Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Awami League: rising to the challenge
While it is a bit early to judge Sheikh Hasina government's performance, it surely deserves a special mention for bringing about fundamental changes in some vital sectors in two years
IN THE 40 years since the independence of Bangladesh, the Awami League, which led the freedom struggle against Pakistan, has been able to run the government for only three terms, including the present tenure. And for Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the slain founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it is the second term.
Surely, people's expectations were very high because the ‘grand alliance' led by Sheikh Hasina promised a change, and a brighter and forward-looking future. It won the 2008 general elections, bagging 230 out of the 300 parliamentary seats.
The landslide for the “pro-liberation” alliance was, understandably, due to its pre-election pledges which reflected the aspirations of the people who were eager to see the exit of the controversial military-backed interim rule, and wanted a replacement for the coercive political culture that was set forth by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat coalition.
A period of two years is not enough to judge a government that has a five-year mandate. But the Hasina government deserves a special mention for bringing about some fundamental changes in some vital sectors. Undoubtedly, one such area was the tough handling of religious extremists and militants who were trying to undermine the liberal democratic system. The new guards in Dhaka have acted firmly against the growing menace of extremism and demonstrated their commitment, which was absent when Khaleda Zia was in power in a coalition with the fundamentalists.
The trial of criminals of the 1971 war of liberation was another major step the government boldly initiated. Badly needed to establish the rule of law and put straight the record of the history of independence, the trial of those who committed crimes against humanity as collaborators of the Pakistan army further alarmed the religious extremists as well as the main opposition BNP, which forged a unified stand with the extremist sections against the Hasina government.
The last two years have also seen the completion of a major judicial process in which the convicted killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were sent to the gallows.
Another important sector the government has paid adequate attention to is the restoration of regional connectivity for mutual cooperation. Dhaka should be credited with pursuing a forward-looking policy that has opened up a new vista in the relations with regional powers like India. The relations with China, another Asian giant, also received due consideration.
According to diplomatic analysts, the delicate issues of connectivity with New Delhi that the new government has pursued with courage and conviction would not only benefit the landlocked north-eastern Indian States but also bring economic benefits to Bangladesh. They, however, say the past two years have been spent only in laying the foundations and results are likely as the government steps into its third year.
The beginning of the new trend in India-Bangladesh relations was evident when the Prime Minister paid a visit to New Delhi in January last year. The outcome of the visit, which came under sharp criticism from the BNP and its fundamentalist allies, nevertheless helped to clear the clouds that long overshadowed the relations between the next-door neighbours.
Criticism apart, the political leadership of India and Bangladesh took some major decisions during Ms Hasina's visit. Bangladesh, for the first time, allowed India, Nepal and Bhutan to use the Chittagong and Mongla seaports for the landlocked Indian northeast. In return, India allowed Bangladesh transit through its territory for trade with the landlocked Nepal and Bhutan. The transit to India through Bangladesh was considered a politically sensitive issue. But the new government moved forward decisively considering the economic aspects as well as the significance of opening up a new vista in regional cooperation. Bangladesh has also allowed India to use its Ashuganj river port for transport of heavy equipment to construct a power plant in remote Tripura. The country also secured a loan of $1 billion from India to upgrade road and railway infrastructure. Unfazed by sharp criticism over forging closer ties with India, the Hasina government went ahead.
Another important step was Bangladesh undertaking to fulfil its commitment not to allow the use of its territory by Indian separatists or militants — an issue New Delhi kept insisting for long. In the last two years, Bangladesh has also been successful in clearing its name from the list of countries that harbour extremism.
However, while taking a few major steps forward, the two countries are yet to resolve the much discussed issue of sharing the waters of common rivers, including the Teesta. There has been an imperative need to settle the longstanding dispute over 6.5 km of the un-demarcated land boundary and remove the trade imbalance that heavily favours India. The killing of Bangladeshi civilians on the frontier, allegedly by Indian border guards, also needs to be looked into seriously.
Notwithstanding its successes, even the sympathisers of the government believe it has fallen behind in certain areas in which people expected it to be different. The continuing absence of the main Opposition in Parliament is not something that goes against the government alone. The BNP, still struggling to regain its rhythm following its electoral debacle, has failed to attend parliamentary sessions as part of its strategy to gain political mileage.
While admitting that the prices of commodities in the international market have gone up, it cannot be denied that during the past two years, the spiral has played havoc with citizens' lives. The power sector is another vital area in which the government is yet to come to grips, despite efforts to import and generate electricity. Many fear that the unabated increase in the prices of essential commodities and frequent power cuts have pinned the people down. As a result, the voters, who had great expectations from the Sheikh Hasina-led alliance, may be disappointed.
The overall law and order situation seemed to improve but the recklessness and high-handedness of a section of the ruling party's students and youth wing members have generated ill-feelings among the people.
As for another top priority pledge — effective anti-corruption drive — the government has come under criticism that it has not lived up to its promise. As during the BNP-Jamaat tenure, many graft cases against the ruling party men were dropped on the ground of political victimisation. The national anti-graft body has not been strengthened any further.
Many sympathisers of the government are worried about its performance in some areas on the economic front although the economy is on the right footing, thanks to a positive growth in the revenue income and better management of the agriculture sector. Education is another vital sector where the government performed well.
Politicisation of civil administration has been a concern the Hasina government inherited but its political opponents allege that the problem has reached new heights. Extra-judicial killings of suspected miscreants continue to be criticised by human rights bodies. Well-wishers have advised the government to make a course correction and focus on certain areas in which it has failed to make substantial progress.
Only a week before the end of her first two years in power, did Sheikh Hasina declare that the honeymoon period of her government was over. As she steps into the third year, the honeymoon seems truly over. The government, as indications suggest, may face a tougher challenge from the political opposition vis-à-vis the major initiatives it has undertaken in the last two years. #
First published in The Hindu, Chennai, India, January 17, 2011
Haroon Habib is a Bangladesh journalist, correspondent of The Hindu and author of several books documenting bloody war of Bangladesh independence. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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at Wednesday, January 19, 2011