Present is like Rome — all roads lead to it. Wherever we find ourselves today, we look back and think of many reasons that brought us here. A year ago today, we ended the ‘compact of co-existence that was forged between the AL and BNP at the end of the 1980s, and that has provided the pattern for the past quarter century of political life’. I am quoting Zafar Sobhan:
As far as the AL is now concerned, the BNP is a party founded in the cantonment, by the man they hold responsible for the massacre of August 15, by the party that rehabilitated the war criminals, and is nothing more than a rag-tag assembly of opportunists, criminals, and killers that created political space for itself at the point of a gun. It represents only those Bangladeshis who are enemies of the state. There can be no compromise with such a party, no accommodation, no peaceful co-existence. After the grenade attack of August 21, 2004, the AL has come to the conclusion: It is us or them. There is no space in Bangladesh for both the AL and the BNP. The AL plan for the coming year is therefore straightforward: Continue to squeeze the life out of the BNP.
Maybe the partisan minds made this inevitable. Maybe not. Maybe the institutional set ups of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh made such an outcome quite likely, with events and contingencies doing the rest. And maybe what actually happened a year ago today was the beginning of the end of politics in that republic. Maybe politics as we have known it simply won’t do. Maybe the only way out of this is to begin anew. Let me quote Zafar from February 2014:
The simple truth is that the current system we have in place is incapable of delivering to us a workable political solution that is competent to address the needs of the country.
Our single constituency, first-past-the-post electoral system, that delivers all power to the winner, fails to keep any kind of a check and balance on our elected representatives, and cannot ensure any kind of separation of powers so that independent branches of the government can actually operate independently, has reached the limits of what it can deliver.
Let’s take this one step at a time.
The most important institutional factor is the extremely centralised nature of our republic.
Our modern political history began as a province in British India, which became a province of Pakistan —in both cases, we were conceived as a federating unit of a larger state. When we became independent, we inherited the provincial state machinery and turned it into a sovereign unitary republic.
It makes good sense for us to be unitary state. Federations work best when the federating states are ethnically/culturally/geographically/economically heterogenous. Texas is a very different place compared with New York. So it makes sense for Texas and New York to have separate health departments. I am not sure one can make the same argument between Chittagong and Khulna. So, turning Bangladesh into a federation of several states will mean multiplicating a lot of government machinery without much benefit.
But this doesn’t mean we need to be as centralised as we are now. Interestingly, the three pre-1990 govts, in their ‘autocratic’ ways, did experiment with devolving power out of Dhaka. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in his Bakshal, envisaged district and city mayors and governors who would have power over local law and order and infrastructure — by way of example, a Police Super would be sent from Dhaka for a for a fixed term, but would be answerable to the local mayor or governor. Ziaur Rahman envisaged gram shorkar that would be responsible for local dispute resolution (salish), and HM Ershad initiated the upazillas where the chairman is responsible for local service delivery.
All three regimes wanted to devolve power because they feared the power of Dhaka-centric elites, and wanted to use the local governments to boost their own patronage network. Post-1990, MPs of both main parties have strongly and unanimously opposed these local govts, because they didn’t want their powers diluted. As a result, all these local government officials have absolutely no practical power at all.
And the MPs opposed any local government power because local affairs was the only space where they could exercise any power. In fact, it’s even stronger than that —our political culture is such that our politicians are judged on their success or failure at the local level.
Given our unitary state, there is no need to have an upper house of the parliament. In a unicameral legislature, the opposition members have very limited legislative power. Given the Article 70 of the constitution that prohibits floor-crossing, even government MPs have very limited legislative power. Now, the Article 70 has a historical background. In the 1930s to 1950s, at the provincial politics of Bengal and Pakistan, legislators used to frequently trade votes for money/favours. Mujib saw this first hand. As a young leader, he was asked to guard a veteran legislator —Mujib had to stand guard outside the old guy’s toilet! So he was adamant that we needed an article against floor crossing. Hence the Article 70.
While the Article might stop our MPs from speaking their mind, but they can still act as legislators. They can initiate bills. They can participate in the committee process. They can act as reviewers of the bureacracy, and vet key appointments. The opposition MPs can have a strong role to play in these review/vetting processes. But what incentive does any MP have to do any of these?
