‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ as the revolutionary folksong legend Pete Seeger used to sing creating unwarily stirring impact on the youth’s mind to make them dream for a better world to live in, and while marching toward that end he exploded with passion, ‘We shall overcome.’ He died but left his deep resonant voice which will be striking our ears for all the time to come.
A nation like ours which observed a dreadful panorama of death and destruction to become free from the tyrannical colonial rule, always reserves the right to ask, ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ as Pete Seeger did in his life-long quest for the lost flowers that the struggling people are inherently entitled to smell and enjoy. The basketful rosy flowers we had had through the blood-stained Liberation War, look left in a garden often invaded by bulls; no matter, more than four decades have elapsed with our leaders’ eyes focused only on the state power. It’s like wicked children smearing the way to the much desired goal that the poor and overpopulated nation desperately needs to achieve to stand up in an increasingly competitive world. But what we awfully lack is a perfect sense of direction as long expected from the politicians who have frustrated the people, miserably failing to keep up with their fast-changing politico-economic aspirations, because of their myopic views and policy. Our political leaders are hardly imbued with the statesmanly spirit requiring vision and mission, shaped on the basis of realpolitik, but instead the dynastic politics infected with cancerous corruption and abuse of power has ominously replaced democracy virtually with kleptocracy. Autocratic rule and military directorship have occupied a long chapter of our history blocking the democratic process which, in the truest term, started its maiden journey in 1991, though through trial and error. But even within this period the political leaders, particularly of the two major parties, the Awami League and the BNP, could not make any fence-mending effort to sit across the table to sort out the basic important issues confronting the nation and settle those on the basis of consensus once and for all as it is essentially precondition to hold the nation united in governing the country effectively.
Whatever be the arguments, constitutional requirement being the foremost one, the January 5 election has in reality driven an edge into the national unity yet more alarmingly and remains a source fuelling controversy at home and abroad. Immediately after the election a government headed by Sheikh Hasina was formed for the second consecutive term with all electoral promises to do good. It was a one-sided election and the ruling Awami League manoeuvred the tactical victory, undermining the legitimate, moral and ethical aspects of the constitution. The fragile democracy and the democracy-loving people suffered a defeat. With all its lacunae the non-party caretaker government system, introduced at the Awami League’s behest, gave democracy at least a chance to function and the people the right to choose their government. The electorate, though all of them are not formally educated, set an unusually wise and commendable trend by voting the BNP and the Awami League alternately to power. But under the present system of the interim government, acclaimed to be an accomplished Westminster form, overlooking the election, most eligible people were deprived of their fundamental right to elect their government. The present interim system was introduced through the Fifteenth Amendment after the court had declared the non-party caretaker provision contradictory to the spirit of the constitution. The rationale behind the court verdict was later found conflicting with the ground reality that whatever the spirit of the constitution had been upheld in the democratic exercise earlier was in tatters in the last one-sided polls. Moreover the Fifteenth Amendment keeps the interim government undefined as to what would be its tenure, size and power which the court could prescribe or suggest fixing it to work as a humble caretaker for an interim period. No doubt, the court verdict gave the ruling Awami League the leverage for constitutional manoeuvring.
As the national election date was approaching the already volatile political situation started fast sliding into uncertainty. The teething democracy was screaming with pains on the lap of the two ‘Bickering Begums’ who are in a relentless battle to prove their claim more tenable for state power. The diplomats in Dhaka, particularly of the powerful countries, scrambled to bring down the wall standing between them and get them across the negotiation table, but not all of them without any ultimate interest. Their geopolitical interests in Bangladesh prompted them to shuttle between the two warring camps led by Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia, but they could not put their heads together to work out an acceptable solution for an inclusive election only because of their conflicting interests. Their shuttle diplomacy eventually made the intriguing situation more complicated with our power-hungry politicians seeking outside blessings. The alarm bell rang in Delhi and Washington, and top diplomats of the two countries – major players in the Bangladesh political scenario – met at the White House. Since 1971 they often differed to agree on a crucial issue of Bangladesh. The inconclusive fateful meeting at the White House kept the political deadlock persisting in Bangladesh which consequently confronted an unprecedented situation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, steadfast in her determination, along with her allies went ahead to stage a one-sided election while, in her counter move, unyielding opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia, boosted by Jamaat-Shibir muscle-power, announced her pitiable ill-advised decision to boycott and resist the polls. The ‘vanity-bag politics’, as some private caller sarcastically said, deciding the people’s fate for over two decades, proved crude and mindless. Bloods spilled over the streets, vehicles with people were set on fire, petrol was thrown on the passengers and over one hundred including women and children were killed and hundreds injured on the election day and the day after. The minority Hindus came under attack, their shops and households were vandalised and torched in different areas.
