It does look like the party in power has been able to withstand the pressure mounted by its opponents led by the BNP. Jamaat is soundly in retreat and the chances of a new level of confrontational politics have fallen as the opposition looks exhausted.
While the Awami League (AL) seems to have held its own, there are some systemic problems that popped up indicating that political power patterns have become even more complex. What are the issues faced by the people, politicians, and the country as of today?
The biggest lesson learnt in the last 3 months of politics (or whatever we call it)
The biggest lesson is perhaps the endless capacity of political parties to commit the same mistake repeatedly. We are referring to the BNP which committed three foolish acts from which it gained very little.
Firstly, they boycotted the national elections and got their feet locked in the political mud. Secondly, they called for agitation which went unanswered. Thirdly, they went for violent protest which not only yielded little, but reduced the capacity of the party and displayed its organisational weaknesses.
But what about the people & the terrible price they paid for politics?
They don’t matter much unfortunately and the quicker they understand that, the better. This has been happening for a long time, in fact, since right after independence in 1971.
Very few decisions have been taken in the political realm that had public interest in mind. Neither the 15th amendment nor the reaction to it was based on public interest. It was entirely a matter of protecting privileges of the people at the top.
So the price people pay for politics is inevitable. Don’t people pay a huge price for travelling by launch to the coast? They drown riding bad ferries, but they still do it. Similarly, by travelling in a bad political boat, they have to pay a price. Does drowning ever stop people from travelling?
No, so bombs will also never stop people from completely deserting politics. They see being burned by bombs as the price for living in Bangladesh. They will remain linked, but that link becomes weaker day by day.
That’s cynical don’t you think? – as though people don’t care about politics at all.
It’s a lesson they have learnt over time. What evidence will they provide to support the claim that politics is conducted in the interest of the people, and not politicians? Politicians have no history of good political governance, whether it’s by martial law, or one-party rule.
The governments since 1990 have been no better politically than before, which is why people have learned to be cautious with their expectations. They have cared about politics but have not seen much gain from it. As a result, they have turned away from politics as the primary source of a well-being provider, and became more independent and self-reliant. It isn’t by choice, since they had no other choice.
But politics won’t disappear, so why suggest the people have discarded it?
This depends a lot on what you call politics. I think politics was always difficult in Bangladesh, and rather than assert that people discarded it, I would suggest that politics has discarded the people.
Our major political decisions are not consultative in nature. As a result, people do not feel involved. This has happened over time. I think if you look at politics over time you must include the Pakistan period. People thought their time would come so we had these great iconic moments of history.
Whether 1952, 1954, 1969, or 1971, these phases were unique because of public participation. Do you see that happening now? Our moments are now 1974 and 1975, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1990, 1991, and the list goes on. Barring 1990 which had public involvement and promised better political days, we have nothing worth mentioning. This pattern defines our contemporary politics.
What then describes our politics more aptly?
What we see now is the decline of political institutions, and particularly the parliament. We fought the 1971 war to establish popular democracy and never got that. We fought in 1990 to end autocracy and achieve democracy, but we never got our democratic rule of law. So I can’t say that we have achieved much in the way of democracy.
Our parliaments have become totally dysfunctional and contribute little to our public lives. It doesn’t matter if it’s like the present one or those where more votes were cast. The end result is the lack of any real role and the lack of confidence in the system by the politicians themselves.
So this alienation is what describes the politics where formal institutions are absent and society is run by informal or intermediary forces.
Which means …
When parties choose bombs instead of elections, you must ask yourself if this is where politics has arrived. When parties pass amendments to end a system of electoral management that was inevitably going to cause chaos, you have a situation that is fairly unprecedented.
I think this pattern continues because it is hugely beneficial for some the powerful and not at all for the powerless majority. So our interest in the formal political apparatus is very weak. If matters improve, public interest will return. For the moment this will continue.
And in the short run?
I think it’s fairly obvious that the BNP has been outplayed. They have attempted everything with no result. This agitation couldn’t dent peoples’ ability to suffer and continue life, so public support is non-existent. I think the BNP will try to sneak back into electoral politics because its future is there and it has gained so little from agitation. But we are not sure if AL will allow that.
After all, AL is still there and the BNP is still outside.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher. He has worked for the Dhaka Courier, the Daily Star, and BBC among many others. He has also worked as a Human Rights specialist with the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.