How soon is now?
It’s an iconic 1980s song, played in the stereo systems of many a nerdy college kid over the past decades. Along with Hanif Kureishi’s work, apprently it’s among the best commentary on the Thatcher era England. It was also one of the themes of this classic Aaron Spelling drama. And now, it seems to be a great commentary on Bangladeshi political scene. Reading the Economist’s recent editorial and news story on Bangladesh, I kept recalling Morrissey’s matter-of-fact statement: when you say it’s gonna happen “now”, well, when exactly do you mean? see I’ve already waited too long, and all my hope is gone.
The BNPwallahs love the two Economist pieces. Why not? It’s not usually the case that the London-based English snobs criticise anyone in such brusque manner. They blame Hasina Wajed personally for Bangladesh’s current problems. And by asking India to put a leash on her, they are implying what BNP has charged all along — that the Prime Minister is an Indian puppet.
Further, the magazine has achieved a rare feat, an interview with Khaleda Zia — the BNP chief is (in)famous for not talking to the journalists, particularly foreign ones. She is quoted directly, twice — the magazine’s policy is to not quote someone directly without an interview. And the BNP chief is portrayed to be in good spirit:
Pranab Mukherjee, India’s finance minister, called on Mrs Zia recently, inviting her back to Delhi. Mrs Zia chuckles that she will go after Delhi’s summer heat is past. She also calls the neighbour a “friend”, a possible hint of change in a party that often seeks popularity by bashing India.
Despite all this, however, the Economist doesn’t actually endorse BNP. Far from it. Its editorial says: The administration Mrs Zia headed from 2001 to 2006 was a brutal kleptocracy. The story has these choice words about BNP: The opposition, too, has a reputation for thuggery, corruption and intimidation, and does not bother much to hide it.
The message is pretty clear — AL is terrible, but BNP is even worse, if only there were someone else….
Sometime around 2004, with rising inflation, faltering electricity, political crises created by the 30 April ‘deadline’ and the 21 August attack, and the jihadi threat, even erstwhile BNP supporters started getting exasperated with the government. But there was a sense that things could be different if Tarique Rahman and his cronies were somehow brought into line, things would improve. From around that time, many in Jamaat started harbouring intentions of replacing BNP as the country’s major rightist party. This was when the Diganta media empire was conceived, and Motiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mujahid ramped up their media presence. Meanwhile, many of BNP’s upmarket supporters — you know, the Daily Star reading susheel class — started taking the third force idea seriously.
While BNP’s support base started eroding, a new generation was being actively cultivated by the Awami League. Obviously the cult of Mujib and the war crimes issue, linked with the rising jihadi threat, played a major role. But AL also benefited from strong anti-incumbency factors — after all, at the time of the 2008 election, AL was in power for only five years out of the previous 33. So, when 1/11 failed, AL reaped the political dividend.
But now that AL is failing, where does one turn to?
Rather, I am talking about the sense of “all the hope is gone” among the chattering classes (particularly among the 35-50 age group). These folks moved to the Awami column en masse when first BNP, then the army, failed. Now that AL is failing, are they moving back to BNP?
BNP is trying hard to win back these folks. It has very visibly rejected Mahmudur Rahman’s hardline approach on India. Less visibly, it has been trying to keep Jamaat at bay — other than a couple of statements last year that were later disowned, the party has avoided the war crimes trial issue. Instead, it has actually tried to break the Awami monopoly on the politics of 1971. Sensing the public mood, it has backed away from street violence. Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir has worked hard to rebuild the party machine that was badly damaged after 1/11. The party leadership has tried talking about policy issues — in a first in Bangladesh, BNP has been presenting an ‘alternative’ budget for a few years now. Clearly the party is trying to convince the doubters that it has learnt from its mistake, and that it’s an alternative government, not just a naysaying opposition.
But despite all these, is it winning back the not-so-young chattering classes? While the next generation of BNPwallahs are active in the opinionmaking world — this website or this op-ed are examples — where are the professionals and artists and entreprenuers who aren’t related to BNP leaders? While I saw/heard/read so many people talk about “things would improve if AL returns” back in the 2004-08 period, I am yet to see a similar trend towards BNP.