Neither party leaders actually want the legislators to show independence or initiative. They would prefer that laws are written by bureaucrats of law ministry on the instruction of the prime minister (or her office), and the parliament would just rubber stamp the legislations. They don’t want any reviews or vetting of any exective decision or appointment. They don’t want these when in power, and for reasons explained below, they don’t want it when in opposition. So, the typical MP gets no credit from the leadership for being a good legislator.
What’s an MP to do then but to to turn to local affairs? The MP becomes, for five years, the elected nawab of the area. He (and sometimes she) is the head of local school committee and masjid council and sport club and cultural society —and those are the formal roles. Informally, he/she decides on how the local government machinery is run, and what projects are implemented and by whom. The party chiefs leave the MPs alone in these local affairs. Basically, chiefs want 151 persons who can get elected and remain elected (and as it happens, political scions have good chance of getting and staying elected). These people are either from the family of some dead leader, or they are local Robinhood/Don figure, or they are rich businessmen who buy the nomination
If you are a good MP, you look after your area — elaka’r unnoyon, elaka-bashi’r chakri-bebsha’r shujog these are what you’re judged by. If you’re an MP, why would you want competition from the upazilla chairman or city council mayor? So you oppose local government empowerment. And less powerful the local bodies are, the more the electorate judge you for your local performance. This creates a feedback loop —MPs stop being national legislators and become local politicians. And in Dhaka, without a functional legislature, the executive’s power is centralised.
Over time, you end up in a situation where people who get elected can’t run ministries or drive policy, and people who can do these essential functions of governance can’t get elected. So both leaders tend to appoint their cronies as ministers, and then run the country through unelected advisors. In some cases, ministers and advisors clash and there is paralysis. In other cases, ministers engage in corruption while advisors make policy.
This dysfunction is compounded by the electoral system and historical factors.
We inherited the first-past-the-post (FPP) system from the British, which magnifies the swings. In 2001, BNP and allies won a two-thirds majority. In 2008, the same alliance got around a tenth of the seats. Had a proper election taken place in 2013-14, BNP might well have ended up with a bigger victory than it had in 2001. But AL’s vote share actually increased between 1996 and 2001, while BNP vote share was higher in 2008 than 1991. Even as of October 2013, polls were implying that the 40-40 politics still held.
Under FPP, elections are not a contest for votes, but for the seats. You want to win 151 seats, so you nominate people who can win and retain these seats. You don’t want legislators. You want people who can be good nawabs of these 300 seats. Even in opposition, as the leader you don’t want people with a tough legal mind who can pursue government corruption, or a policy wonk who can shape ideas. You’re better off with someone who can organise the street politicis and election campaign in the districts.
On top of this, let’s pause to remember the two leaders’ personal experiences. Both came into politics after family tragedies. And both saw people close to the dead leaders joining the new order. And as late as 2007, both were betrayed by ambitious partymen. Is it any surprise that the leaders want to centralise power?
The institutions we created/inherited, with the historical factors, led to the politics of the past decades. After 1991, BNP realised that it had power over so many things, while AL realised that it had power over absolutely nothing. AL immediately set on winning power. It went with what it knew well —andolon. BNP panicked and rigged a by-election in Magura, giving AL a casus beli. After 1996, BNP figured that andolon would not do, so they introduced the alliance concept. After 2001, AL did andolon, but also formed a bigger alliance and introduced behind-the-scene moves with the establishment. Meanwhile, each successive government took centralisation to a new level.
And all this, because losing is not an option in a winner take all world.
At least in that world, the existence of two parties created some form of balance of force. That balance is now gone. BNP is not able to dislodge the government. Calling for a free and fair election is a pointless exercise because the government isn’t interested in offering one, and the establishment isn’t convinced switching the masters will do anyone any good. As a result, politics as we have come to know is finished.
Only way out of this is to begin anew. Forget the election. The election is a mean to an end. What’s the end? The end has to be a political gamechanger. It will have to be something that resets politics. It will have to be something that restarts politics.
Restarting politics is what Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did with his Six Points. He didn’t demand the end of Ayub regime and restoration of the status quo ante. No one in the mid-1960s wanted to go back the 1950s. Mujib’s Six Points called for an end-of-Pakistan-as-it-existed. That’s the kind of stuff needed now.
The future belongs to those who come up with a vision like that.