Sunday, October 22, 2006

Should Dr Yunus enter politics?

Published in The New Age, October 22, 2006

The mainstream political parties, by their destructive politics, have set the stage for a third force that the people have been expectantly talking about for quite sometime now. Who else can be better than Dr Yunus as that third force? asks M Serajul Islam

After nearly a week of celebrations following Dr Yunus and Grameen Bank’s Nobel Prize winning feat, that has resonated in the hearts of all Bangladeshis the same spirit that brought them together in 1971, an element of controversy has been introduced when the Nobel laureate told newsmen before leaving Dhaka on an overseas trip to South Korea and Japan on the 18th of October that he is thinking about forming a political party. The news has taken the people by surprise, bringing hopes in their hearts while the politicians have reacted sharply, some with very critical views while the civil society has stayed in between, advising Dr Yunus to remain above politics and use his stature to influence politics.

Dr Yunus won the Nobel Prize at a very critical moment for the country. An air of deep despondency grips the public mind, created by the deep impasse into which the two mainstream political parties have pushed the country. While the BNP and the AL had started negotiating a settlement before October 13th, the stand taken by the by the prime minister and Sheikh Hasina had not initially held out much hope that a settlement was near. The general feeling in the public mind was the country was fast moving towards a serious confrontation and civil disorder. After Dr Yunus won the Nobel Prize, there has been a spontaneous mood shift and the people now feel that the impact of the Prize would be positive upon politics and a confrontation would be avoided.

Initially, the speculation in public mind has been that Dr Yunus would be chief adviser of the next caretaker government and use that position to hold a free and fair election to move the country away from the path of doom set by the politicians. They were encouraged to think that way because the BNP and the AL were giving optimistic signs of a settlement, no doubt under pressure of the Prize. Dr Yunus himself dispelled that speculation, aware that the main problem in our politics cannot not be resolved merely by holding a free and fair election but by getting honest and competent individuals to contest in the elections. Without such individuals in politics, the Nobel Laureate felt that even after a free and fair election, the politics of confrontation and corruption would again dominate when the new government assumed office. The latest round of uncompromising statements coming from top leadership of the BNP and the AL no doubt proves Dr Yunus right about bringing a qualitative change in the character of politicians.

Those who have followed Dr Yunus and his works closely and know him well were therefore not surprised by the Nobel laureate’s nonchalant response on October 18th at Dhaka Airport to newsmen who reminded him that it would not be possible to bring honest and competent individuals to contest in the elections unless they are part of the political process. Dr Yunus gave them a very simple answer that if is what is required, he would form a political party to bring such individuals into politics.

The magic about Dr Yunus is that he speaks of the most profound problems in the simplest words that even an illiterate villager in Bangladesh can understand. Dr Yunus is a visionary and his simple words are part of his continuous vision for resolution of his country’s problems. Thus, his desire to form a political party to get honest men into politics is a very serious matter for him and though spoken very simply and casually, it is portent with great possibilities for the country. It would be worthwhile therefore to examine these possibilities. A starting point for such examination could be to examine first the reaction that this call by Dr Yunus has caused among the stakeholders, the political parties, the civil society and the people of Bangladesh.

While the people have rejoiced spontaneously in a manner that reminded them of 16th December 1971, the Prize has equally spontaneously shown the political parties in a contrasting light as if the Prize has pushed them against the wall. The two mainstream parties have felt this the most. Therefore naturally the politicians who were feeling the heat with Dr Yunus outside politics have naturally felt apprehension on hearing his desire to entire their domain not to join them but to challenge them. The political leaders who have spoken on the issue have been courteous to the extent of suggesting that everybody has a right to form a political party while at the same time sparing no opportunity to remind him that politics is not as easy as wishing and becoming one; that the process is much more complicated; and one of them has suggested that there is a ‘depoliticisation trap’ that he must get out from to become a politician. Another politician has expressed almost contempt in a Bangla phrase that cannot be translated into English without losing the bite by saying ‘puran pagolay bhat pai na; natun pagol jutay chay’ to dismiss Dr Yunus’ desire. HM Ershad, who has the longest link with politics and knows its nature better than most of the contemporary politicians, said that Dr Yunus should not join politics which has become very dirty and he will himself become questionable if he joins politics. Clearly, among the politicians, Dr Yunus’ interest to form a political party has caused a sense of alarm. Dr Yunus has put the politicians on dock and he has articulated the feeling of disappointment and distrust that prevails in the public about the politicians because of the way they have been pushing the country towards a catastrophe.

