Monday, July 5, 2010

Is Politics forcing reforms in Awami League?

Published in The Independent, July 5th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

An article on Bangladesh in The Economist’s June 12-18 issue has not been complimentary. It said that politics has again become “personal, vindictive and confrontational” as if the 2 years of the emergency never took place. In the critical piece, there was not even the proverbial silver lining in the cloud. There is of course no reason to take the article as authoritative. Its confident prediction that the incumbent would win the Chittagong mayoral election easily was utterly incorrect and he lost it by a humiliating margin.

Politics in the country nevertheless is back to its old form. The Awami League is competing hard to prove that it can do better on all counts for which it had criticized the BNP during its last term in power. The way the daily Amar Desh has been stopped from its work and its Editor incarcerated has done little to give Bangladesh the democratic image it so badly needs for attracting foreign direct investment for its economic development. Hartal, the mortal enemy of the economy, has returned and although the public sentiment has largely crystallized against it, there was a quiet acceptance among the people that there is little they can do to stop its resurgence so long as the Government fails to deliver on the promises it has made for winning the elections.

There are a few long term dangers looming very prominently in the political horizon of Bangladesh. The failure of the Awami League to control the Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL) has embedded in it many issues that need serious consideration to determine the direction in which the country is going. The BCL started showing its ugly fangs very early in this term of the AL leading the Prime Minister to severe her connections with it as its chief patron. Her anger and action had no effect and instead the BCL increased its evil activities with more vigour to show that they are not ready to pay heed to her anger. Thereafter some AL leaders claimed that the BCL’s evil activities were being carried out by elements belonging to the Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal, the student wing of the BNP and the Chatra Shibir, the student wing of the Jamat who they claimed have “infiltrated” to take over top positions in the BCL that no one believed.

In very recent times, the BCL leaders have beaten up authorities in the government colleges to force them to give a percentage of seats for admission to them that they could trade for money to students who would otherwise not be admitted on merit. In one instance, they beat up the Principal of a Government College who was unwilling to accept their atrocious demand. The BCL also beat up pro-Hartal activists belonging to the BNP that led the AL General Secretary to announce in the media that the AL had no connections with the BCL! The BCL has been a student wing of the AL till this dramatic statement of the General Secretary. The AL leaders, including the Prime Minister and the General Secretary of the Part,y have themselves come from the BCL to the AL as a matter of intra-party mobility and they have, including the rest of the AL leadership, all taken pride of their membership in the BCL. In fact, as an unwritten norm, leadership in the BCL has always been considered a major credential for a major position in the AL. The General Secretary’s statement has thus come as a major surprise to everybody, including many in the party itself. Questions are being raised whether the AL has formally abandoned student politics and has severed the umbilical cord between it and the BCL. The Joint Secretary of the party has publicly questioned the General Secretary over the statement and said that the AL cannot absolve itself of its responsibilities for the illegal activities of the BCL.

The publicly aired difference of opinion over the illegal activities of the BCL is unusual in Bangladesh’s politics. The fact that the BCL has not ceased its illegal activities even after the Prime Minister’s repeated warnings is also strange. The concerns expressed by some AL leaders over the actions of the law enforcing agencies at the residence of the BNP leader Mirza Abbas is also equally unusual. It is not the first time that law enforcing agencies have shown over enthusiasm for their political masters. It is however for first time that a senior party leader not in Government has openly criticized such over-enthusiasm and that too in the Parliament. It is also for the first time that the candidate that the Prime Minister backed in Chittagong election did not receive the wholehearted support from the party that was one of the major reasons for his humiliating defeat.

Looking at these developments, one could however argue that politics is forcing the AL to change for the better where dissent expressed openly is not yet causing any reprisal. If the decision not to acknowledge the BCL as a part of the AL is correct, then the logical conclusion is that the AL is giving up using students for their political objectives. This could be the answer to prayers of many people in the country to end the criminalization of the public educational institutions and save the future of the nation. If the difference of opinion between the General Secretary and the Joint Secretary over the BCL is indeed one expressed in pursuance of a key democratic principle that dissent is inherent in democratic behaviour, then this could signal a paradigm shift in AL’s style of politics.

On reality check, however, it would be na├»ve to conclude that the unusual developments are positive signs for Bangladesh’s politics. In fact, history and nature of our politics points in an ominous direction. The link between the BCL and the AL is too deep to be severed by a curt statement in the media by the party’s General Secretary. The BCL leaders who are not listening to the demands of the Prime Minister have no reason to accept the decision of the General Secretary either because they could be drawing strength and inspiration from within the party that the top leadership is trying to ignore and push under the table. In forming the cabinet, the AL has sidetracked senior leaders because during the emergency they are alleged to have worked for change in the top position in the party. These leaders have their own following in the party that they have painstakingly built over many decades and their links with the BCL are the strongest because in their younger days, they have been top leaders of the BCL themselves. The recent unusual developments could mean that dissent is growing in the AL or besides those that have been demonstrated publicly, there are strong murmurs of dissent in private; something so long considered impossible in any of the two mainstream parties but necessary for democracy. However, if this is indeed dissent; the way it is happening and the reason behind it could lead to more conflicts within the party and hinder democracy instead of strengthening it.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and can be reached on his blog

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