The law of unintended consequences

Zafar Sobhan

If the BNP is wiped off the face of the Earth, I think the chances of it being replaced by a similar, saner right of centre political party (that many would hope for) are far lower than the chances of that space being occupied by a much more hard-core right-wing party

  • Is Khaleda waving goodbye?

With the announcement that Khaleda Zia is likely to be brought to trial for the fire-bombing deaths during the BNP anti-government campaigns in the first few months of this year, and with arrest warrants issued against 28 BNP leaders and activists in association with a bus burning on January 30, it is clear that the government is heading towards a final solution to the BNP problem.

The march towards a de facto one-party state thus seems close to unstoppable. By the time the next elections roll around in 2019, the BNP may well have ceased to exist as any kind of a political force capable of providing any kind of challenge to the AL.

The question then of whether the party will contest in the next national elections or under what dispensation such elections will be held becomes a moot point.

Come 2019, there is every chance that the BNP will no longer be with us, or at least not in any recognisable form or in the form of a viable opposition party that has a realistic chance of coming to power.

In short, it looks as though the AL will get its wish, which, if you have been following the public and private pronouncements of its leaders and fellow travelers for the past few years, has been made pretty clear.

The AL feels that having to alternate in office with the BNP throughout the 1990s and 2000s has kept them from being able to enact the policies this country needs and to see through their vision for developing Bangladesh into a middle-income country and beyond.

What Bangladesh needs, according to this school of thought, is steady, uninterrupted, and focused leadership for the next decade or so, with none of the distractions and inefficiencies that come with regular alternating of power, and the end result will be a thriving, prosperous, and developed nation.

The catch-phrase (which, interestingly enough, was precisely the same one used by the BNP, who had a remarkably similar vision, differing only in that they envisaged themselves at the epicentre of power) in vogue is the “Malaysia Model.” Another one is “development before democracy.”

Now, I very much doubt that the AL will abandon the party’s commitment to formal democracy in the sense that regular elections will still be held. The only difference will be that without an opposition worth the name, the election results will be a foregone conclusion and elections will appear as little more than a small blip in the multi-year planning for Bangladesh’s future.

Is this all bad? Proponents of the scheme and supporters of the government will point out that de facto one-party rule has worked very well for the countries in South-East Asia, and that it was the ability to stay in power for a long period of time to see through the vision of the ruling party that was instrumental in their development.

The argument is that being able to stay in power for a long time allows the government to be able to focus on the long-term and not govern according to electoral cycles.

In addition, constantly switching governments means that continuity is lost, especially in a country like Bangladesh where each incoming government typically spends the first few years undoing the policies and projects of its predecessor in office, ensuring that growth and development take place at a glacial pace, if at all.

The key is delivery. If the government in question really can deliver growth that makes the lives of the Bangladeshi people palpably better and improves the standard of living visibly, then my guess is that a multitude of other sins will be forgiven.

But it cannot be a question of pointing to high economic growth or GDP numbers and then haranguing the public for not recognising how good we have it. Numbers don’t tell the whole story and people recognise improvement in their standard of living when they see it, or, to be more precise, when they feel it.

But there are a number of factors weighing against a de facto one-party rule being able to deliver us to the promised land of development and middle-income nation status, and this is something that the government should bear in mind as it draws up its plans for our brave new world.

The first is that the entire edifice of democracy is built upon the premise that a strong opposition is what keeps the government honest and in check, and that without any opposition worth the name, the government of the day would constantly run the risk of descending into criminality and corruption.

The real danger for AL is that without an opposition it will find it very difficult to rein in its worst elements, who are already causing havoc around the country and harming the image and reputation of the government and the ruling party.

But there is another cause for concern.

The ideas of Prof Mushtaq Husain Khan of SOAS are pertinent here. He has pointed out that part of what has allowed Bangladesh to function is that the spoils of power have been fairly evenly distributed between the two sides, and it was the recognition that they would one day be out of power that kept those in office in check, and hope of coming back to power at the next election that kept those in opposition within the frame.

With no hope of returning to power, these people will now have no incentive to stay their hand and to engage constructively with the government, instead of working towards the destruction of the system and everything that entails. In short, if both sides do not get a share of the spoils, the one on the outside will do everything in its power to make the country ungovernable.

This has more than the ring of plausibility to it, and we have already seen to what lengths an increasingly desperate BNP is willing to go to disrupt the government and put pressure on it. The fear is that we haven’t seen anything yet, and that whoever comes after them will have even less reason to play by the rules of the game and even less scruple about doing whatever it takes to derail the government.

The BNP is today now more of an insurgency than an opposition party, but this is nothing compared to where things could go in future. If the BNP is wiped off the face of the Earth, I think the chances of it being replaced by a similar, saner right of centre political party (that many would hope for) are far lower than the chances of that space being occupied by a much more hard-core right-wing party, if we are lucky, and by radicals or militants, if we are not.

There will always be opposition to the AL. For the last four decades, the BNP has been the face and focal point of this opposition. If they go, I am not at all sure that what will rise to take their place will be an improvement.

Source: Dhaka Tribune


  1. Mr. Zafar Sobhan’s analogy is basic and it is an inexperienced opinion. BNP is not an insurgency. It is a political party. Al has destroyed democratic system in Bangladesh with the help of India and the United States in the tow. USA is fully behind India owing to it’s containment policy of the new enemy China. India took full advantage of this by having a proxy in Bangladesh – Sheikh Hasina. Like her father she has opted to take full cover of Indian might to crush all meaningful opposition in Bangladesh. It will eventually backfire and Bangladesh might get into a civil war or some type of violence that will destroy AL. The outcome is unpredictable. We have gone backwards in terms of civilized politics. The journalists like Sobhan make a lot of money making propaganda articles, paid for by the Al affiliates. Simply one cannot trust the journalists, government employees, Awami League leaders. Bangladesh is already ina quagmire. Thanks to AL.

  2. What a ridiculous scatter-brained analysis. Mr. Sobhan says that at this time BNP is an ‘isurgency’ and “not a political party”? What does he mean by this? Does he mean that BNP which is currently unable (not by its own choice but because of government repression) to engage in normal political opposition type activities such as rallies, protest meetings etc has ceased to be a political party and become an ‘insurgency’? Had Mr. Sobhan been a bit more insightful (this is not expected of someone who prefers to tow a certain political line) that at the present time BNP represents the mass resentments that are brewing underneath. When time comes and I believe that this would be sooner than later that it would probably be BNP that would be the mouthpiece of revolting people that would lead the real insurgency against this government as it was the case in late sixties with the resurgent then seemingly dormant Awami League that mobilised people against the repressions of Pakistan .


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