As noted by William Milam, the former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, in a recent article in the Express Tribune (March 11, 2014), many believed that somehow, somebody or something — the army, the international community, the West, a leader on a white horse — would appear and stop the ‘defective’ election that was in the offing. But none of those outcomes occurred.
As the dust settled from the melee of the election time violence and the opposition BNP-led alliance has come to terms that the current government cannot be toppled by mindless violence that victimizes ordinary people, and normalcy has become the order of the day inside Bangladesh, it is important to ponder about the direction Bangladesh is heading politically?
Some political pundits believe that the current affairs are a dress rehearsal of the ‘hated’ BAKSAL days – the introduction of the one-party system months before the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina) was toppled bloodily in August 15 of 1975 by some disgruntled army officers whose murderous activities enjoyed the blessings from the CIA.
I disagree with such an assertion of those political pundits and believe that no matter how flawed the illiberal democracy is inside Bangladesh, it will self-correct itself and that the country will not revisit her BAKSAL days. That happy end, however, may not come anytime soon, but I am optimistic that it will come one day; that timing would depend on how serious Bangladeshis are to bring about the desired change. If the two major parties (AL and BNP) are beyond repair (self-scrutiny and corrective actions), are the people ready for a new party – something like India’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – offering fresh ideas and new leaders that shun crime and corruption? My reasons behind the dissenting view on why Bangladesh will not revisit her BAKSAL days owe to the changing socio-political-economic landscape of our time – both local and international that is at variance with the norms of 1975. What was possible, popular and suitable back then in 1975 is neither true nor valid today. Everyone within the current leadership of the ruling alliance finds the BAKSAL-hoopla as mere propaganda nonsense and considers it a smokescreen to cover-up the failure of the opposition alliance.
But supposing that the worst is inevitable and that Bangladesh will revisit its past and embrace its BAKSAL past, who are to blame? Can the BNP evade responsibility from letting such an event happen?
As many Bangladeshis would tell, the BNP is equally responsible for the ‘farcical election’ (as it continues to refer to the last election) because of its many errors of strategy and judgment. Had it contested and won just five dozen seats in a ‘rigged’ election even if the AL-alliance had a two-thirds majority winning at least 200 seats, the ruling alliance’s illiberal ambitions would be on the check. The BNP-alliance could have used the floor of the parliament to debate and dissent. But now, they are portrayed as an opportunist party that cared more about themselves and not the people of the country.
It goes without saying that democracy is a farce without a healthy opposition. For an illiberal democracy to transition into liberal democracy it must allow opposing views to be heard and debated. Such a transition cannot happen when there are no takers – neither on the winning side nor on the losing or opposing side. As a result of this impasse, the ultimate losers are the people of Bangladesh whose genuine desires to live in a just society continue to be dashed by disingenuous politicians.
Not everything is, however, lost in Bangladesh’s so-called two-party (or alliance) formula. The current set up is still capable of making things better if it has the sincerity and will to execute reforms (starting with its own structure). The AL alliance government is accused of practicing widespread human rights violations, marginalizing the main opposition by continuing to arrest its leaders, denying space for any political opponent to protest peacefully, and using the War Crimes Tribunal as politically motivated trials to lame and tame its opposition. On its part, the administration of Sheikh Hasina can correct such widely held perceptions and resist any temptation and political itch that only invigorates the notion that it is resurrecting BAKSAL. It can also afford not to appear as cementing Indian hegemony over Bangladesh with what are arguably one-sided concessions and guarantees given to India, and must, instead, change the negative perception it suffers by fighting for legitimate demands of her people on an equal footing on a plethora of issues from the equitable share of water in international rivers to stopping the almost daily shooting of Bangladeshis by the trigger-happy BSF along the no-man’s land separating the two countries.
The opposition BNP-alliance is widely perceived as an opportunist, if not an immoral, alliance that is against the spirit of the liberation war and only hungry for power and personal gains. The lavish lifestyles of its leaders - home and abroad - have only given credence to such perceptions. On its part, the alliance can choose to correct such negative perceptions by excluding murderous politicians and criminal Mafia Dons who have been found guilty in the courts of the law. It can also resist any temptation to turn its clock back to the pre-election days of violence. Bangladeshis don’t have stomach for such crimes. The recent win in the local and upazila elections by its candidates shows that the opposition alliance remains a formidable opposition enjoying deep-rooted support within the populace. It can bank on such supports to regroup it and formulate short term tactics and long term strategies that show that it is serious about improving socio-political- economic condition of Bangladeshis.
The choice is theirs (i.e., the ruling and opposition alliances) to make – moving forward or going backward. If they are genuinely sincere about Bangladesh they can work towards creating the true intellectual and moral foundations of the state through inclusive political rights, freedom and economic equality. And if they don’t learn lessons from history by altering their failed ways, they will end up in the dustbin of history. History is unforgiving on those who refuse to learn from it.