Breaking the curse

Posted in army, democracy, politics by jrahman on September 23, 2012

We’re talking about a South Asian country where the government is under pressure from several corruption scandals and not-so-good economic news.  The ruling party led the country’s independence, and supposedly stands for secularism and pluralist democracy.  In reality, the party is a dynastic fiefdom of the country’s founding leader, and once the current matriarch passes, the future looks uncertain for the dynasty.  The opposition is no better.  It supposedly reflects a more authentic nationalism than the one espoused by the ruling party, but in reality it has often fueled communal bigotry and violence.  It used to attract professionals and businessmen a generation ago, but not any more.  The country has a strong tradition of community and grass root activism and media tradition.  Dissatisfied with both the main parties, these civil society groups are clamouring for a third force.  Meanwhile, violent extremism that was once thought effectively suppressed may be biding time in remote rural areas.

I could be talking about either Bangladesh or India.  Everything in the above paragraph describes both countries.  But there is one crucial difference.  When people talk about the third force in India, they mean a coalition of parties that will reject both Congress and the BJP.  Any potential third force in India will be based on electoral politics.  In Bangladesh, the most plausible third force, on the other hand, is a military coup.

As I argued here, our history has made us vulnerable to military interventions in politics, right from the beginning of the country.  As we get close the next general election, there will be a lot of talk of yet another coup of some form.  Is there no end to this cycle?

Ziaur Rahman took one approach to breaking the cycle.  He believed that his transformation into a civilian politician would gradually establish a political culture that would avoid the sort of crises that could lead to coups.  He also believed that his own military background, coupled with more resources for the army, would dissuade any potential coupmaker.  Whatever one thinks of his politics, it’s self-evident that Zia was a failure when it comes to demilitarisation.  Firstly, Zia was killed in a failed coup — not the first one attempted against his regime.  More importantly, his very success as a politician has resulted in ambitious generals attempting to replicate his playbook once every decade.

Zia’s successor as the army chief turned military strongman turned civilian politician was of course HM Ershad.  His insidious legacy notwithstanding, Ershad did tame the army.  He faced no coup threat, and the only time the army disobeyed him was when he asked it to put down a student led urban uprising.  That uprising ended his regime.  It seems that the Bangladesh army would rather accept civilian leadership than use large scale violence against civilians.

And that makes sense.  The army rank and file is drawn from the same socioeconomic class whence the university students come from.  The captain or lieutenant in charge of firing on the demonstrations would quite likely have a cousin in his target.  Since the Ershad regime had no ideological foundation that the army was motivated to defend, it was always vulnerable to popular uprising.

In August 2007, a similar event played out (albeit in a much smaller scale), dooming Moeen U Ahmed’s political ambitions (of course, Moeen’s ambitions and abilities were dwarfed by those of Ershad, let alone Zia).

This gives us another way to demilitarise — through protests and uprisings.  The thing is, history suggests that successful uprisings are rare, and even the seemingly successful ones carry with them unintended consequences.  And in Bangladeshi context, protests may lead to generals’ downfall, but they don’t seem to stop other generals’ rise.

So where does that leave us?

Here is how Taluqder Maniruzzaman concluded his Bangladesh revolution and its aftermath in 1980.

Zia has gone through an almost Darwinian process of selection through the war with Pakistan and coups in Bangladesh. He has never denigrated politicians as a class – which is itself typical of the present day military rulers of many third-world countries. On the contrary, he has shown adroit political skills in bringing together diverse political groups and accumulating political power though coalition-building.  However, Zia will have to work within the overall political milieu in Bangladesh.  For the long-run development of viable civilian institutions, the other political leaders of Bangladesh would also have to practise self-restraint, conduct themselves according to the rules framed for political participation and forsake their penchant for “winner take-all” games.

Zia is long gone.  But those ‘other political leaders’ (and their successors) are still around, still playing those winner-take-all games.  Until they stop their games, the curse of the majors will not be broken.

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