The government and the opposition got engaged in the blame game as usual over the horrific incidents, eventually meaning denial of justice to the victims and their families, and allowing the culprits go unpunished. The anti-liberation Jamaat, with its top leaders facing either death or life imprisonment (Kader Mollah already executed) for crimes against humanity, taking advantage of the political turmoil fiercely tried to drag the country into a civil war. Its student front, the Shibir, which virtually acted as its armed wing, was mostly responsible for the killings, arsons, bomb explosions, road barricades and attacks on the minority community. The Shibir has recently been listed as one of the top three terrorist outfits in IHS Jane’s Global Terrorism and Insurgency Attack Index 2013. The polls held without the participation of all political parties gave the Jamaat-Shibir the opportunity to take revenge for trial and punishment of their leaders, by staging a showdown with all fury using Khaleda Zia’s call for resistance as a shield. They did it as part of their well premediated plan to prove their strength. The dreaded situation could be averted had there been an inclusive national election as is evident from the ongoing upazila polls in which all political parties, including the BNP and the Jamaat are taking part, with no such bloodletting as it was on January 5. Of course, there was strong possibility that in an all-party election the political scenario could be completely reverse – the BNP in power and the Awami League in the opposition.
It is no more a secret that in the nerve-racking controversy having its focal point what would be the form of the polls-time caretaker government, neighbouring India backed the Awami League stand and the United States favoured the BNP by insisting on an inclusive election thus pitting one major party against the other. Even Veena Sikri, former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, who attended a Dhaka University seminar in the last week of February, did not show any signs of wobbling while responding to media’s query. She said, the Indian government had supported the January 5 election as it was constitutional requirement. As a democratic country India always wants to see democracy continue in Bangladesh, she argued. Apparently the argument sounds innocuous. But an analytical view would reveal that Delhi’s policy has deeply polarised Bangladesh opening her future to a conflict scenario demeaning democratic governance despite the post-election uneasy calm. If the Hasina government with its inherent weakness because of lack of legitimacy, is determined to rule the country for the full term as her ministers and party leaders are publicly speaking, they will be left with the only option of steering the country to the brink. The peculiar political scenario emerging from the upazila election outcome is that while the Awami League will remain in power at the centre, the opposition BNP will have its own domain outside the capital. Such an imbalance will work as a fast-destabilising factor forcing the government to deal with the arising situation with an iron fist. Delhi’s assessment of the political situation in and its policy towards Bangladesh, will not be only frustrating for themselves but also for the democracy-loving people of Bangladesh, who are unhappy with the Delhi authorities’ long failure to sign agreements on the Teesta water sharing and the boundary delimitation swaping the enclaves. The Bangladesh people will feel provoked to think that India in its basket has nothing to give but to take all though the AL government fully cooperated with the neighbour in its campaign against insurgency and provided transit facilities which it asked for. But Delhi’s inability to respond with equal gesture and supporting the controversial January 5 election has given rise to reasons enough to deepen the anti-Indian feeling among the Bangladesh people. Despite this reality if Delhi chooses to encourage the AL government to cling to power for five years, the anti-Indian feeling in Bangladesh will soar with the popular conception reaffirmed that India practically wants hegemonic control over their country to protect their own interests. The terrorist groups will take advantage of this situation and create security problems for both the neighbouring countries. Delhi is, therefore, required to rethink its Bangladesh policy and encourage an early inclusive election allowing the people here to freely choose their government. Only good neighbourly relations cultivated through uninterrupted democracy can ensure good for both the peoples.
It’s a unique dimension in the new world order that the international power balance is being shifted to regional theatres. If the currently talked-about initiative for Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar connectivity becomes successful (so far hopeful as all the countries concerned found enthusiastic), this will open a new horizon in the South and South-east Asia. The regional geopolitics and geo-strategy will change in a new direction as the two emerging global powers – China and India – are expected to usher in a new era by forging close understanding with the irritants in their bilateral relations, particularly the border disputes, removed as a result of their journey together through the new economic corridor. Since the power equation in the region will steadily change, it is expedient for Bangladesh to stride ahead with the firm objective to grasp the opportunity for political and economic benefits by cautiously pursuing diplomatic balance between the two giant neighbours. In the changed geopolitical situation the US-led Western alliance is destined to have a diminishing influence on the internal and regional affairs in South and South-east Asia and the issues of terrorism and security threat to this area will be viewed from a different perspective.
However, the fledgling democracy in fragmented political landscape of Bangladesh is going through a difficult time. In the January 5 election, it was tactical win for the Awami League and also tactical defeat for the BNP. True, the AL is again in power with a rubber-stamp parliament and the BNP is struggling on the streets as before. Luckily, the upazilla polls, whether declared by fault or not, immediately after the national election, has provided opportunity for the broken-heart BNP to reorganise through participation in the votes and prove its strength. The resilient mood of the party leaders and workers is giving it the dividend as in the first two phases of the elections, the majority of the upazillas have been captured by the BNP contestants, throwing fresh challenge to the Sheikh Hasina government. If the winning trend set in favour of the BNP accompanied by its ally Jamaat-e-Islami continues, this will surely have a demoralising effect on the ruling party, which is expected to face renewed pressure from within and outside to hold an early election to the parliament. It is obvious that the next course of the country’s politics will be decided by the capability of the BNP-led opposition to heap up pressure on the government which has amazingly consolidated its position, quickly than expected, at home and, if not fully but partially, abroad.
So, a grim battle, as political observers tend to believe, is looming large as the ruling Awami League moves fast to secure its position holding on to power and the rival BNP is preparing to dislodge it by forcing an early or midterm election.
But no more bloodshed on the streets!