Last week, political events in Bangladesh had been troubling. First there was the toxic oborodh (physical blockade) and then a full day of countrywide hartal followed by another one for half a day. In the 21st century such political tactics are not only out of date but also very costly economically. They were orchestrated by the opposition parties including BNP. The government reacted by deploying the police and other security agencies. The ostensible purpose was to contain any public violence and disruption to civic life. But the government party brought out its student front to contain any dissent on the streets. The police in this case stood by when these students took the law in their hands. This was evident when a person was hacked to death during hartal, which was recorded by the media but not stopped by the law enforcers. Later, some of the attackers were identified and arrested.
But the greatest indignity was the arrest of the acting Secretary General of BNP, Mirza Fakrul Islam. He was accused of igniting the troubles by asking the public not to bring out their vehicles during the oborodh. He was not given bail. This is for the first time that a general secretary of a major political party had to go to jail for what seems to be ostensibly on political grounds. It does not speak highly of the government because government party leaders had cautioned the opposition parties not to take to violence as they would be challenged on the streets by government supporters. It, therefore, seems to many that the government is establishing two different standards of prosecution for the same alleged malfeasance.
But what are the issues at stake that have made the two main political alliances reach for each other’s throats? Are the issues so intractable that they cannot start a dialogue on them? The BNP is angry because they think that they lost the last general election because it was rigged. When the next election takes place, they may again get the short end of the stick because it will be held under the government’s watch. The Election Commission (EC) remains a weak body and could wilt under government pressure. Analysts think it may not be able to conduct the elections fairly and neutrally.
The government, on the other hand, is saying that the BNP wants to disrupt the holding of the trial of those accused of 1971 war crimes by creating an anarchic situation. It says that the opposition is trying to invite unknown “third forces” that would in turn suspend holding of the all-important war crimes trials. The government is pledge bound to the people of the country to hold these trials because it won the last election based on the commitment made in its election manifesto.
So what is the way out of this impasse? Where are the sober elements in both the political alliances who can advise correctly as what to do to defuse the situation? We have noticed an escalation in political intolerance and the impunity with which both the political alliances conduct themselves. Mirza Fakhrul in many ways is an exception to this political genre. He has conducted himself with dignity and has played within political norms. So why would the government charge him unless there are cogent grounds, other than political, to indict him? To many, the developments last week extend beyond their understanding.
Of course, one way out is for the members elected from various parties to sit down in parliament and thrash things out. But the BNP is unwilling to do so. They have chosen the street to settle political questions. They say that the government has created an adversarial environment in the parliament, which does not encourage sober elements in the opposition to even suggest that it is time to return to parliament.
Are we, therefore, headed towards anarchy which will cause unnecessary loss of lives, property and prosperity? Indeed, prosperity is vitally at stake. Even with political instability this country has achieved an average of 6% annual rate of growth of GNP over the last decade or so. Imagine, with political stability and vision we could easily have achieved 8% or more growth annually. Does Bangladesh, the sixth largest democracy in the world, deserve this? Is this the way we remember our valiant freedom fighters who gave their lives in the hope that one day this hallowed land and its good people would not wallow in squalor and a dysfunctional political order?
For both political alliances, time is of the essence. As history has shown, people can be quite unforgiving when their daily lives are continuously disturbed. Political posturing and petty political gains are of no consequence then. A ground swell could indeed be beyond the control of either or both the alliances. So what can we do now to bring sense out of this nonsense?
The first order of things is to be able to gauge the minds of our people before we go into the next general election. Perhaps one way to do this is to amend the provision in our constitution that prohibits members of parliament from crossing the floor. A member who is aggrieved by the political behaviour and actions of the parliamentary leaders of his party should be able to take the side from where he or she can express what the people of his or her constituency want or desire.
The second order is to reconsider the constitutional ban on holding referendum. The people should be allowed to say “Yea” or “Nay” on serious issues that bedevil the country today. For example, the issue of caretaker government needs to be settled. Referendum will allow the political parties to get clear mandates on the issues. The people in general will know where the voters stand.
The third order is to begin the process of healing among the political parties. This can be done simultaneously with the other actions. We must ask both the alliances to build confidence in each other both inside and outside parliament. There are issues on which both the alliances are working in tandem and hold bipartisan views. The issues may be innocuous but, in essence, quite vital to our national interest. First is the consequence of climate change. As all the people will be affected by climate change, our political parties speak with one voice. The other issues are women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation. These have much to do with the welfare of the people, which is essentially the business of politics.
We do not want that a few disgruntled and frustrated politicians should lead us into the wilderness. They have a limited agenda and are not worth our general interest. So let right thinking politicians, our dynamic civil society and our media lead the charge and help create a new era of political engagement among the various political parties. Let them set new guidelines of correct “political behaviour” that suit our national genius. Let these guidelines be deliberated upon, questioned, and a basic consensus built up. This could take place in the parliament, in the courts, or even in the public forum. We now have to make sense out of this nonsense.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a regular commentator on contemporary affairs.
Source: The Daily Star