Perhaps they are put off by the dynastic logic, particularly given the disdain the chattering classes have for Tarique Rahman? And where is Tarique anyhow? He certainly isn’t talking to the Economist. Or perhaps the Jamaat alliance still annoys a lot of people. In my interactions, razakar/jihadi link is a major anathema to most ‘junior susheels’ who would otherwise tolerate Tarique and co (particularly given AL’s own dynasty issues). Perhaps they are put off by the fact that BNP is a party of old men.
Or perhaps I am simply not talking to the right people.
But consider this. Nearly a year ago, after Tarek Masud, Mishuk Munier and others were killed in a car accident, a grief stricken and passionate Mrs Munier blamed both parties for destroying the country. And a year on, has that ‘pox on both houses’ mentality changed? Over five years out of power, and BNP is still blamed in the same breath with AL — do your own facebook test if you don’t find me convincing.
I get the sense that the dominant perception is what the Economist articles portray — AL bad, BNP worse, if only…
The shame of it all is how little heed the squabbling politicians pay to what should matter more: keeping the economy growing and reducing poverty further. In the face of electricity shortages, blocked roads and land disputes, the Bangladesh economy has been doing remarkably well. Its clothing industry has the potential to generate over $40 billion a year from exports, according to McKinsey, a consultancy.
Indicators of well-being have been improving. If annual economic growth of over 6% is sustained, a country that not long ago was a byword for poverty can contemplate reaching middle-income levels in barely a decade. But that needs single-minded focus by the government on dealing with the country’s economic bottlenecks and social needs.
This wistful despair inevitably leads to the search for the mythical third force. But no one spells out whence this force will come. Army? Our own Tahrir Square? Never mind the unintended consequences of these ‘revolutions’ — popular or military, as the Egyptian elections and the demise of the American OWS movement make abundantly clear, it’s not easy to do away with old fashioned politics. There is no Zulfi Bhutto or Morarji Desai to resign from the government and take on Hasina.
And the prime minister knows that she need not worry about a leadership challenge. She knows that she still has the support of 40% of voters. As long as there are people looking for a third force, she believes she can ride out the storm. As long as the chattering classes are not solidly behind the opposition, the Amnesty reports will not be accurate, and we will be wasting time on dubious Indian media claims.
From anonymous bloggers to esteemed British magazines, it’s common to portray Hasina Wajed as ‘paranoid and vindictive’ — that is, mentally not-quite-there. But there is madness in her methods. The prime minister is playing a very high stake game, where the winner will take all, not just in next election, but into the next decade. Counselled by Motia Chowdhury, a veteran communist strategist, she believes that BNP will not survive the departure of its chief. And even if the BNP chief hangs on to leadership, establishment antagonism will keep it on the defense. And even if that’s not enough for rising anti-incumbency?
That’s where the logic of election rigging comes in. And the rigging will not be anything like what was experienced in the one-sided 1996 election, let alone Ershad-style farce.
In 2001 election, AL recieved 22.3 million votes, against BNP’s 23.1 million. Those numbers might provide very important clues on how the coming election will play out. Let’s assume that AL’s vote has gone back to its 2001 level — 22 million. What if BNP’s votes can be kept to something like 20 million, with various alliance partners getting another 3 million or so votes.
If 45 million people vote, it will be a low turnout election by recent standards. But it will still mean about 50% turnout — in the Egyptian presidential election, only about 45% voted.
See the result of despair?
Here is how I see things playing out. The prime minister knows she can count on the millions of AL voters, in every moholla and para of every city, town and village. If BNP leadership can be neutralised, that will be sufficient for a re-election. If not, in the lead up to the election, in 30,000 centres around the country, many anti-AL voters could be disenfranchised through targeted violence and intimidation. Essentially, what many Hindu voters in southern Bangladesh experienced in previous elections could happen to the anti-AL voters across the country.
And all these could happen days and weeks before the actual election day, with the state machinery playing an active role in it. Indeed, the election day could well be very peaceful, even festive.
I don’t have a crystal ball. And I am usually wrong about these things. But for what it’s worth, this seems to me the PM’s game plan — high stake, yes; ruthless, you betcha; petty, no, nothing personal, just business; and madness, hell no, calculated, brutal, and given the premise of the chattering class’s antipathy towards BNP, quite rational.
So, dear reader, if you are one of those people who think “AL/BNP both bad, time for something new”, think hard again, think very hard.
I know I will be over the coming year.