The civil society has not lagged behind in their comments to try to make Dr Yunus’ call controversial. They have followed the same tone, though less critical, in the way they have reacted. While not taking the risk to reject the call outright, they have cautioned Dr Yunus about the pitfalls, suggesting to him that he would be able to serve the country better by staying outside and using his stature to influence politics. As a result of the mess made by the politicians, the civil society has recently thrown its hat into politics and has drawn a lot of public attention. One cannot escape the members of the civil society and their views as they can been seen harping these regularly on newspapers, TV talk shows without succeeding even a bit in putting sense into the political parties to give up their confrontational politics. For most members of the civil societies, Dr Yunus’ Nobel Prize has taken a lot of this focus away from them and therefore they feel uncomfortable with his desire to enter politics which should explain their reaction.

The sentiment among the people has been different altogether. In fact, the call has been welcomed by them with great hope and expectation. Dr Yunus’ Noble Prize has come to them like an answer to their prayer to Almighty to save them from the doom towards which the politicians have been leading them. To them, the ‘depoliticisation trap’ is inconsequential. They cannot worry less about the problems of forming a political party; the difficulties in the process and whatever else goes with that. They feel that Dr Yunus is their messiah, who can deliver them from the professional politicians who are holding their future as hostage.

In Bangladesh, it is a simple matter to form a political party. This is a country that tops the world in the number of political parties that are registered to function as such. Awami League has 13 as allies and the BNP has 3. Then there are many others who are not part of these alliances. Most recently, Colonel Wali has expressed his intention to form a new political party. Badrudozza Chowdhury, after being forced out of office as president, formed the Bikolpo Dhara. True, these political parties have been formed by professional politicians but then many of them, Badrudozza Chowdhury for instance, was a doctor who entered politics at the top hierarchy. Therefore, in Bangladesh the idea of forming a political party is not a matter that should have brought from some of our top leadership the type of reaction that we have seen with the call by Dr Yunus. Their reaction can be explained by the fact that they feel very seriously threatened.

If Dr Yunus forms the party can he succeed? It is a difficult one to answer as there is no clear precedent similar to what Dr Yunus intends to do to make a prediction. An analogy, though not a perfect one, is our history after 1969 when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib’s charisma and the objective conditions existing then allowed the Awami League to catapult from a major party in then East Pakistan to being the only one winning 167 of 169 seats from then East Pakistan in the National Assembly of Pakistan in the 1970 elections. The mood in Bangabandhu’s favour was such that he could nominate a banana tree for a candidate and people would have voted that banana tree to parliament! In Bangladesh today, where the country has shown tremendous potentials in socio-economic development, where the only problem for the country is her politics standing in her way to becoming a successful economic power, an individual with charisma and stature like Dr Yunus can lift the country to reach those tremendous potentials, at least in the public perception. The fact that his party would be a new one, would have weak organisation can be viewed as serious problems but with the public behind him, like they were behind Sheikh Mujib before our liberation, there is an instance in our history to be optimistic about the successful outcome of Dr Yunus’ intention to form a political party. Let us also not forget that in the 1991 elections, the BNP had won with a very weak political party against the Awami League that was far better organised.

The problems in our politics is serious but one created entirely by our political parties, particularly the two mainstream ones. They come from their indulgence in corruption, closeness with criminal elements in society, pursuing their own selfish ends in the name of public interests, etc. The people today hold both the mainstream political parties responsible for the degeneration of our politics. With Dr Yunus heading a political party, all these negative manifestations that characterise every political party in the country today would just not be at the leadership level of this new party. Dr Yunus would of course choose individuals whose honesty and integrity would be above question and in a country of 145 million people that should not be impossible to find. If Dr Yunus could form a political party, get a few hundred honest people to contest the elections, he could set the applecart of the corrupt political parties on fire and ride his own political party to power. Let us not forget also the fact that although Dr Yunus is not a politician, he has a huge organisation at the grassroots level called the Grameen Bank, a co-sharer of the Nobel Prize that he could very gainfully use for political purpose. Let us also not forget that Dr Yunus is one individual who is above all controversy in Bangladesh today whose respect among the people is unquestioned, just like Sheikh Mujib’s was in 1971. If he forms a political party and seeks support of the people for his candidates on the issue of bringing to our politics the spirit of 1971 and there is a mechanism in place for free and fair elections, the people would just stand behind his party in their millions and even the prospect of Dr Yunus’ party winning by a margin Sheikh Mujib won in 1970 would be quite possible. People’s power should never be underestimated but encouraged and people’s power could and should take Dr Yunus to achieve the Bangladesh of our dreams for us.

