Toxic politics and detoxification

The Daily Star May 30, 2012

Manzoor Ahmed


Before the December 2008 election that brought Sheikh Hasina to power with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, The Economist’s report (“The Nice Side of Democracy,” November 6, 2008) had said: “What Bangladeshis still do not know is whether the army’s intervention has shocked the country’s squabbling, petty politicians into a new approach. The world’s seventh-most populous country needs a government devoted not to a perennial political vendetta, but to tackling poverty, climate change and terrorism.”

The Bangladeshis now know too well that the squabbling politicians have learned nothing and appear to be incapable of learning anything. The Economist’s observation this time, trying to look for a way out of the quagmire, is the curt conclusion: “It is up to India to try to stop Sheikh Hasina ruining Bangladesh” (“Bangladesh’s toxic politics – Hello, Delhi,” May 24, 2012).

India, with its overwhelming economic and political presence in the neighbourhood, and literally holding Bangladesh in its belly like a mother kangaroo, has arguably more influence on Bangladesh than any other foreign power.

Unfortunately, India is hobbled by its own internal political squabbling. Witness the inability to deliver on several critical pledges — such as Teesta river water-sharing, action on border enclaves, preventing India’s border forces from shooting Bangladeshis crossing the porous borders, to name a few egregious concerns.

Clearly, India’s persuasive power would be much stronger if Bangladeshis could think of India as a powerful, but benign neighbour that doesn’t balk at giving Bangladesh at least the dues in matters of mutual interest. Nonetheless, the stance of “hedging the bet,” or in other words, working with whoever Bangladeshis decide to vote to power is the right one. So is public and behind the scene encouragement to the two political parties to tone down confrontational politics, instead of backing one side the whole hog.

Most certainly there will be self-righteous clamour by politicians and the chattering class about the impudence of The Economist to make disparaging comments about our internal politics and presuming that India would or could help solve our problem.

The public and media debate continues in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s visit earlier this month, her observations about the political culture, and her temerity in having an exclusive meeting with the Nobel Laureate Dr. Mohammed Yunus and founder of Brac Sir Fazle Hasan Abed.

The volume has been much louder in denouncing Hillary’s presumed claim to comment on Bangladesh’s problems than giving a reasoned consideration to what she had to say. The super-sensitive intellectuals of Bangladesh often forget that in today’s global and interdependent world, all have an interest in what happens on the other side of the globe. Especially so, when the poorer countries like Bangladesh want to have the richer countries as partners in development and in advancing common international goals.

Those who are sensitive about external advice and comments do have a point that ultimately and primarily the approach to political and development problems of the country have to be found internally — a point not denied by the external commentators.

The civil society and all kinds of citizens’ forums must make their voices heard. They need to raise public awareness and continue to demand action in four areas critical for the future of democracy and development in Bangladesh:

Devising a formula for holding the upcoming general election under a neutral authority with a strong and independent Election Commission;

Beginning a systematic process of de-politicising and strengthening the statutory bodies and institutions of the country (in addition to the Election Commission), such as the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Information Commission, the Public Service Commission, the judicial Institutions, and the civil service including the police;

Moving towards strong and accountable local government as required by the Constitution; and

Taking all necessary measures urgently to carry out the work of the tribunals on the crimes against humanity with much greater efficiency and professionalism than have been demonstrated so far, with the aim of completing expeditiously at least the trials which have begun. This has more than a symbolic significance. It is linked to changing the character of politics in the country and the premises underlying the Bangladesh polity.

The lead for these moves has to come from the coalition in power, seeking cooperation from the opposition. If the initiatives are taken with sincerity, and the opposition is not forthcoming, the citizens will give their verdict in due time.

The writer, senior adviser at Brac University Institute of Educational Development, writes on education and development.