Bangladesh’s Political Insanity?

In recent days, the Economist of the U.K. seems to have taken more than a casual interest about the sad state of politics inside Bangladesh, which has been a nasty partisan one with an illiberal democracy for the last two decades. While such an interest may be a boon to stir a healthy debate about the health of a failing democracy, I was not too happy with the partisan tone of the analyst who wrote on August 13 under the pseudonym Banyan. It is absurd to take such pieces seriously when we even don’t know who has written the piece.

The politics in Bangladesh has been abused by those in power with a winner-takes-all attitude. This trend was neither started by the ruling Awami League when in 2008 it swept to power in a landslide, nor will it probably end with its fall. The ruling party never learns how to compromise and build consensus across the aisle on the parliament floor. It carries out partisan policies and takes draconian measures, all aimed at marginalizing its opposition, hoping that such would ensure its victory in the next election, only to find that they are rejected by its electorate. This is the most important lesson which the leaders of Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), often accused of entertaining dynastic ideas, have foolishly tried to be oblivious of. There is a name for such an attitude. I call it insanity!

True to Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s remark more than half a century ago that “What Bengal (comprising of today’s Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India) thinks today, India thinks tomorrow,” the Bangladeshi people are probably the most politically conscious of all the people living in South Asia. They have never made a mistake when they went to the polls to disrobe a political party while replacing it by another. They were not wrong when they voted for the Jukto Front in 1954 and the Awami League in 1970 as part of what was once East Pakistan. Minus the military period of 1975-91, nor were they wrong in any election held ever since December 16 of 1971, when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation.  They were not wrong when in 1946 they overwhelmingly voted for Pakistan in what was then British India. There were not wrong either in December of 2008 when they voted for the coalition led by Mrs Hasina Wazed of the Awami League.

Unfortunately, this piece of essential history, that has defined much of the Bangladeshi character, its sense of intellectual superiority and political correctness, is often forgotten by the new leaders that came to power since 1975.

If today’s leaders of major political parties had respected their electorate and learned that bitter lesson that Bangladeshi people don’t like the aspiring Pharaohs, Nawabs and princes, the arrogant snobs and the extremist zealots, the thugs and robbers that spoil and steal their wealth, we would have been spared of this insanity and it could have been a big plus for the failing health of democracy in Bangladesh. If they had learned that ‘the politics of Bengal is in reality the economics of Bengal’, they probably would have cared more for improving the economy rather than coming up with chauvinistic political agendas and narratives that have brought nothing good but harmed the economy of the country through mindless strikes and counter-strikes.

And probably, there has never been a better time in the last two decades to changing this paradigm than after the election of December 2008, dubbed my most outside experts as the fairest poll in the country’s four-decade history. There was that wave of national optimism that the newly sworn Prime Minister would use her party’s popularity to strengthen democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, putting an end to a vicious cycle of nasty politics between the Awami League and its major rival, the BNP. But that hope seems to be scuttled by allegations that she had used the huge mandate for partisan advantage. Her opponents say that she has been more interested in sanctifying her late father’s (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — who was the founder of the country) image and solidifying her party’s position than real changes that are necessary to either change Bangladesh from an illiberal democracy to a liberal democracy or improve her economy from its 7 percent GDP growth rate to a healthier double digit one.

There is no denying that power is abused in every illiberal democracy, let alone autocratic, anti-people regimes of our planet. It is this abuse at the top which leads to unfathomable corruption and crime spreading like a virus in every public sector. And, in this regard, Bangladesh has plenty of examples with filthy rich politicians, their beneficiaries and benefactors. She has her share of ‘untouchable’ ‘princes’, a few ‘disposable’ godfathers, and many sycophants. Thus, when the erstwhile military-controlled Caretaker Government came into power in 2007, putting some of these thugs behind the prison cells, people started celebrating and dreaming once again (much like the independence day celebration of 1971) that their days of sad past living under the thugs and criminals  were over. It only took few months to have the rude awakening that ‘whoever goes to Lanka becomes a Ravana.’ The caretaker government was no saint!

Bangladesh’s history is, therefore, a sad tragicomedy played by political actors who come and go through the swing door of politics, never to learn from its bloody past that has witnessed so many assassinations. As my sagacious father would say it would require seven layers of soil to be exchanged before anything good to come out of this unfortunate land!  A sad commentary, and yet, probably a correct one, for an unfortunate people!

Politics and, more correctly, the political leaders have betrayed the Bangladeshi people too long by choking their legitimate aspirations to live in a crimeless and corruption-less society. They forget about accountability for their misdeeds, which is a corner stone of democracy. Thus, when swept out of power, they cry foul with new government inquiries and ensuing legal actions, which may put them behind the prison walls. When in power, they seem to fancy that this day of hardship would never visit them. What a selective amnesia!

No one should ever think that they are above the law. I have no sympathy for criminals and corrupt guys. The government owes its people the simple task of ensuring checks and balances by prosecuting them in a free trial. The process ought to be fair and transparent and cannot be seen partisan-like where the ruling party’s thugs dodge the long arms of the law and justice while their counterparts in the opposition are prosecuted. The opposition leaders simply cannot cry foul when their kith and kin and buddies are charged for money-laundering and other crimes.

