| Coming to grips with reality
India is the most populous democracy on this planet, and it has a political system which clearly finds resonance and response in the tumultuous, emotional and diverse multicultural DNA of this country. Although it professes the beneficial effects of democracy on international platforms and in joint communiqués and contributes handsomely to the United Nations democracy fund, New Delhi, in its own neighbourhood, behaves like any other big power. Whatever it may proclaim from the rooftop about good governance and rights of the individual, it greatly prefers stability to the political chaos which results when the incompetent are propelled to power by the elections which lie at the heart of representative government.
It is hardly surprising therefore that despite the rhetoric and kudos earned by India for its democratic institutions, New Delhi has never considered itself an exemplar for its regional partners. It has never gone beyond the vague and platitudinous expressions of hope or expectation that neighbours would find it expedient to tread the same democratic path. Thus, over the past decades, we have shown greater or lesser friendship with, and abundant tolerance towards, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal. Only Sri Lanka in our neighbourhood has consistently held free and fair elections, but this cachet is mitigated by the de facto separation of the LTTE-controlled areas and the simmering civil war.
Bangladesh has had interludes of democratically elected governance in the early years of independence and, subsequently, after the fall of Hossain Mohammad Ershad in 1990. Such democratic periods have been characterized by misgovernance, nepotism, corruption and an attitude of winner-takes-all. The parties that found themselves in opposition after 1991 have invariably branded the election results as fraudulent, and refused to cooperate with the government, preferring hartal, bandh, violence and the politics of the street to any constructive debate in parliament. As such, the much-beleaguered and long-suffering public could form little idea of what any of the main parties really stood for — other than that each nakedly wanted to seize power at all costs. Party politics in Bangladesh was reduced to the politics of power, revenge and plunder; and the ballot box was used only as a means to subserve those ends. Politicians were both incompetent and venal, and the conduct of the general elections by an election commission, which lacked both authority and impartiality, fell below acceptable standards. The electoral roll was known to be totally unreliable as an authentic guide to the number of eligible voters.
The military-backed interim government came into office in January 2007 after months of controversy, conflict and bloodshed between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and their respective allies. It promptly cancelled the elections scheduled for January 22, and was confronted by the immense task of impartially conducting general elections after cleansing political life of a kind of people who had impoverished the country for the past 15 years. These years had seen three elections and the rampant misrule of the BNP, followed by the Awami League, and then the BNP again. There is no doubt that the state of emergency and the pursuit of corrupt politicians and civil servants by the interim administration were at first hugely popular. The common man felt that at last something was being done to purge the political system and that this would lead to a better future. The treatment of politicians and senior bureaucrats was seen not as repression but retribution.
But there is a time-line beyond which an unelected and unaccountable administration cannot sustain its credibility. In order to amend the electoral roll to make it reflect the reality and to provide voters’ identity cards to eligible persons, the administration banned all political activity and stated that elections would be held within two years, that is, by December 2008. It is widely believed that the government then tried to engineer a situation where the leaders of both the main political parties would leave Bangladesh and remain abroad, in actual or self-imposed exile. These two former prime ministers, implacable enemies, have perpetuated the dynastic and dictatorial style of politics in Bangladesh, stifled internal democracy in their parties, and have dealt vindictively with any threats to their position from colleagues from the second rank. It is therefore self-evident that no enduring political reform would ever be possible without the removal of the two demagogues from political activity. This manoeuvre by the interim authorities came unstuck when Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who was bizarrely described as being ‘on holiday’ in the United States of America, returned to her country despite attempts by the regime to block her re-entry. Once Khaleda Zia knew that Hasina Wajed was returning, she dug in her heels and refused to emigrate.
This was the first set-back to the purification plans of the interim administration. The second was when the Nobel prize laureate and micro-credit pioneer, Mohammad Yunus, announced that he had abandoned plans to form his own political party, Nagarik Shakti, as an alternative to the two main established ones owing to the lack of support. The government feared that the main political parties might be emboldened to challenge the authority of the emergency, and decided to contain the situation through the rigorous pursuit of Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed through the court.
In July, Hasina Wajed was arrested on charges of extortion, to which was added a charge of corruption in September. She is also accused of being involved in the murder of four political rivals. Khaleda Zia was ordered to appear in court over tax-evasion allegations, and was arrested in September on charges of corruption and abuse of power. The two women join a list of some 170 politicians, civil servants and businessmen who have been detained on various counts.
The situation in Bangladesh remains on the brink. If there is a return to old-style politics, the charges against the accused persons, who belong to the party in power, will be swiftly dropped and there will a stampede of floor-crossing for self-preservation. This will be the negation of everything the interim administration stands for. Ominously for the authorities, there were three days of student-led rioting in the capital and some other cities recently. It apparently started when some youths were manhandled by soldiers during a football match in Dhaka. The students, who are intensely politicized, have always been the agents of political change in Bangladesh, and though calm has been re-imposed through curfew and the detention of some academics and members of the student community, there is a mood of sullen discontent, mainly owing to the rise in living costs. Apprehension stalks the land, especially among those who have good reason to be apprehensive.
The other traditional agent of change is the army, and it has been delphic. Is it looking for a longer-term, formal role in the future' The army chief, Moin Ahmed, is supposed to have said, “Bangladesh will have to construct its own brand of democracy. This needs rethinking so that we can re-invent a system of governance with new leadership at all levels.” Loaded words, but few believe that the military is interested in taking power in the way it did in the coups of the Seventies and the Eighties.
A similarly delphic attitude has been maintained by New Delhi, except for recent pious expressions of support for democracy from the official spokesman. The interim regime in Dhaka has shown signs of paying close attention to India’s concerns, especially terrorism and transit, though there is yet to be concrete action. But even this is better than elected leaders like the ultra-nationalist Khaleda Zia and the Indira-Rajiv familiar Hasina Wajed pledging friendship and cooperation with India and doing absolutely the contrary in practice, on the pretext that it would be politically suicidal for them to accommodate India’s wishes. There is no better government in Bangladesh for India’s national interests than one which is neutral, apolitical and run by professionals and technicians, and New Delhi should give the present dispensation, despite its limitations, full support. Small wonder that India does not plead the democratic cause more stridently: lip-service is sufficient.