Mid-summer political ramblings

Posted in politics by jrahman on June 22, 2011

Well, it’s winter where I live, but it’s summer for most of my readers.  So summer it is as far as this post is concerned.  And Bangladesh’s politics is definitely feeling the summer heat, not cool winter breeze. 

This email from a respected friend had got me thinking:

Bhai we all are pawn at the hand of big players.

When the country is heading towards a one party rule, when the government is most intolerant to any opposing views, when there is hardly any dissenting voice around, when even people like Anu Muhmmad, Rahnuma Ahmed get hit by police, when Moshrefa Mishu is thrown in jail and tortured for months, when the prospect of CHT people’s rights seems most grim in ages (with India managed, they don’t have any bargaiing chip left), if progressive minds keep focused on Rumana and Sharmila, our players are very very very happy.  

But history will never forgive one Jyoti Rahman if he fails to take note of above series of events.

Well, I’ve taken note.  I am not sure whether this, and follow up posts, will win me history’s forgiveness.  But this is what I’ve got. 

There are multiple ways we can think of the situation.  We is to list what is happening.  We can explain why what is happening.  More difficult is to predict what is going to happen.  And the really challenging one is to prescribe what should be done.

I am not in a good place to do the first — this is not a newspaper, and I have no unique source of information about the latest Awami transgression that you can’t get from Amar Desh.  And I am pretty bad at predicting.  I am also not going to prescribe anything because I think its rather gratuitous to sit in the comfort of the west and pontificate about what should be done back home.

But I can still analyse ramble on analyse what is happening, and paint a possible scenario or two of what might come.  This particular post is about the Awami side of politics.  BNP-related post(s) may follow.

Firstly, I agree with this assessment by Zafar Sobhan:

So it looks like we are stuck with AL and BNP. I guess our one hope is that one (or both) of these two parties will reform itself of its own accord. Anything is possible, I suppose.

But it strikes me that to believe that is at least as naive as to believe that an army-backed interregnum government could solve any of our problems in any kind of a sustainable way.

So let’s not sugar-coat it and pretend that it is anything other than it is. This is the system we have, and thus the country, and it is unlikely to get any better any time soon. If anything, it will only get worse, as the challenges we face become more intractable with time and neglect.

Of course, Zafar was a believer in the reforming ability of both the ‘army-backed interregnum government’ and the current one.  I, on the other hand, have never subscribed to any ‘suger-coated’ view about our politics.  In fact, I feared an Awami League landslide because I thought this is how things would end up. 

Perhaps not in exact detail, sure.  For example, I always thought Awami League would play politics with the war crimes trial.  And why not?  BNP benefitted from Jamaat’s vote bank, so why shouldn’t AL try to get political mileage out of tarring BNP with the razakar brush.  But I guess I still expected a bit of an actual trial, and not just politicking. 

And I didn’t actually expect the sheer personal venom in the way the government pursued its agenda of evicting Mrs Zia from her home and Dr Yunus from Grameen Bank.  Again, I expected that both the ‘house’ and the ‘usury’ issues would be played up to distract public attention from prices or electricity, but the sheer pettiness shown by the Prime Minister and her acolytes surprised naive me (and I guess Zafar too). 

But on the big picture, what has been happening was not (or should not have been) unexpected.  This is what I wrote in my very first UV post:

In the system devised with the 12th Amendment, we elected a parliament that chose the Prime Minister who had unbridled executive power for five years. We didn’t, and still don’t, have an effective local government. Parliamentary oversights need not have been enforced. If the Prime Minister’s party had absolute majority in the parliament (which was actually the case under all three governments), the opposition could be ignored altogether. The ruling party could pass any law as they saw fit, appoint anyone to any post as they saw fit, distribute relief materials as they saw fit, give out procurement tenders as they saw fit – they could control everything from Bangabhaban to your local cricket club for five years. The Prime Minister and whoever had her ears (or whomever she delegated her powers to) could behave like dictators. There was no ‘accountability moment’ save the election once every five years. Meanwhile, the opposition party had nothing to do for five years. Shut out of the political system altogether, they had every reason to be obscurantist and no reason to cooperate with the government.


The first democratic government of Begum Zia started out being tolerant, but spooked by a series of set back halfway through its term, they changed tack. The then opposition for its part saw nothing to gain from co-operating. Hardline actions by one side resulted in hardline actions by the other. The Hasina Wajed government realised that the opposition can be muzzled within the democratic set up and election results could be ‘engineered’. The second Begum Zia government, of course, turned these into an art form.

I think these paras read pretty well even now, except for the two sentences in italics.  The second Begum Zia government didn’t turn anything into an art form.  That credit belongs to the current prime minister.  And the current opposition was, until very recently, as co-operative as any in our history, and certainly much, much more than anything the current prime minister provided when she was in opposition.