Dr Yunus’ achievement in winning the Nobel Prize has come for a nation in distress as a ray of hope. Restricting this achievement to holding functions for him and garlanding him would be wasting his efforts and his world-winning potentials. Encouraging him to enter politics would be encouraging him to do much greater good for the country. Just imagine this scenario to reach your own conclusion and don’t be deterred with what politicians and interested members of the civil society say about the difficulties of politics for politics is difficult in our country because the politicians make it so. Imagine Dr Yunus forms his party, participates in the elections with individuals carefully selected, wins the election and forms a Government with not 60 ministers but 16 and runs an administration based on conscience, ethics and morality. That administration would not immediately get the corruption in the bureaucracy banished but in his own party, his ministers and his parliamentarians would be above corruption. That by itself would make it difficult for the administration to be as openly corrupt as it is today. This party would have no political scores to settle with the opposition. Hence, political oppression would vanish. As this party would not need mastaans for political motives, the nexus with criminals would also likewise be gone. The Noble laureate has no family ambitions for he is much above such pettiness. Hence there would be no Hawa Bhavan in his government. On what agenda then would the opposition hold hartals against the government? Finally, Dr Yunus would not need to do politics with the bureaucracy because his stature would be much above these bureaucrats who would just be too willing to serve the country as they are supposed to do. Dr Yunus’ entry into politics thus has great potentials. Dr Yunus, the political leader, can regain the spirit of 1971 for us, unite us again and help us achieve the dream for which millions have accepted martyrdom in 1971. The mainstream political parties, by their destructive politics, have set the stage for a third force that the people have been expectantly talking about for quite sometime now. Who else can be better than Dr Yunus as that third force?

Monday, October 9, 2006

Reform Agenda Number One: Let the government govern

Published in The New Age, October 9, 2006

Looking into the future where the politicians stand between us and our future and with neither of the two major parties a clear favourite for the next election, the time now seems most opportune to force out of them an understanding that no political party will have the ‘right’ to agitate in the streets for the downfall of an elected government and those trying to do so will face legal penalties under the law, writes M Serajul Islam

The BNP and the Awami League have had between them 15 years of people’s support to help achieve the country’s well being. The people have shown their respect for the leadership of both the leading ladies. Their respect for them has been sincere and given with just one hope, that between them, they will help achieve for the country the goals for which millions have accepted martyrdom in 1971. In any other country, with such potentials as they exist in Bangladesh, such respect and support from the people for the leadership would have taken that country towards her cherished goals and easily established her as a respected country in the comity of nations. But 15 years of support and respect our people have given to the two major parties and their top leaders notwithstanding, Bangladesh hovers close to a failed state because our politics and politicians cannot find a single national agenda for bipartisan cooperation. Instead, so extreme is their partisanship, each is more interested in damaging the other than taking the country forward. It is doubtful whether in any other country; such politics exists as they do in Bangladesh, a country where the people have shown at critical times of their history what sacrifices they can make, and what mettle they are made of to achieve their goals.

I was recently watching a TV talk show on our politics with audience participation. Among the panelists, there was an eminent lawyer of international repute and a minister. One of the panelists responded to a question from the audience by stating that the people have the ‘right’ to take the law into their own hands when they feel that their fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution are being violated. To me this was a most astounding submission that could be made on a public TV channel and that too in the company of a lawyer of such eminence. My first reaction was disappointment, in fact, shock to see the body language of the lawyer to this submission. He did not object to the submission; rather by what he added to her statement, he gave me the clear impression that he supported her.

