An unhappy post on the AL’s birthday
I posted on its 60th birthday when, arguably, the Awami League was at its zenith. I noted Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s impressive record of first holding the party together after the bloody 1970s, then dragging it into the Bangladeshi mainstream in the 1990s, and finally putting it in power as the strongest government in the country’s history. This time last year was much happier for AL. We don’t have regular opinion polls in Bangladesh to substantiate this, but if the recent Chittagong City Council poll is any guide, AL has lost popularity in recent months.
But AL’s lost popularity is not why this is an unhappy post. Rather, this post covers my increasing disillusionment with the third AL government. My standards were never high. I never imagined Bangladesh to become Sweden. But after 18 months in power, comparing what could have been with what is likely to be, I cannot but help be unhappy. I see dark storms over our political horizon. And then when I look at the alternative, the recent CCC poll notwithstanding, I don’t feel any less unhappy.
When BNP was in power, no matter how bad things got, one could look at AL and hope for a better day. And one didn’t have to be a regular AL voter to think this way. Despite the damaging andolon and the infamous Janatar Mancha that helped it come to power, and notwithstanding the gansterism of Joynal Hazari and like, Sheikh Hasina did run a reasonably good government from 1996 to 2001.
Sheikh Hasina’s achievement in dragging AL to the mainstream is seldom appreciated by anyone. She also deserves credit for bringing in successful professionals/businessmen/academics into Awami politics. People like Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Assaduzzaman Noor, SAMS Kibria, AHSK Sadeq were traditionally never comfortable in Awami politics. In the pre-Mujib era, urban educated class whence these individuals come either preferred various left factions, or joined pro-Pakistan establishment. Like the whole nation, this class flocked to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the late 196os, only to be felt betrayed by Mujibism-in-practice. Gen Zia coalesced this class under his banner. It was only under Hasina, after the 1991 debacle, that AL found itself home to this class.
And this new cohort of lateral entry to politics were complemented by a generation of of tried and true politicians like Mahmudur Rahman Manna, Akhteruzzaman, Sultan Mansur, Obaidul Kader. These men, on balance, were qualitatively of a different nature to people like Lutfuzzaman Babar. Of course AL had its own versions of Babar, and worse. In 1996 election, Dr Mostafa Jalal Mohiuddin was dumped for Haji Selim, for example. And the old guard like Tofail Ahmed, Amir Hossain Amu, or Abdul Jalil wielded as much power, probably more power, than Saber or Kibria. But before 1/11, AL at least had a dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis going on between different factions: the old guard; the younger bottom-up politicians; the lateral entries; ex-lefts; and of course the party chief’s family members. Sometimes the synthesis produced ‘trump card’ and logi boitha, but it also produced a serious effort to think about what AL could do in power.
And that’s why, even as the Hawa Bhaban shattered my similarly held views about BNP from a few years earlier, AL gave reasons to be hopeful. The AL that’s governing now has shades of what could have been possible. In foreign policy, for example, the AL is on the right track with connectivity with both India and China, and distancing ourselves from India’s problems. If the Indian policy fails, it will be because of a historic blunder in India. In the economic domain, a lot of good ideas are being pursued. Ex-left ministers like Nahid and Yafes Osman are genuinely trying.
But all these are overshadowed by the disturbing rise of the Awami League’s fascist side. While the practitioners of that politics — Tofail / Amu etc — are not in power, their replacements in Syed Ashraful, Sajeda Chowdhury, Mahbubul Alam Hanif are simply no better. And let’s not even start with gasbags like Faruq Khan or Quamrul Islam.
If the current trends continue, the Prime Minister will lose control before the year is over. There will be palace conspiracies next year. Local gangsterism and godfatherism will rise dramatically. Public institutions, already shaken with partisan hacks, will continue to crumble. Everything that was wrong with BNP, with the possible exception of militancy, are on the way back, and we may seen worse. And then when I look at BNP, somehow I don’t feel all that hopeful.
An unhappy birthday then for the Awami League.