No, things didn’t need to turn out the way they have.  

I am not a utopian idealist.  I understand the political reality of a country like Bangladesh.  I understand that party loyalists need to be appointed in key posts.  But that doesn’t mean incompetent people are hired.  Much of the governance failure could have been avoided with a better economic team, or a more capable home minister.  Of course, that wasn’t the case. 

To cover for mistakes, to change people’s attention from the prices and power failures or the law and order situation, the government has focussed on gimmicks.  The thing is, some trangressions can’t be covered up.  The only option is to delay the day of reckoning as much as possible.

Hence, the imperative to win the next election at any cost.  Hence the shenanigans with the constitution. 

We often hear, people don’t learn from the past.  I don’t agree.  People learn a lot.  The current prime minister has learnt a lot from the past caretaker governments.  She (and her predecessor) both learnt from the 2001 experience that you can’t always trust ‘your men’ if the said  men have some spine.  So BNP came up with Iajuddin.  But from 2007, the lesson has been that you can’t have a spineless president, because the men in uniform can get funny ideas. 

So the lesson the current prime minister has taken is that ‘if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself’.  All the caretaker government debate comes down to this: the prime minister will not resign before the election.  That’s the only way she can ensure that AL is re-elected. 

But she has learnt other lessons too, from 1996.  She learnt that a one-sided election will not be sustainable in Bangladesh. 

So, how do you get BNP to participate in an election where it knows it won’t win?

That’s the Prime Minister’s key political problem.

Divide and rule is the solution to most political problems, and this one is no different. 

How do you divide BNP?  The simplest way is to get Mrs Zia to retire from politics. 

How to do that?  Blackmail comes to mind. 

Here is the theory.  If Arafat or Tarique Rahman is found guilty of corruption or money laundering, and is fined a hefty amount, what will BNP do?  Allegedly, their health is not good enough to survive a prison sentence.  So can BNP take the chance of them serving out the jail sentence Mahmudur Rahman style (that deserves its own post)?  If not, then the deal that Mrs Zia won’t be able to refuse will involve a one way ticket out of HAzrat Shahjalal INternational Airport. 

If the BNP chief can be sent overseas, the rest of the plan will just fall in place by itself.  BNP will break up into five hardline and seven moderate factions (with Nazmul Huda running his own faction consisting of facebook friends of his daughters). 

I don’t know if this is history-forgiving stuff, but I don’t really see anything worthy of analysis in the government’s actions.  What it will do is pretty clear, as is why it is doing what is being done.  If you want to figure out how things will play out, it’s BNP where the action is.

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14 Responses

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  1. tacit said, on June 23, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Let me raise one question then: why not enact this two years later? Surely this whole kabuki, and the attendant cries of “BNP must go to Parliament” and “BNP must come to discussion” and “BNP must eat non-fat yogurt” (just me? ok) would have been much more pressing if it played out in the summer of 2013.

  2. Dhakashohor said, on June 24, 2011 at 1:55 am

    Wonderful read. But you forgot to tackle one very important question: who will be the first Anthony Weiner of Digital Bangladesh?

  3. jrahman said, on June 24, 2011 at 9:44 am

    If this happene in 2013, the government would have had only six months or so to break up BNP. Now it has a lot more time.

    DS, we won’t have any Weiner because our women are all pious and virtuous and won’t share such ungodly details, and our men are all virulent and erect, and won’t quit. And that goes for both parties.

  4. Udayan said, on June 24, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Isn’t it much harder to break BNP as time goes on (because current govt is becoming more unpopular by the day)?

    So, govt needs to do this as soon as possible?

    • jrahman said, on June 24, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      That’s what I think. If the municipal elections back in January are anything to go by, electorally BNP has already clawed back to where it was in before the 2001 election. See:

      • Udayan said, on June 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm

        In which case, they can’t successfully break BNP, right?

  5. tacit said, on June 24, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Well, this government has one thing that no previous government had: a truly compliant higher judiciary. All hyperbole aside, it is unprecedented, at least post-1990, for our higher judiciary to allow people, with no convictions to their names, to be locked up for more than two years. This is what has happened since January 2009, as the Appellate Division has continuously stayed and denied bail petitions allowed by the High Court.

    And now, Chief Justice Mojammel Hossain is visiting England and defending the constitutionality of the War Crimes Trial. In normal circumstances, a jurist would never opine on a matter that he may have to decide on someday.

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  7. dhakashohor said, on June 27, 2011 at 12:34 am

    Jokes about our virile politicians aside, I must say that the sentiment in the email does suffer a bit from the whole “ei jinisher dikey takaley onyo kono kichu dekhtey parben na” mentality. Why must focussing on the issue of domestic violence and the violence of domestic politics be mutually exclusive? That’s the only bone I have to pick with this piece.

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  10. Winners and losers in NCC « Mukti said, on October 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm

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