Learning from history

Posted in democracy, elections, history, politics, South Asia, Uncategorized by jrahman on July 5, 2015

Forty years ago last week, things were happening in New Delhi that are more often seen in Islamabad and Dhaka.  India came under a State of Internal Emergency on 25 June 1975.  Indira is India — the cult of personality around Prime Minister Indira Gandhi preceded the Emergency, but with wholesale detention of opposition politicians on spurious charges, draconian censorship, executive decrees and ordinances bypassing the legislature and subordinating the judiciary, Indian experiment in democracy seemed to be over.

Then, in early 1977, Mrs Gandhi called fresh elections, which were held on the announced date, in a free and fair manner, and her party was thrown out of office by the voters, she herself losing her seat.  Accepting the verdict, she stepped down.  Indian experiment in democracy returned, to be continued to our time.

The Emergency plays a climactic role in Salman Rushdie’s much-celebrated novel Midnight’s Children.  But it’s Shashi Tharoor’s treatment in The Great Indian Novel that I find more nuanced.  Tharoor’s rendition of the Mahabharata has the general election of 1977, following the Emergency, as the modern-day Battle of Kurukshetra.  Duryodhana, the leader of the ‘baddie’ Kaurava clan, is recast as Mrs Gandhi, while the ‘goodie’ Pandava brothers are: Morarji Desai (who replaced Mrs Gandhi as the prime minister) as the virtuous Yudhishtir; the Indian army as the valiant Bhim; media as the heroic Arjuna; and the civil and foreign services as the Nakul-Sahadeva twins.  As the epic battle isn’t simply ‘good trumps over evil’ in the Epic, so it is in the novel, which ends with a place of honour accorded to Priya Duryodhoni / Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi in the ‘court of history’.

For her manifold follies, history judges Mrs Gandhi as a democrat, because she held a free and fair election, accepted the people’s verdict, and returned to power through another free and fair election few years later.  As it happens, during much of those turbulent months in the mid-to-late 1970s, the current Bangladeshi Prime Minister lived in New Delhi, and saw the Indian experiment in authoritarianism from very close quarters.  Might she have drawn any lessons from it?

Mrs Hasina Wajed, like Mrs Gandhi, assumed leadership of the party to fend of factionalism.  Of course, the Indian leader assumed a party that was still ensconced in power, whereas in Bangladesh the party was nearly decimated through internecine violence.  By the same token, Mrs Wajed had a tragedy to rally the party behind, something that Mrs Gandhi neither had nor needed.  Both, however, shared one thing — party elders who questioned, if not challenged, their leadership.

When Jawaharlal Nehru and then Lalbahadur Shastri died, Morarji Desai was a frontrunner for the leadership of India’s Congress party.  But the party’s regional bosses didn’t like Desai, and they engineered Mrs Gandhi’s ascension to power.  Eventually the regional bosses fell out with her, and with their support, Desai emerged as the main opposition figure.

In the post-Bakshal Bangladesh, Abdul Malek Ukil and Kamal Hossain emerged as the leaders of the Awami League, but powerful younger leaders like Tofail Ahmed and Abdur Razzaque challenged their authority.  Kamal Hossain brought Mrs Wajed back from exile to assume the party leadership.  She consolidated her grip on the party over years, decades really.  By the beginning of her second stint in power, the AL chief had become powerful than ever.  As I noted six years agoThe old guards — Tofail Ahmed, Abdur Razzaque etc — who posed significant counterweights against Hasina’s leadership until 1/11 are now sidelined.

Sidelined, but kept within the fold.  Whereas Abdur Razzaque, Kamal Hossain and Kader Siddiqui left (and in case of Razzaque, returned) the party in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s interesting that in more recent years Awami League has not seen any significant defection.  Anybody thinking of, say, Tofail Ahmed becoming the Bangladeshi Desai would be thoroughly disappointed — his fate is firmly tied to that of his prime minister.

How to keep the party united, that probably is a lesson Mrs Wajed learnt from Mrs Gandhi.  And I’d say our personality cult is more potent than theirs.

Perhaps a more importantly lesson our prime minister learnt from her time in India is that it is a bad idea to allow a free election, even if the opposition appears to be thoroughly subdued.  After all, Mrs Gandhi didn’t need to call an election in early 1977.  She called the election because she thought that she would win.  There is no reason for our prime minister to take that route.  One hears all sorts of speculation about a mid-term election next winter.  It would be useful to keep the Indian experience in mind when encountering such speculation.

Now, Desai’s is not the only way the current Bangladeshi regime can be brought down from within the fold.  There is, indeed, an older subcontinental precedence.  A decade before the Indian Emergency and our bloody August, Pakistani Foreign Minister ZA Bhutto was probably drawing inspiration from James Bond in launching Operations Gibralter and Grand Slam.  The 1965 India-Pakistan war was the beginning of the end for the Ayub regime.  Mercurial Mr Bhutto, who was a protege of the Pakistani dictator, broke with the regime the following year, and emerged as the darling of both disaffected elite and the masses a few years later.

The thing is, I don’t see any Bhutto-like figure in today’s Bangladesh either.















2 Responses

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  1. tacit said, on July 7, 2015 at 2:34 am

    Yup – Bangladeshi politics has basically come down to the point when the party that’s guaranteed to lose elections and give up power has to go ahead and hold the elections that will facilitate that process. It’s a combination of seppuku and Catch 22.

  2. BoroBhai said, on July 7, 2015 at 3:15 am

    To what extent are the problems with competitiveness, infrastructure and lack of development in Bangladesh attributable to it’s shambolic democracy, and to what extent is it simply our general incompetence?

    What I mean is, we have seen some authoritarian governments in China and South Korea do pretty well economically, despite the obvious problems that being unelected [and presumably unaccountable] bring up. Why has Bangladesh done so poorly by comparison? I’m assuming that having such an illiterate population is part of it [both Korea’s and China’s were much higher at similar levels of per capita income]. Still, I’d like to investigate the reasons for our sheer level of ineptitude for getting basic things right, from schooling to electricity to waste management.

    I know a basic excuse is to blame our population density for all our ills. But this strikes me as phony. Take waste management. Yes, higher population means more waste. But it also means more cheap labour to clean it up. Parts of eastern China have a population density that is close to that of Bangladesh’s, but I don’t think they have the mess that we do.

    Obviously Bangladesh doesn’t have the strong state that those other places do. But have we even beaten weaker states like India, when you adjust for things like per capita income and population? Not if you compare Olympic medals. Or cricket.

    Sorry, I think it’s time we did better, that’s all.

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