ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53

Anxious times for B’desh: Will it go the Pakistan way?

Bangladesh is an exercise in politics. It proves the thesis that parties are born, not founded. Situations or circumstances throw them up or create an environment where they come up. They are not overnight phenomena. It takes them time to germinate and sprout. The reason why the one imposed from above does not take root is the desperation it reflects to assume power.

The party does not go through the sweat and toil which the grassroots work demands. The fault does not lie with the party which tries to circumvent the age-old process but with those who sow the seed and want to see it grow into a plant the following day.

The intelligentsia in Bangladesh had an opportunity to provide the country with an alternative when the two main parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), were exposed through the scams they had blessed during their regimes to benefit their relations and themselves. Both leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia - the minus two - were on the defensive and did not know how to save themselves from the taint of corruption and graft that a special force had dug out.

But the intelligentsia, used to calculations on paper and discussions in drawing rooms, wanted to work out the option to the last detail. Changes seldom come that way. Leaders have to jump into the arena to soil their hands and meet people in the countryside to convince them that their new guides would be with them through thick and thin.

Apparently, they dithered. They were too cautious, too timid and did not look like a determined lot. But they have done a disservice to the nation because they gave it a false hope of a new party which would release the country from the maelstrom of corruption in which it had got stuck.

In fact, the failure of these intellectuals has made another go at the third alternative more difficult. The nation which was looking for a clean start waited and waited when the intelligentsia thought and rethought over the prospect of their success. Such moments come rarely in a country's history. But when they come they have to be grabbed with both hands. Some have to jump quickly, even unthinkingly, to fill the vacuum that the exposure of entrenched parties creates.

Still what has come out in public in Bangladesh shows how successive governments looted the country and how even the topmost were not above board. They have been found playing ducks and drakes with public funds. Scams runs into hundreds of crores, money going directly to pockets of those in whom people had reposed their faith.

Perhaps, the military which backed the Chief Adviser through the imposition of the emergency since January last year, too, indulged in much wishful thinking. Perhaps it expected the smell of corruption to be so nauseating that the rank and file of the Awami League and the BNP would revolt against the leaders.

True, people are horrified over the disclosures, but see no option in a society where corruption has become a way of life. Also they find the Bangladeshi leaders small players compared to the ones in Pakistan. And when they can come back and reoccupy the centre stage, why not Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khalida Zia? This thinking is more due to resignation than their love for these leaders. They feel they are stuck with them when nothing viable is on the scene. Religious leaders fulfill their need of sorts. But some of them have also been exposed. Therefore, the nation finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. In any case, they do not want the military control to continue. They are liberal and democratic by nature. They do not want to go the Pakistan way where the military has come to acquire a say in governance.

No doubt, the weakness of institutions in Bangladesh is responsible for the mess. Both the Awami league and the BNP have used them for their purpose and have left them in a shape where their independence raises questions. Still they have life and can regain their vigour if left alone. The Election Commission is an example. It has updated the electoral rolls showing the type of independence which has come to be recognised.

Perhaps the military, even though behind the scenes, has over stayed. It should have left quickly after completing the initial cleansing. But then once the probe started it exposed more and more dirt. The military could not have left things halfway. But the contrary is also true. The longer the military takes time to quit, the greater will be the doubt about its intention.

Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed has done well to dispel doubts about the promise that election will be held in the third week of December. He has also given broad hints that parts of emergency rule would be suspended or relaxed to let political parties take part in electioneering and create a proper context for the polls. Ahmed has stressed that the political parties must not relapse into politics tainted by strikes, blockades or violent street protests. All the advice he has given is relevant. But after the polls, the scene becomes different. I remember the elections during the emergency in India in 1977. Indira Gandhi only relaxed the emergency. But she was hardly in the picture when the opposition swept the polls. Once political parties come to power, they set their own agenda. Ahmed can only hope that political parties or, for that matter, their leaders have learnt the lesson.

Bangladesh's chief of army staff is sagacious enough to realise that there is no halfway in democracy. He has said from day one that they have no intention to stay on and that the forces will go back to the barracks once they have done "the job."

One hopes that Bangladesh does not go through the drama enacted in Pakistan. British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury said before going back to London that Britain will never support military intervention or martial law in Bangladesh. Now the US ambassador at Dhaka has warned that Bangladesh should not go the Pakistan way. I do not know whether the military withdrew completely when General Ershad was thrown out. It has remained "active" and "inactive" at times. The outcome at the polls may well determine the role the military adopts. These are anxious times for Bangladesh.

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