occasion like the Armed Forces Day, they just exchange the briefest of greeting, with strained smiles and pleasantries that ring hollow. The media has a field day on such occasions and the newspapers and TV challenges can talk of nothing else other than what they said to each other, what color saris they wore, their expressions, etc."

When the question about the prospects of rapprochement between the BNP and AL was put before a Chittagong University academician, he responded, "As the ideologies of the two parties are different, so it can be easily said that the possibilities of reconciliation between these is very low. Both parties want to be in power.

Consequently whenever a party comes in power then it always tries to deter the adversary one making whimsical issues and to stay long time in power. Another important point here that BNP always bears liberal ideology, in contrast, Awami League (AL) poses secular ideology but both the parties believe in democracy. But the process of belief is different. In a sense, it can be called vice versa. As a matter of fact, neither of these parties wants to leave their interests. They are very much rigid regarding their policies and strategies also. Whenever a decision is taken by one, whether the decision is right or wrong, another one strongly protest it. This is the culture of the two political parties of Bangladesh.

There are various reasons to prove why the political tussle between BNP and AL primarily revolve around the two begums. Personal vendetta, ego-centric approach, intolerance, suspicion, grudge and mistrust shape the basis of battle between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. If Hasina represents the force of Bengali nationalism, Khaleda Zia advocates the Islamic characteristics of the majority of people of Bangladesh defined as Bangladeshi nationalism. The two still thrive on dynastic politics and are least concerned about the ordeals of common people. While in power, both were charged of corruption, nepotism and incompetence. The only example when the two begums pursued a common approach was during the last days of General Ershad when both AL and BNP launched non-cooperation movement which forced Ershad to step down in 1990 and pave the way for general elections. Otherwise, there is a long history of personal discord and vendetta.

In the June 12, 2010 issue of London Economist under the title, "Bangladesh That's not the way to do it," it was maintained that, "18 months after Sheikh Hasina's Awami League won parliamentary election in landslide, Bangladesh's politics is back to normal: personal, vindictive and confrontational. Demoralized and in disarray, the BNP has just 30 seats in parliament, down from 193 in 2001. The two ladies' feud and obsession with the past have hobbled development for decades. But the habits of confrontation are hard to break."

Four factors tend to deepen polemics and confrontation between BNP and AL. First, the role of India, because if AL has a soft corner for India and wants to follow a submissive approach vis-à-vis New Delhi's covert objectives in Bangladesh, BNP pursues a hard line policy. BNP opposes AL's stance on providing corridor to India via Bangladesh to the North East states on the argument that such a concession given to New Delhi will undermine the sovereignty of Bangladesh.

Second, the role of Pakistan. While, AL follows a hard line approach on Pakistan and uses the tragedy of 1971 in order to justify its hostility towards Islamabad, BNP pursues a moderate policy based on reconciliation between the two Muslim countries, as was evident during its two stints in power (1991-1996 and 2001-2006). AL's obsession with war crimes and its decision to go for the trial of those who collaborated with Pakistan Army during 1971 is considered as an evidence of its policy to be hard on relations with Pakistan. Therefore, both BNP and AL possess divergent positions on India and Pakistan which undoubtedly also impacts on Bangladesh's domestic politics.

Third, while AL considers Sheikh Mujib as the Father of the Nation and an unmatched leader of Bangladesh, BNP terms Zia-ur-Rehman as a nationalist who not only declared the independence of Bangladesh on a radio broadcast on March 26, 1971 but also selflessly worked for the development and modernization of his country. He was called as a leader who pursued a forward looking approach for his country and was above corruption and nepotism. Finally, BNP is soft on the Islamic identify of Bangladesh whereas AL adheres to secular nature of state based on Bengali nationalism. Other issues like control over the power structures and the university campuses also contribute in widening the schism between the two political parties of Bangladesh. Furthermore, both BJP and AL have some common characteristics like lust for power, personal fiefdom, corruption, nepotism and letting down their voters.

If the phasing out of the two begums takes place in the foreseeable future, their legacy may continue to haunt the people of Bangladesh for a long period of time. Although, the military cannot directly intervene to depoliticize the country because of adverse repercussions domestically and internationally, it can certainly pull the strings from behind. If Bangladesh wants to proceed for a better and prosperous future, it must change its political destiny by inducting tolerance, accountability, rule of law and better work ethics. Since the people of Bangladesh gave a lot of sacrifice for democracy and social justice, they do not deserve ‘internal colonization' ‘bad governance' ‘corruption' and above all absence of ‘rule of law.' #

First published in Southasia magazine, Karachi, Pakistan, July 2010


Dr. Moonis Ahmad is professor of International Relations, Karachi University and specializes on Bangladesh. He has authored several books including Paradigms of Conflict Resolution in South Asia, 2003