M. serajul Islam
Published in The Independent's National Day Supplement
March 25th , 2010
It is now the talk everywhere. The abuse and name calling in which the MPs indulged recently in the sessions of the parliament shown live on TV disappointed the nation and led people to believe that politics in the country is moving in the opposite direction for establishing democracy. The Speaker whose well meaning and no nonsense intervention after he was pushed to the limits restored some level of decency but there is no reason to believe that such intervention will improve the quality of performance in the parliament. Bangladesh is entrapped in a cobweb of negative politics that is not only being reflected in the parliament; it can be seen in all aspects of public life that is not allowing the country to develop to its potentials.
The way the two mainstream political parties have done politics since the fall of Ershad’s military government has developed a dynamics of its own. The dynamics has been driven by just one force and that is negativity. The underpinning theme in this negativity is the almost total absence of bipartisan approach to any national issue. Each has opposed the other just for the sake of opposing. When one has won the election, the other has turned away and invariably accused the winner as cheat despite the fact all four elections since Ershad’s fall have been attested by international and national observers as free and fair. When one has gone to the parliament as the ruling party, the other has stayed away. There has been practically no known instance where the two parties have cooperated on any issue of importance to the country. When the Prime Minister recently returned from her state visit to India, her own party gave her full marks. The opposition accused her of selling the country.
In recent exchanges between the two parties, their negative mindset hit a new nadir. The BNP has been abstaining from the parliament for a long time. Every right thinking citizen of the country wanted the opposition to come back to the parliament for they knew that without an opposition, the parliament cannot function democratically. Unfortunately, when they came back, the exchanges between the two parties were unbelievable. They reacted to each other as if they were looking for the opportunity to show the nation their accomplishment in abusing national leaders. It is not just that the language used was grossly unfit for any civilized gathering, let alone a body like the national parliament. Even the body language was mean and nasty. Both the parties have tens of millions of followers. When one leader was abused in the language that was used, tens of millions of people across the country were deeply hurt. Even then, these parliamentarians carried on with their abusive language because they believed that against those tens of millions whose feelings they hurt, there were tens of millions of their own supporters who cheered when they abused the national leaders.
The members of the parliament, unfortunately, wrongly assessed the public who did not react the way they expected. Many of their own supporters outside the parliament have felt ashamed that those whom they elected behaved that way. In fact, the majority of the people, even those with party affiliations, responded positively to the tough stand taken by the Speaker. It is inconceivable that these members failed to even consider the fact that their behaviour was being shown live to the nation and that no sensible person would but negatively react to such offensive behaviour. What was also equally inconceivable was the fact that while a member of parliament took the floor to abuse a national leader, his party members, including the women members, saw nothing wrong in such abuse and were seen on live telecast encouraging and urging the member speaking to carry on with his/her speech. That was negative politics in its worst manifestation.
The MPs are educated and sensible. It is difficult therefore to understand why they behave this way and why none of their peers in the party correct their behaviour. The negative political culture that the two mainstream parties have helped create has the answer embedded in it. No one doubts anymore that Bangladesh has been able to establish one of the most democratic systems of election for transfer of power. Yet the two mainstream parties left us without any doubt by the way they “elected” their party executives or in the manner they have taken decisions in their respective council sessions that there has been much there to gladden the hearts of the supporters of democracy. Today in the AL, the Prime Minister has both the first and the last words in every major decision of the party. Likewise, in the BNP, it is Khaleda Zia who plays exactly the same role. As a consequence of such lack of democracy within the party, it does not need much common sense to conclude how rest of the party leaders would behave. All members of the AL, before they utter a word in public, ensure that what they say would please the Prime Minister. The BNP members do likewise with sycophantic zeal towards Khaleda Zia. In fact, there is an element of competitive sycophancy in both the BNP and the AL to please their respective leaders.
It is difficult to believe that the two leaders who have each been Prime Minister two times through elections would subscribe to the behaviour that their members have recently shown in parliament. Yet it is in all likelihood that these members are behaving the way they are behaving because they believe that such behaviour would please them. The ball is thus squarely in the courts of the two leaders. While the Speaker’s reprimand has been correct though belated, it will have no sustainable impact upon the members unless the Prime Minister takes a stand against such abusive behaviour of her party members and Khaleda Zia does likewise. The two leaders do not even have to use any of the harsh words that the Speaker has; they just have to make it known that they would be unhappy if their party members abuse national leaders in the parliament. The irony is the task of ending such a negative aspect of the working of the parliament is as easy as that.
On the broader canvas of the nation, politics is equally negative where the two leaders again hold the key to unlock the nation’s future. In the BNP’s last term of office, the AL criticized them on issues of corruption, politicization of the bureaucracy; harassing political opponents; law and order situation and on the Prime Minister’s son exercising political influence. The people accepted these criticisms and gave the AL a 3/4th majority to win the last elections. In the year and 3 months it has been in power, the AL is following on the footsteps of the BNP and fine tuning what it did. In negative mindset, the two parties are thus eerily the same. Instead, if in 2002, the BNP had not indulged in corruption, or not allowed the Prime Minister’s son undue influence in government or politicized the bureaucracy or gone after their political opponents, the people who had looked so favorably upon them in 2002 elections would not have rejected them so comprehensively in the 2008 elections. While the future can only be a matter of speculation, the trend by the AL to continue with the negative elements of our political culture can only make their chances of winning the next elections in 2014 that much harder. In the midst of such negative politics, it is the nation that suffers.
Instead, what would happen if from tomorrow, the AL would let the opposition speak freely in the parliament and even if they continued with their negative mindset, not be provoked? If the government decided not to go after them for political reasons and by the same token of positive politics, allow the bureaucracy not be subjected to political influence as it is legally bound to, and refrain from doing all other negative things that it had accused the BNP of doing in its last term of office, who do you think would benefit? Common sense should dictate to conclude that such steps would enhance the standing, popularity and stature of the Prime Minister manifold and establish the AL as a proactive and positive political party. If the BNP would continue to remain in the groove of negative politics in the face of AL’s positive and proactive politics, it would only sound its own death knell. If the BNP had done all the above in its last term, its predicament in the last elections would not have been as pathetic as it was.
If again henceforth, both parties would come out of their negative politics together, the doors of Bangladesh to achieve the level of development it should have achieved long ago would not be very far away. But if both continue to remain inside the cobweb of negative politics, then Bangladesh would continue to have the 5-6% economic growth rate it achieved over last two decades because of the vibrant private sector but would not make that break to launch itself into a middle income country and beyond for which a growth rate near to 10% is crucial. Ironically it is not economics but politics that is keeping the country back; economics is waiting and praying for politics to catch up. The key to Bangladesh’s future to let politics take charge is firmly in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The rest of the leadership in both parties is incapable to bring that change. It is high time that they should come forward to break the cobweb of negative politics for the sake of Bangladesh’s future.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt