GROUND REALITIES: Now for the epilogue

hm-ershad

DRAMATIC things have been happening in the country. Minus the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the prime minister has decided to go ahead with the formation of a multi-party government to oversee the next general election. To what extent her gamble will pay off remains to be seen. There are those who predict two general elections over the next few months, along the lines of what happened in 1996, when a nearly voter-free election in February was followed by a proper voting in June. Now that the BNP appears determined to stay away from the polls, there is a clear danger of politics going round and round the mulberry bush, of things remaining as they have remained over the past many months.
But what if elections without the BNP actually go ahead and a good, workable parliament comes into shape? That question will be dismissed by many. And yet you now wonder if the prime minister’s move to go for the kind of pre-election government she has opted for will actually leave the BNP out in the cold. In these past weeks, Begum Zia and her party have squandered a good opportunity, despite that telephonic exhibition of bitterness between her and the prime minister, to engage in negotiations with the ruling party on the modalities of the election. The BNP’s decision to renege on its promise of ‘no hartal if the government makes a move for talks’ has been a damper. When the party went ahead with its hartal programmes despite the government’s appeal to it to stay away from it, it was made very clear where the BNP was going. Its leadership has disappointed the nation.
That does not of course leave the AL free of guilt. Its lawmakers ought not to have scrapped, without consulting the opposition, the constitutional provision of a caretaker system of government. Of course, democracy in this country will always be a tentative affair as long as the caretaker system is around. You simply cannot have an elected government for four years and nine months and then have it make way for an unelected administration for three months. Besides, a caretaker government is the strongest hint of how democracy has not dug deep roots in a country. Sheikh Hasina is right to argue against the caretaker principle. One does share her academic view that a caretaker administration militates against the principle of democracy.
And yet there is the strong argument that the unilateral move by the ruling party to do away with the caretaker government easily handed its rivals a weapon they could beat it with. The BNP had not been doing well by staying away from parliament. It had few, if any, ideas it could enthuse the country with. That condition changed when the caretaker system, based on one half of a judicial judgement, was thrown out the window. It was a move not thought through and Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet colleagues and advisors should have spoken to her of the repercussions arising out of such a decision. One wrong move simply opened up a lot of avenues for the opposition to foment agitation on the streets.
Which is why one cannot really predict what happens in the country between now and Election Day, whenever that is. Observe that circumstances tend to get increasingly murky and then murkier everywhere. As we write, the Jatiyo Sangsad remains in place. Why must it be that way? You certainly do not expect a serving lawmaker seeking re-election to play politics on a level field, despite what the constitution might or might not say on the matter. The issue is surely a separate and equally disturbing dimension to the crisis we happen to be plodding through as the general election draws near.
And, of course, there are other dimensions to the impasse as well. General Ershad has just been to see the chief of the Hefajat-e-Islam. He was happy to be blessed by a man who nearly pushed the country to disaster in May and who now wants the former military ruler to implement his thirteen points, all medieval in form and substance, if the Jatiyo Party rides to power. Well, the Jatiyo Party will not come to power, which is not a bad thing. But what does worry you is the manner in which politics is demeaned by the likes of men who wish Bangladesh’s women to go indoors and stay there, who would like to do away with the nation’s education policy, who are enemies of culture and heritage.
One is not surprised that General Ershad has promised to heed the tamarind man’s suggestion (though his party colleague Anisul Islam Mahmud says something quite to the contrary). One is not amazed either that even as his party people cheerfully line up to join the multi-party interim government, Ershad vows to take the AL head-on at the election. Beyond surprise or amazement, there is disbelief that wells up inside you as you realise that the former military ruler has not yet graduated to a well-meaning politician. Does he honestly think the Hefajatis are good for the country? Back in May, did Khaleda Zia truly believe the nation should have stood by the Hefajatis as they went around committing mayhem on the streets of Dhaka?
You observe everything around you. Confusion gives way to chaos. With a new, albeit supervisory, government in charge, you really cannot be sure there will be a credible election before January 24. The BNP, as looks likely, will not be there. Or will it, out of fear that if Sheikh Hasina ends up organising a good enough election it will find itself out of the political centre for a good number of years, indeed may find itself becoming irrelevant?
The drama has only just begun. You cannot critique it before you reach the end of the epilogue. The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
E-mail: ahsan.syedbadrul@gmail.com

Source: The Daily Star

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