Bangladesh’s battling begums, Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, have told the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon, that they are not willing to climb down from their positions over the conduct of the next parliament elections. That torpedoes the possibility of a dialogue to find a mediated settlement to the issue of how the polls will be conducted. The United States of America and the European Union have already tried to mediate between the country’s two leading political parties and the coalitions they lead. In August, even the media-shy Chinese ambassador in Dhaka, Li Jun, suggested that “we have tried with our friends in both the parties”, only to admit that the effort has not yielded much of a result. Both sides, he said, had expressed “sincerity” to hold a dialogue, but asserted that their positions were not negotiable. The Indians have also tried to talk the two sides into starting a dialogue, atleast for the sake of it, but have not got anywhere. Finally, the UN secretary-general found, to his dismay, that getting a dialogue going between the two begums was perhaps as difficult as getting one started between Bashar Al Assad and Barack Obama.
So what does that mean for Bangladesh? The prime minister, Hasina Wajed, has already announced that the parliament will end on October 25, its last business day, and that the parliament polls would be held within the mandatory constitutional limit of 90 days , within January 24 next year. The law minister, Shafique Ahmed, made it clear that the government had “no plans whatsoever” to bring about a constitutional amendment to re-introduce the neutral caretaker system that the coalition led by the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party wants — and without which its leader, Khaleda Zia, has ruled out participating in the parliament polls. A parliament poll without the BNP in Bangladesh is like having a parliament poll in India without the Bharatiya Janata Party.
If that were to happen finally, Hasina’s Awami League may manage to stay in power but live forever with the stink of having won a poll without the country’s principal Opposition participating in it . The Opposition has already alleged that Hasina was “conspiring to stay in power” and “establish one party rule”, alluding to her father’s BAKSAL experiment just before he was assassinated in a military coup. “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had introduced the one-party Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League rule on June 7, 1975, after amending the Constitution to tackle the social, political and economic instability in the war-ravaged country. Two months later, the man who had led and inspired his country’s fight for freedom from Pakistan, was murdered with almost his entire family in a brutal military coup. In Bangladesh’s turbulent and polarized politics, the BAKSAL is held up by the Opposition BNP and its allies as the beginning of the end of democracy in Bangladesh.
The BNP argues that its founder, General Ziaur Rahman, the country’s first military ruler, actually tried to restore democracy by starting elections — a claim that the Awami league is prompt to rubbish. For the League that led the Bengali autonomy movement in Pakistan and then Bangladesh’s fight for freedom, it was General Ziaur Rahman who usurped power in the confusion of the coups and counter-coups and changed the basic secular character of Bangladesh’s polity. For them, it was he who legitimized the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had opposed the country’s independence and stood by the Pakistan army in all its horrendous misdeeds — mass murders, gangrapes, widespread looting, the forcible conversion of minorities to Islam et al.
When Bangladesh returned to democracy in the early 1990s after fierce street protests brought down the military dictator, H.M. Ershad, the two main parties that had joined hands to fight the junta went public with their distrust for each other. Their roots and ethos were different and the difference seemed irreconcilable. The Awami League was South Asia’s best-organized mass party, which had led the struggle for freedom and proved formidable in street protests. It upheld secularism and socialism. The BNP, born in the barracks and allied to the Jamaat-e-Islami, upheld the primacy of Islam and backed the market economy. It was soon decided that to allow for a free and fair election, a neutral caretaker administration was necessary to organize the parliament polls.
The system lasted for a decade until it was challenged in court and discredited by the last military-backed caretaker in 2007-08, when it refused to hold elections for nearly two years and started a witch-hunt that ended up with both Hasina and Khaleda (with son Tarique) in jail. The cry went up that an unelected caretaker led by bureaucrats and remote-controlled by the army was no longer needed. As the caretaker finally succumbed to protests and held the elections in December 2008, an electorate fed up with BNP-Jamaat’s terror and plundering of national resources and the caretaker’s inordinate delay in holding the polls brought back the Awami-League-backed coalition with the biggest mandate since 1972, when Mujib had led it to an expected landslide. The court also ruled against the caretaker system, describing it as “incompatible with the spirit of democracy”. The Awami League promptly introduced the 15th constitutional amendment bill and, with its huge majority in parliament, passed it to scrap the caretaker system.The Opposition cried foul and has been on the streets since then to demand a restoration of the caretaker.
