Whether Sheikh Hasina will return to power for the consecutive third term or Khaleda Zia replace her or any dark horse will spring a Mahathir-Anwar Ibrahim-like surprise in the 2018 general election will be known in due course.
The electoral calculus should wait till Khaleda’s fate is decided in the court and the parties, including the BNP, announce their election plans. This may take three months, near about the time the Election Commission announces election schedule in October.
In the run-up to the election, a snapshot of the polity is in order.
The nation won statehood defeating a 93,000-strong Pakistani occupation army in a Liberation War fought under political leadership. But the irony is that, it has been ruled, directly and indirectly, by its own army or cantonment-engineered parties, for about 30 of its 47 years of independence. Political stability as well as sustainability of constitutional rule has remained elusive since the counter-revolution of Aug 15, 1975.
Nevertheless, at this point in time, when Prime Minister Hasina has been in power for two straight terms and campaigning for the 2018 election as the favourite, one may argue that if she remains in power for the third consecutive term, political and constitutional stability will finally be achieved.
But the longevity or performance of a government is not synonymous for political and constitutional stability. Besides, the achievements of Hasina in politics and as government leader are more a testimony to her abiding filial duties and her uncanny political acumen or pragmatism in forging coalitions with parties and forces of questionable probity than the viability of party system and sustainability of constitutional rule.
The reasons for this state of affairs are not far to seek. When the constitution of the country was adopted in November, 1972, the import of the Bangladesh liberation struggle does not seem to have been fully realised. The conventional democratic party system was retained to serve the radical polity the constitution had established.
It was forgotten that the Bangladesh liberation struggle was more than a movement to establish the right to self-determination of the people of erstwhile East Pakistan. It was a veritable revolution. Pakistan’s Two-nation Theory, which mimics British colonial propaganda that the Hindus and the Muslims of the Sub-continent constituted two nations, was rejected. A secular-socialist polity based on Bangalee nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism was established.
Three years into the adoption of the constitution, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the liberation struggle, woke up to the new reality and attempted to fashion a new party system. In January 1975, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was made providing for a National Party: “If the President is satisfied that with a view to giving full effect to any of the fundamental principles of state policy… it is necessary so to do, he may, by order, direct that there shall be only one political party in the State.” But, he did not get time to carry out the experiment. The counter-revolution struck in August, 1975.
The counter-revolution foisted a low-intensity, undeclared civil war on the people. Through martial law proclamations, General Ziaur Rahman Islamised the polity. He replaced Bangalee nationalism by Bangladeshi nationalism (a euphemism for Bengali Muslim nationalism), and dropped the principles of socialism and secularism. All these counter-revolutionary measures, along with the August 15, 1975 coup and killing of Sheikh Mujib and most of his family members and jail killing of November 3, 1975 were given a legal-constitutional cover through the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution in 1979.
The Fifth Amendment continued to define the constitutional fundamentals of the country until it was declared null and void by the Supreme Court in 2010 and the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 2011.
With the counter-revolution began a decades-long political circus orchestrated by the cantonment, with General Zia and then General HM Ershad, as the main protagonists. The cantonment conjured up the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jatiya Party (JP) as political props for Zia and Ershad respectively.
The martial law regime of Zia began civilianisation in 1978. Since then, power politics has been a BNP-Awami League duopoly, with Ershad playing the role of a court jester. All other parties in the right and the left, individually or in combination, hardly matter in power game or political movement.
This makes a mockery of party system. The Awami League and the BNP have never been constitutional alternatives to each other, be it during the now-illegal Fifth Amendment or the present Fifteenth Amendment. To elaborate, the Fifth Amendment sought to legitimise the counter-revolution; the Awami League, on the other hand, was committed to restore the original version of the constitution. And by delegitimising all the legacies of Zia as the first military ruler of the country, the Fifteenth Amendment, made by the Awami League, has created an existential crisis for his party, the BNP.
As for constitutional sustainability, there has been tinkering with the fundamental principles of state policy. The Fifteenth Amendment is not celebration of victory of the secular-socialist polity as envisioned in the original version of the constitution. It rather appears to be a tactical move by a pragmatic political leadership which has chosen to gamble on neutralising the forces of counter-revolution by assimilating the principles of Islam and capitalism with the original secular-socialist polity.
The 2018 general election will test the viability of the Fifteenth Amendment as the building block of a new national consensus based on a fusion of ideologies – Islam and secularism; Bangladeshi citizenship and Bangalee nationalism; capitalism and socialism.
The Fifteenth Amendment essentially reflects what the leadership of the ruling party seems to consider as the ground realities of the polity at the present time. First, religion-based socio-political forces are in ascendance since the 1975 counter-revolution and it is worth trying to co-opt them. Secondly, the Left forces, which have historically been political catalysts in this land, have now little relevance either in election politics or street agitation.
The Fifteenth Amendment, thus, signals a political paradigm shift, with the Right playing the role of the catalyst. This is a sad commentary on the state of the polity.