I am no lawyer. I know Article 11 of our Constitution enshrines that Bangladesh “shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed”. These fundamental rights and freedoms are set out in details in the relevant part of the Constitution but nowhere there are individuals given the ‘right’ to enforce these constitutional guarantees by destroying private and public property and creating anarchy when they feel that the government was taking these away. The only legal recourse individuals have to protect these guarantees against infringement by the government is to change that government by constitutional means and also pursue individual infringements in the courts. Attempt to bring down by use of force an elected government is an act of treason that individuals, groups or political parties may attempt at their peril. Admitting the individuals’ right to ensure constitutional guarantees by force against perceived government encroachment is the ideal prescription for lawlessness and anarchy that any right thinking person should shudder before admitting.

But that is not all for the point would need elaboration. Take for example, the issue of Kansat which this panelist used to justify ‘right’ of the individuals to take the law in their hands or for that matter any act of lawlessness that we have seen in this country recently. It is true that in most of these incidents, individual rights have been tampered. It is also true that in most of the cases, the law enforcing agencies have acted in a manner that leaves a lot to be desired. But then, we also know that our democratic politics is now not yet well entrenched institutionally. All the three governments we had in the last 15 years of democratic rule have used law enforcing agencies to tackle political opposition in a manner where fundamental rights of individuals have been violated. The Status of Human Rights Report that the US State Department brings out every year has documented these violations committed by the BNP and the AL while in power. In fact, Bangladesh’s track record on human rights under the BNP and the AL governments is no good or no worse than most developing countries, including our neighbours. In none of these countries do we witness agititational politics of the type we see in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the opposition is trying to establish that it is their ‘democratic right’ to force an elected government out by using sometimes genuine cases of violations of fundamental rights as excuses and sometimes on charges that are purely political, subjective and tenuous.

It is true that under the present BNP government, violation of individuals’ fundamental rights have been somewhat more. It is also true that there have been political killings of top opposition leaders including an attempt on the life of the leader of the opposition and that the government has failed to bring the culprits of these dastardly acts to justice. But these violations would hardly justify, as some political parties have suggested, turning the entire country into Kansat and Shanir Akhra, for bringing down in their words an ‘autocratic’ government. In a developing country trying to establish democracy, such incidents will occur. Power shortage, for example, will not go away no matter who wins the next government. Violations of fundamental rights will occur likewise as they have in all the democratic governments we had since 1991. These are due partly to failure of governance and partly to poor economic infrastructure and resources. The resolution of these problems is directly dependent on improvement of governance for which both the major political parties should take responsibility and economic development of the country for which peace and not conflict is of the essence. It would be sheer madness to even suggest that these problems would be gone if the political parties are allowed to physically force out an elected government whenever they feel the people’s rights are being violated or that a government in power is failing at governance. The political parties have the right to articulate these failures of the government for the people; they are not the court and have no power to adjudicate and pass judgments. The political parties, least of all, should neither indulge in movements for removing an elected government nor encourage individuals to take the law into their own hands and create lawlessness.

It is therefore very important to give serious thought to what the AL is trying to establish in our politics; the right of political parties to do constitutional politics when they wish and to do street politics when they please and mix the two at their discretion. One issue has been very clearly established in Bangladesh through the last 3 elections that governments are now elected freely and fairly, the losers’ cry to the contrary notwithstanding. It has also been well established that no political party can shorten the life of the government even by a single day by unconstitutional means because the people are against it. Another established fact is the attempts to bring down elected governments by unconstitutional means are creating serious impediments to governance and causing the country unimaginable harm. It is therefore of the greatest importance that we now assert unequivocally that the Constitution of the country does not give any political party the right to bring down an elected government by force. Establishing this fact unequivocally will also force the political parties to try and make the parliamentary system work by using the parliament effectively in trying to resolve the problems like Kansat, Shanir Akhra and the rest.

The Awami League and the BNP deserve great credit in removing Ershad’s dictatorship after a decade-long movement in 1990. Since then, these two parties have shared government and the country saw three elections that have been by all accounts as free as elections in a developing country can be expected to be. Without going into details, it would be important to note that in each of these elections, the public mood was effectively translated in sending their party of choice to power. The other point to note would be that in 1996, the party that was in office lost the elections and again in 2001, the same thing happened, indicating prima facie that the

