Things I’ll look out for
A funny thing has been happening lately. Opinion editors in Deshi English media, print and electronic, have been approaching me for political pieces. I suggest an economic or policy piece, they respond ‘yeah, that’s good, but how about (whatever is the headline that week)’. Beats me why this is — it’s not like I have a good track record of predicting Deshi politics. In fact, I am not at all qualified or knowledgeable to commentate on day-to-day politics of Bangladesh. Further, I don’t live in Bangladesh, and have a very dim view of pundits who claim to know Bangladesh better living in London than people back home.
But I have my opinions. And while I am extremely reluctant to publish them in formal media, I can jot them down in my blog. In fact, I should record them in the blog, so that you, dear reader, can hold me to account. However, please note that none of these are predictions. Nor do I necessarily support or oppose them. They are all trends or events to look out for in 2011 and beyond. Some of them will be good, some not so good, and some pretty awful. But these are the things I’ll keep my eyes on.
Municipality elections are scheduled for most of January, to be followed by Union Council elections in March. There are two parliamentary by-elections in the next few weeks, and possibly more during the year. And the Dhaka City Council election is way overdue.
These elections are Bangladeshi equivalent of the US mid-term or state elections in Indian (and other federal) systems. If the elections are free and fair, they will provide an accurate gauge of the political state of play. Even if the government tries to rig the election, it will reveal a lot of things. If the Awami League can pull off a Bhola-style rigging across the country, then it wouldn’t have needed to rig anything because it would have been too strong to lose anyway. But overcooking the result will damage its credibility. And even it fails, any attempted rigging will show how capable the Election Commission, the media and the civil society is against a ruthless government.
But there is no reason to be unduly pessimistic. The Chittagong City Council election was free and fair. The 250 plus municipality elections, being contested under effective party banners, will be most interesting to watch. They will also show whether opinion polls such as these are credible.
The War Crimes Trial was always going to be political. There is no getting around to the fact that most of the accused are actively involved in the opposition politics. The BNP had benefited from associating with them in the past. It was now the AL’s turn to wedge on this issue. This much was expected.
But things may not be going according to the government’s script. After a hesitant start, BNP has so far been pretty deft on the issue. Contrary to what the AL-ers must have been hoping for, the reaction to the arrest of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury was not a nationwide hartal or street agitation. Instead, BNP chief has come out and said her party would support a genuine trial. Since the government has ruled out trying Pakistanis, BNP can use it as an opening: we will see your trial, and raise you a trial of ‘real war criminals’. Meanwhile, BNP has also taken a hard-line approach with Jamaat in the local government elections.
So, ‘BNP is out to save war criminals’ is not likely to prove as effective as the AL might have hoped for. Plus, if the trial continues in its farcical nature, then protests from Amnesty et al will make things that much more uncomfortable for the government.
Note the plural in the sub-heading: BNP is able to show agility on the war crimes trial issue because SQC is nothing more than a regional leader, none of the party’s central leaders can be credibly accused of war crimes, its founder was an iconic freedom fighter, and it can still boast of many freedom fighters in its leadership. The trouble for BNP is that it’s slated future leader Tarique Rahman has a lot of potential charges pending against him. How and when the government charges him for arms smuggling or assassinations, and how the party responds to the accusations, will play important role in years to come.
There is no need for me to elaborate on the attacks on Prof Yunus — there is a bunch of posts in UV covering many angles. This one, however, is particularly revealing. No one will accuse my friend Zafar Sobhan of being an anti-AL-er. And yet, he felt he had to caution the Prime Minister about not creating unnecessary enemies. And the Yunus saga has been accompanied by the attack on Transparency International for pointing out the true nature of our judiciary — apparently these corruption fighters are out to foil the war crimes trial.
In a country like Bangladesh, only radical revolutionary movements can survive in office if faced with hostile opposition of the opinionmaking classes. And AL (nor BNP) is not radical revolutionary by any means. Who wins when government supported business tycoons tackle with the civil society and its corporate backers? If the government is immensely popular, its supporters win. When the government’s popularity is already on the wane, things get very ugly for its cronies — ask Giasuddin Al Mamoon.
What will happen this time round? Find out in the coming years.
Afsan Chowdhury has a very interesting anecdote about why the Rakkhi Bahini didn’t move against Mushtaq after 15 August:
I interviewed a gentleman who was near the top of the Rakkhi Bahini leadership in 1975 and was once posted abroad after the coup mess was over. I asked him, why he didn’t intervene from Savar when Sheikh Mujib was killed. He said, “We could have attacked and held off the army for two days and that would have been enough for the Indians to intervene. But I had been to India as a freedom fighter and didn’t think well of them. If they came, they would never leave I thought. So I didn’t order the troops to move.”
It’s hard to fathom that kind of anti-Indian feeling so soon after 1971. But from all accounts, anti-Indian feeling was a strong part of Bangladeshi politics a generation ago. Taher motivated his jawans by claiming that Khaled was an Indian puppet. And six years later, after killing Zia, Manzur declared the 25-year treaty of friendship with India null and void.
Over the past couple of decades, India ceased to be a political factor in Bangladesh. In 2008, BNP made the election about India (and Islam), and it didn’t work.
Could things be changing again? Perhaps not to that vitriolic level of the 1970s, but growing apprehensions about India is something worth observing. In the infrastructure sector, Indian consultants in various PPP projects have caused consternation. In the telecommunications sector, Airtel was not universally welcomed. There are grumblings about the way the government has borrowed from India, or on the transit issue. This op ed in Prothom Alo, hardly an anti-Indian newspaper, could be the harbinger of things to come.
Return of communalism
Disgracefully, to many in Bangladesh, India and Hindu are synonymous. In the 1970s, anti-Indianism directly contributed to the demise of secularism and return of Muslim nationalism. But in the 1970s, anti-Indianism was also shared by the radical left, and the full brunt of communalism was avoided. In today’s Bangladesh, hardcore anti-Indianism has only one outlet: communal bigotry.
And there is a risk that communal bigotry will be fueled by two further factors. First, rampant politicisation of the state machinery means that the government wants to hire/promote rank AL-ers. The thing is, a generation ago, hardcore AL-ers had a disproportionate number of Hindus — student councils of major institutions were dominated by anti-AL factions in the 1980s. This means, politicisation may be leading to a communal backlash. Second, the (long overdue) expected repel of Vested Property Act may be creating apprehension in the mofussil areas. The fear is that once the act is repelled, local AL-ers will use a Hindu front to grab prime land.
As I said, none of these are predictions. Perhaps nothing will happen. And if something happens, it may or may not be something I’d support. But for what it’s worth, these are the things I’ll look out for in 2011 and beyond.