Every visiting statesman has a word of advice for the leaders of the two major political parties in Bangladesh. The advice is simple and well-meaning — the two leaders must speak to each other. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state of the United States of America, and Pranab Mukherjee, India’s finance minister, who visited Dhaka separately last week, had the same advice for Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and the Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia. It cannot be good for Bangladesh’s domestic politics or its international image that its top leaders do not know how to make use of democratic dialogue. The impression has gained ground that the rivalry between Ms Wajed and Ms Zia is more personal than political. The danger from this collapse of communication, however, goes far beyond the individuals. It makes the functioning of the democratic system in Bangladesh extremely difficult. In a country that witnessed several army coups during its short tenure as a new nation, this danger should be a matter of concern for both the leaders and the people. Equally worrying is the fact that the bitter personal rivalry between the top leaders affects every aspect of public life.
Both the government and the Opposition are integral parts of a democratic system. Each cannot work effectively without constant interaction with the other. Unfortunately for the people of Bangladesh, Ms Wajed and Ms Zia do not seem to be able to accept this simple truth. The result is a very unhappy situation in which street battles have replaced political dialogue. This produces a paralysis of policy that has ruined Bangladesh’s economic progress. History is replete with examples of bitter political rivals working together in the larger interest of their countries and the people. The communists and their Kuomintang rivals in China killed hundreds of thousands of each other’s men. Yet, the two parties today regularly engage each other on issues involving China and Taiwan. In Nepal, the former Maoist guerrillas are making a common cause with the democratic parties on important national issues. Who could have predicted the success of the political reconciliation in South Africa? Democracy, however flawed, is the only viable option for Bangladesh. The only way Ms Wajed and Ms Zia can help strengthen democracy is by talking to each other. They must agree to talk even if only to disagree.