Back to the future
I could also have named this post ‘An anniversary not noted’, but decided not to because I haven’t checked every newspaper headline or every talk show to air in the past day. I can, however, reasonably confidently say that the two largest newspapers, the largest news site and a few major talk shows had nothing on the fifth anniversary of 1/11. Nor was there any message on facebook or major blogs. Everyone has been talking about Ghulam Azam (hell, even UV has a post on that!). Maybe it is a big deal — though I don’t see exactly why it is. And maybe I am one of those guys obsessed with the last crisis and therefore miss the next big thing. But I do find it strange that no one has anything to say about 1/11 even though we seem to be on course to repeat the crisis that preceded it.
Ah well, instead of asking ‘why no one is talking about 1/11’, over the fold I am going to note my thoughts (as they stand currently — incomplete, tentative, open to revisison) on what led to 1/11, and what might still happen.
The golden rule of Bangladeshi politics is that thou must not lose power. If you lose, bad things happen. Not only do you have no perks of the office, you lose all sources of income — legitimate or otherwise, you lose your home, and sometimes you lose your life. So, the incumbent does everything it can to cling on to power. They try to rig the election outright. If that doesn’t work — and it is hard to do if you are unpopular — they want to make sure that the opposition doesn’t participate. If one-sided elections don’t work — and they didn’t in Feb 1996 — they want to make sure that the opposition is handicapped as much as possible. They want to pack the Election Commission with hacks, rig the voting list, or introduce EVMs, or keep the mobile networks switched off, or perform any other trick that might give them an edge.
This was true in late 2006. I think this will still be true in late 2013. Forget about the EVM or partisan EC. The Prime Minister will not step down from the office before the election. She will campaign with the full might of the state — if nothing else, this will tilt the field in her favour.
Of course, the opposition is aware of all this. But what can they do?
Well, there is another rule in Deshi politics — the incumbent always loses. No government in our history has remained popular enough to win a re-election after five years in power (yes, I am aware that Sattar won a handsome victory after Zia’s death, but the BNP government was less than three years old). It’s hard to remain popular if you are in charge of tens of millions of poor people packed in 150,000 square km of land. The opposition should win a free and fair election quite comfortably. If there is a free and fair election, simply showing up would be enough. They didn’t do polls back in 2006, but I think even the die hard BNPwallahs would admit that a free election in late 2006 would have brought AL to power. And as a number of local government elections and opinion polls confirm, BNP is on course to win a victory if there is an election held now.
But how do you get a free and fair election if the incumbent is set to rig?
You neutralise the instruments of rigging. You put up a credible show of power to drive fear into the hearts of the school teachers and junior government officers and policemen who are supposed to rig the election for the other side. You hold the businessmen to ransom by shutting down the ports and highways. You convince the senior bureaucracy and the army that it’s time to ditch the other side. And you convince the opinionmakers — the editors and think tankwallahs and talking heads (and bloggers) — that they really ought to support your cause.
How do you do this? You have an andolon. The tactics of the andolon changes. In the 1990s, there was lagatar hartal. In the 2000s, there was logi-boitha. Now there are road marches. But the point remains the same. Massive show of force that neutralises the instruments of rigging. And this is best achieved if you can have a ‘victory’ before the election.
The biggest opposition win came in 1996 — AL forced the then PM’s resignation, wins don’t come any bigger than that. Even the most hardcore anti-AL-er election officer would think three times before trying to do anything dodgy ater a win like that. In 2001, there wasn’t any big, visible victory for BNP before the election. But the caretaker administration of Latifur Rahman, with the support of President Shahabuddin, the Election Commission (packed with AL-ers) and the army (headed by Lt Gen Harun — very much associated with AL in his retired capacity), sent out a strong signal to the local administration within hours of taking office. Result was that, if anything, pre-election violence and intimidation hurt AL.
Come 2006, the fear of losing was higher for BNP than any of its predecessors. Therefore, the mechanisms for rigging were more elaborate. And consequently, AL needed a bigger victory than ever before. What could be a bigger victory than 1996? Prevent the election from taking place, of course.
AL was never going to participate on 22 January 2007. This is not to say the election on that day would have been fair. BNP didn’t want a free and fair election then for the same reason that no incumbent wants a free election in Bangladesh. Had AL participated, could they have prevented BNP from stealing the election? Perhaps. Maybe the popular revulsion against BNP was so strong that AL would have won even a heavily rigged election. But AL didn’t want to take that risk. It wanted a bigger victory than 1996.
So AL kept changing its demands — KM Hassan can’t be the CA, Aziz must leave the EC, all the other Commissioners must go, bureaucrats in EC must go, Ershad must be allowed to run. When they submitted their nomination papers in late 2006, Grand Alliance partners and LDP and Islamists were given generous concessions — hell, even Nurul Islam Nahid didn’t get the nod, which went to some guy from Khilafat Majlish. This was also the time of the infamous Fatwa Pact. In the most brilliant political maneuvering of our time, Hasina gave everyone what they wanted for only one condition — if she doesn’t participate, no one participates. And no one did.
BNP for its part thought that it could pull off a 1996-style election — it had completely purged any would MK Alamgirs from the bureaucracy by then. So it wasn’t too concerned about AL not participating. But BNP didn’t realise that not only had it lost popular support (everyone loses that), it had also lost elite support. And the elite had had enough by the first week of January — hence 1/11. Whether Masud dyed his hair thinking about his in-laws or Moeen scratched his bald head worrying about the implications for UN gigs — these are trivialities. Army, and the civil bureaucracy, and the NGO sector, and the corporates, and the media, and the foreigners (except for the last, there is a huge overlap among all of them), simply didn’t want to see BNP — specifically Tarique Rahman — back, That’s the main story, everything else is just details.
Of course, having taken power, the generals and their backers didn’t want to give it up. After all, had the coup failed, Moeen and Masud would be in big trouble. Having taken the risk, they wanted the reward. What happened between 1/11 and the election that brought AL to power was really a negotiation about who gets what. And happily, Sheikh Hasina snookered everyone else and won it all.
And now, AL fears losing even more than what BNP did in 2006. And Hasina is aware of the elite shenanigans. And Khaleda Zia has to have a bigger victory than anything Hasina had.
How does this end?
I don’t know. But just like Godfather II or Dark Knight or Episode IV, I suspect 2/11 will be bigger, badder, louder than the last time.
Better get your jhal muri and gorom cha for the show.