Since Hasina came to power, five city corporation elections have been held in Bangladesh. In the absence of state governments, these polls provide a limited alternative. The Awami League has lost all the city corporation polls, beginning with Chittagong in 2010 and ending with Gazipur, once an Awami League stronghold, two months ago. Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet and Barisal have also been lost to the League. The defeats have raised the spectre of anti-incumbency which, so far has ensured a change every five years since the fall of Ershad.
The Awami League’s performance in the development and management of the economy is widely appreciated. The exchange rate stands at 77 Taka to an US dollar against 84 a year ago, Bangladesh enjoys a current account surplus of $2.57 billion, remittance inflow and forex reserves have broken all previous records, and the country has achieved its 2015 UN Millenium goal (of reducing poverty to below 30 per cent of the population) two years ahead in 2013. Food import bills have dropped sharply owing to successive bumper harvests, and Hasina has made a telling point of national pride by deciding to finance the $2.9 billion Padma railroad bridge with the country’s own resources. Pro-liberation forces are happy with the war-crimes trials that are finally ensuring justice for the horrendous crimes of 1971, and a secular upsurge at Shahbag has underscored which way the young want Bangladesh to go.
But the Awami League faces charges of corruption and is crippled by severe factional feuds that are often erupting into gunbattles, even leading to the death of local leaders. When Barisal’s Awami League mayor, Hiran, lost the polls, he promptly blamed Hasina’s relative Hasnat Abdullah for “not allowing any big leader to emerge from south Bangladesh”. Hasina has sidelined the party’s senior leadership, whom she suspected of kowtowing to the military-backed caretaker when they put her and Khaleda in jail in pursuit of their infamous “Minus Two” formula. Veterans like Tofail Ahmed, Amir Hossain Amu and Suranjit Sengupta stand completely marginalized and replaced by relatively inexperienced leaders running the show. The party organization needs revitalization and neither Hasina nor her close coterie seem to have a clue how to go about it.
But though the city corporation polls have raised questions on Hasina’s capability to lead her party back to power, it has boosted her claim to be able to conduct a free and fair poll. She is determined to hold that out in support of her claim that Bangladesh’s election commission is more than competent to conduct fair polls, and that if major democracies like India can have polls without caretakers, why would Bangladesh need one as its system has matured?
The Opposition’s participation in the city corporation polls did raise the hope that they will ultimately join the parliament polls as well. But that seems unlikely. Though the BNP has not resumed its strikes, which have become unpopular and ineffective, it has gone ahead with nationwide rallies to mobilize support for a restoration of the caretaker. BNP leaders, when told they might win the parliament polls, in any case, if the city corporations were any indication, said they cannot take the chance because the League may “show its true colour” during the parliament polls when the stakes are high. Pushing a caretaker through will ensure it a moral victory, but the BNP realizes a defeat in parliament polls may lead to a serious crisis of legitimacy. With its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, in severe trouble over the war-crimes trials and the BNP ill at ease to defend it but forced to do so, Khaleda Zia knows that it is now or never.
For India, much seems to be at stake. Hasina has addressed India’s security and connectivity concerns as none in her country has done before. Her crackdown against Islamist radicals and northeastern rebels has spared India a second front of terror in the east. She is all game to allow India to use the Chittagong port to access the Northeast, but India’s failure to sign the Teesta water-sharing treaty and formalize the Land Boundary agreement has naturally peeved her. The ‘India factor’ is ruining her electoral prospects . If the political deadlock is broken and the BNP participates in the polls and beats the Awami League, India would have lost a trusted friend — and forever.