(This post was planned for 11 January, but other things got in the way).
Edmund Burke said ‘Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it’. Bangladesh is not a country where history is well known. But it seems that we are getting worse every year. Army intervention of 11 January happened only four years ago, and judging by the country’s leading newspapers, we’re already forgetting it.
Are we then doomed to repeat history? Is another military intervention just a matter of time?
Well, I believe nothing is inevitable. Things happen because of specific actions — planned or accidental — of specific people. So I don’t think we are condemned with coups and countercoups. But certain things make coups more likely, and certain kind of coups are more likely than others.
For example, I don’t believe a repeat of 1975 is very likely. I don’t believe there are many majors and colonels, motivated by personal grievance or ideology, plotting to overthrow the government. The junior and mid-ranking officers’ discipline was tested in February 2009. In a country where students go on a violent spree if their friend is rudely talked to by bus drivers, many majors and colonels received heartbreaking calls from comrades, and decided to wait for an order that never came. That’s valor. Even if a handful are stupid enough to plot an assassination, it’s hard to imagine our senior officers falling in line the way Shafiullah and his officers did.
Could we see a repeat of 1982? In that year, a newly elected president was overthrown by an ambitious army chief who claimed rampant corruption and misgovernance as his reasons. I don’t think such a coup will happen, because I think the army chiefs are much better vetted these days. Any individual who is as conniving or ambitious as Ershad are not made the army chief these days.
But, but, didn’t Ershad have a reputation of a fun-loving playboy more interested in women and sports than politics? Isn’t that why Zia made him, and not people like Abdur Rahman or Golam Dastagir the army chief? Just as Ershad fooled Zia, couldn’t the current or next army chief fool Hasina?
Yes, that is very much possible. But then the question comes, what will happen after the coup? Could a future Ershad survive? Could he convince all the major stakeholders — opportunist politicians, bureaucrats, corporate houses, civil society, India-China-west — that he ought to be supported?
For him to pull it off, it is imperative that the coup is portrayed credibly as a ‘last resort’. Anything short, and the coupmaker will face opposition from at least one, perhaps more, of the stakeholders.
Was 1/11 a ‘last resort’? It could credibly be portrayed thus. On 10 January 2007, after it became clear that AL and allies would not participate in the 22 January election, Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed could quite credibly claim that ‘I had to declare martial law as this was the only way to stop a bloodbath’. What he did was just a softer version of this.
Right. A political gridlock is a must. Could we get a political gridlock? Sure. But I don’t think we are likely to get an exact repeat. As Mark Twain is claimed to have said, history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. This is because people learn from history, perhaps not the right lesson, but some lesson. Our politicians learnt from 2006-07, so I don’t think we will see an exact repeat. I don’t think BNP will (be able to) lead a multi-party boycott of the 2014 election. Nor do I think AL will resort to such blatant rigging.
So, how will the gridlock develop?
A gridlock could develop if the losing side refuses to accept the result. To be sure, in each of the past four elections, the losing side claimed the election was unfair. But none of the losers rejected the result outright, because they knew that they really lost the election. What if this is not the case in 2014?
What if the election is repeat of nothing from Bangladesh, but of our erstwhile cousins from the west? I have Zulfi Bhutto’s election in April 1977 in mind. Bhutto may or may not have won that election in a free and fair manner, just as the AL may or may not be the first party in Bangladesh’s history to win back to back elections in 2014. But Bhutto didn’t take any chances, and his minions rigged the election in a blatant fashion. And his opponents were strong enough to challenge him in the streets, bringing Pakistan to a standstill. When Bhutto asked the army to crack down, the army (led by a general who used to be ridiculed by Bhutto as his ‘monkey’) overthrew him.
Could something like this happen?
Even if it did, for the coupmaker to be successful a few other things would need to hold. First, he would need either a set of trusted deputies, or he would have to be a part of a junta. There can’t be two suns in the same sky. One reason the 1/11 intervention failed was because it was never clear who was the real boss — Moeen U Ahmed or Masud Uddin Chowdhury. For a future coup to succeed, the coupmaker will either have to be like Ayub Khan, unquestionably in charge, or he would have to lead a true junta — here I have run out of historical precedence from our part of the world. Given that an Ayub-like figure is likely to be thoroughly vetted out in our army, a collective effort would make the coup more successful.
There is another reason why 1/11 failed — its perpetrators showed a complete lack of understanding about the country’s political cleavages. Since the time of Zia, our politics revolve around two camps. On the one hand, there are the Awami/pro-independence/spirit of 1971/soft on India/secular-atheists. On the other hand, the nationalist/pro-sovereignty/tough on India/Islamic values/razakar-militancy supporters. Moeen-Masud tried to fashion a third force, and failed.
If a group of future coupmakers were to be successful in fashioning a third force, their coup will succeed. In fact, they will achieve more. They will usher in a genuine new era, and will be considered on par with Huq-Suhrawardy-Mujib-Zia.
But I don’t think this is very likely. I doubt our cantonment is teeming with a Nasser or a De Gaul. Much more likely is that the junta might have the full support of one of our political camps.
And this is where a future coup might be most different from 1/11. While 1/11 was rejected by the BNP leadership (read: Mrs Zia) and its rank-and-file, and while it was welcomed initially by AL, the latter quickly smelt the danger and demanded immediate election. The coupmakers ended up not winning the support of either camp, and they were not visionary enough to chart their own path.
Could a group of future coupmakers, after overthrowing the AL, claim a decisively nationalist mantle? Would they receive the blessings of BNP?
Karl Marx said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Could 1/11 repeat itself as a tragedy?