However, the AL and the BNP, in sharing power have demonstrated certain traits that fundamentally contradict the elementary principles of democracy. They have not accepted their defeat in elections graciously and have been poor losers. The AL has demonstrated this trait more than the BNP. In their two tenures in the opposition, the AL never accepted the legitimacy of the BNP government and has tried to forcibly bring down both the BNP governments by hartals, and a host of negative and destructive politics. As a result, the party failed to play the role of an opposition in a democracy, that of a watch dog, by boycotting the parliament. The BNP likewise followed the AL examples and agitated against the AL government when they were in the opposition and carried out the ‘tradition’ of negative politics set by the AL. The sad aspect of this unfortunate trait has been the fact that allegations for which each has denied the other legitimacy to govern have been at best tenuous and subjective. The three elections we had since the fall of Ershad have been observed by many national and international observer groups and there has not been one report where any of these groups have made comments on the issue of fairness that even comes remotely close to the accusations made by the losers, the Awami League in particular. This notwithstanding, the two parties while in the opposition, have made governance difficult through hartals, oborods, shamabesh and mahasamabesh for which the parties have not suffered but the country has. So a legitimate question that comes to mind is why did these parties indulge in such negative and destructive politics? Whose interest did their politics serve and whose interests did they affect? These are crucial questions and answers to these questions are in my view more important than the utopia that the two parties are now seeking, namely to find individuals to run the next election under the Non-party Caretaker Government.

I have my doubts that the two main parties, who have between them messed our politics, will be able to resolve the issues before them although the nation is very eagerly hoping they would. The AL has already claimed victory because they have been able to keep the Jamaat out of the talks. Sheikh Hasina has reiterated that they want wholesale removal of top brass of the EC and Justice Hasan. The prime minister has stressed that the Constitution must be upheld which means the NCG would be headed by Justice Hasan. The Jamaat has reminded the prime minister also that the Constitution should not be compromised under AL intransigence.

The current political scenario is therefore most uncertain. However, beneath the uncertainty, new realities are emerging that the major political parties better take note for their own well-being and that of the country. In between the BNP’s poor governance and the AL’s ceaseless agitation to unseat an elected government, the people have lost a lot of faith in both the mainstream parties and the two ladies. But then in the absence of a third force, they have little option but to choose between the two, although in the event of a third force emerging between now and election time –– and there are good hints at that direction too –– the two mainstream political parties could be setting themselves for a shock. At least one politician has taken note of this change in wind direction. Ershad, who sometime back had said he would decide whether or not to join the BNP alliance by September, has cleverly backtracked and in all probability will go for the elections alone to cash on the prospects of getting the third force votes.

But then that is a future scenario. For the present, let me go back to the TV talk show. The minister on the panel said something with which I quite agreed. He said that in the last three elections, voters were least bothered about individuals in the EC or the NCG and given the chance to vote with reasonable freedom, they were able to elect to office the party of their choice. Given all the controversy that the AL has raised over the EC and the NCG, the fact is that even without any changes, the voters would again succeed in doing the same. Politics of the country has become more transparent despite attempts of both the parties to the contrary. However, to be fair to the AL, their demands against lack of transparency and neutrality of the current EC must be addressed and redressed. Their demand for the removal of bureaucrats that the BNP has placed in the field with the elections in mind should also be addressed and corrected although the AL did the same in 2001. Their demand against Justice Hasan, however, is not based on correct interpretation of the Constitution as I wrote in a recent article in this paper. The BNP extended the retirement age of judges to avoid another CJ as the head of the NCG but that is politics for which the AL can try and take advantage with the voters who are now matured and understand politics better. To victimise Justice Hasan and disregard the Constitution would set a very bad precedent. Moreover, as the NDI has written in its recent report, the head of the NCG, surrounded by 10 other advisers and under the glare of national and international stakeholders, would have very little chance to show bias towards any political party.

Looking into the future where the politicians stand between us and our future and with neither of the two major parties a clear favourite for the next election, the time now seems most opportune to force out of them an understanding that no political party will have the ‘right’ to agitate in the streets for the downfall of an elected government and those trying to do so will face legal penalties under the law. Reform of institutions like the EC and the NCG will be an ongoing process even if the two parties succeed in their current negotiations. It is the respect for institutions and, most important of all, in the legally installed government and the Constitution that the nation should now demand and make the politicians accept without any condition. This demand and its acceptance is also the key to Bangladesh’s future and anything short of it will keep Bangladesh hovering close to being a failed state.