The Economist writer Banyan’s claims about the reasons behind the troubles with Dr. Yunus are too childish to be taken seriously. Dr. Yunus, in spite of all the great things he has been doing globally, is, however, not above criticism. He has been accused of making some mistakes as to how he ran the Grameen Bank. His poverty-alleviation micro-finance program has had many detractors, including economists like Professor Anu Muhammad, who had tried to paint him as a viper that has been “sucking blood from the poor borrowers.” In spite of his quite visible Mandela-like humility, he has been accused of having a big ego that has come to conflict with others vying for the same media spotlight. But to claim that  the current troubles of Dr. Yunus owe solely to popularity contest with Sk. Hasina and her slain father is simply too ludicrous!

Sk. Mujib was a towering figure in the politics of Bangladesh, and as shown in the 2004 poll (when BNP was in power), conducted on the worldwide listeners of BBC’s Bengali radio service, was voted the "Greatest Bengali of All Time" beating Rabindranath Tagore, another Nobel laureate, and others. It is doubtful that Dr Yunus or anyone in our time would be able to eclipse that image of the Bangabandhu.

Banyan is seemingly against the current War Tribunal in Bangladesh and finds witch-hunting in government’s efforts to try the alleged criminals. He forgets that the ruling party had a mandate to close this sad chapter of Bangladesh by trying those accused of committing one of the worst crimes of our time, which has killed some 3 hundred thousand Bangladeshis. (Note: while no serious effort has been taken inside Bangladesh to count the number of those killed during the War of Liberation, some recent research findings do suggest that the actual figure was well below 3 million – the commonly accepted figure in Bangladesh.) During that sad chapter the roles of some politicians now belonging to the opposition was anything but humanly. They were monsters, torturing and killing their fellow Bangladeshis like rats and mosquitoes. One of the accused in the trial personally led a torture cell in his father’s residence. I personally know of a few victims, who were students then that were tortured by him mercilessly. He himself killed an elderly Bangladeshi in an execution style murder in 1971.

One would have thought that there was no place for such killers in Bangladeshi politics, especially in a party that was formed by a freedom fighter. Sadly, his criminal prowess, instead of making him a pariah, a persona non grata, simply endeared him to the BNP leadership. He was made a ranking member of the party and bestowed a state ministerial rank. And, this, in spite of his vulgar and trashy talks, some lobbed against his own boss! On a personal note, he abused his power to grab our properties in Khulshi, Chittagong. Land-grabbing and murder of innocent human beings are no small matter. One cannot but wonder what message Mrs Zia was delivering to our people when she allowed such murderers to join her party and become ministers!

Accusations have been made in the Economist that the War Tribunal proceedings in Bangladesh are not fair. I am not aware of any war tribunal that has not been accused of being imperfect. Even the Nuremburg Trial has not been spared of such accusations and has been called ‘politically motivated’ since it was carried out by the opponents of the Nazis. As to the shoddy trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962 in Israel, the least said the better. And yet, in spite of such accusations, no one would dispute that each of these trials was able to do justice.

I don’t see why today Bangladesh Government would fail to carry out its national obligation by trying the alleged war criminals fairly. As I wrote last year, such trials should never be abused for witch-hunting the opposition, and I am assured that the Commission’s office is not abused. The defenders would have all means to defend themselves against the charges. As to the treatment of the accused, I am also told that they are treated humanly, and much better treated than what the USA and the UK governments had done with their shoddy trials of suspected terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11. Let’s face it, compared to how those suspects like KSM and others in Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan are treated, the suspected war criminals in Bangladesh are getting a five-star celebrity treatment!

What Banyan forgets is that our world needs more, and not less, of war tribunals so that no one, not even Bush and Blair, Rumsfeld and Cheney, can dodge their accountability for crimes against humanity. [It is good to hear the recent courageous verdict by Judge Hamilton of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit who refused to grant former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others immunity from lawsuits which “would amount to an extraordinary abdication of our (U.S.) government’s checks and balances that preserve Americans’ liberty.” The case is important because it makes clear –” for the first time –” that government officials can be held accountable for the intentional mistreatment of American citizens, even if that conduct happens in a war zone. (Sadly, there remains no accountability for the abuse, and torture, of foreigners by American jailers and interrogators, which Mr. Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush personally sanctioned.)]

Banyan tries to make fun of the use of ‘sir’ for the current Prime Minister. Is Banyan aware of the fact that many successful female CEO’s don’t like the term ‘madam’ for them, and insist that they be addressed as ‘sir’? Banyon may like to check out with Pepsi Co.’s CEO – Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi.

Banyan’s article has distorted some facts. No one has been prosecuted for criticizing the amended constitution. Opposition leaders have simply been warned as they threatened to throw away the constitution and thus implicitly encourage unconstitutional means to take over power. Violence is not the way to solve anything, and surely not a constitutional problem. There is a place for such a debate. It is the Parliament. That is where the BNP and other opposition party members ought to debate.

As noted above, the article in the Economist does little good to steer a healthy debate about politics in Bangladesh and for curbing its nasty partisan politics.

Democracy is worthless without a viable opposition. The majority rule need not be a winner-takes-all process which marginalizes opposition. The leaders in Bangladeshi politics ought to show more maturity and compromise. The two decades that they have ruled Bangladesh alternately as prime ministers should have been sufficient to move forward and grow up. A healthy, respectable dialogue between the political leaders with a firm commitment towards good governance, checks and balances, accountability and respect for the rule of law can be the starting point, if they truly care about building a viable, thriving, healthy democracy in Bangladesh. They can either embrace the lessons of history or choose to end in its dustbin. The choice is surely theirs to get out of political insanity.