Saturday, August 27, 2011

Debate in Parliament; Ominous Signs

As I See It Column
The Independent
August 27th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Those who watched live a recent TV coverage on a debate in the parliament were treated to an unbelievable spectacle. There were no members of the opposition in the session. Yet the mood inside the parliament was such that the opposition on its best day could not have achieved what the members of the ruling coalition achieved in embarrassing the government and humiliating it.

The main object of wrath in the debate was the Minister for Communications. He was attacked by peers of his own party and ruling coalition in a manner that he would not have anticipated from the opposition. The verbal language with which he was attacked was full of venom. The body language of those who attacked him was vicious and sarcastic. Those who watched wondered if the parliament indeed needed any opposition.

There were of course enough reasons for the attack to which the Minister of Communications was subjected. The highways of Bangladesh have been literally turned into death traps and pot holes where buses are unable to ply on some major roads or kill at will where they are able to ply. In fact on many routes, the bus owners were left with no alternative but to suspend operations. Given that our buses ply on almost any roads and bus owners would do anything for profit, the suspension of operations of many roads suggests that they were indeed totally un-usable.

Yet the Communications Minister was in no mood to listen to calls from anyone including his own party members. In fact, he found humour in the frantic cries of all over the conditions of the roads. He also used the ploy that is now a tradition in politics of the country; blame the previous government for the ills. He then tried something unheard in Bangladesh’s politics. He blamed the Minister of Finance for not making the budget allocations for maintenance of the roads.

It was the Communications Minister’s misfortune that Tareque Masud and Mishuk Munir were killed in a road accident at a time when the pitiable condition of the highways had brought the nation’s wrath upon him. The mood of the nation suddenly became intense for finding a meaning for the deaths. The civil society articulated the people’s mood and called the deaths murder. Strangely, the government failed to respond to the public mood in the correct manner by failing to pinpoint responsibility either for the two deaths or the dilapidated conditions of the roads. Thus the Communications Minister did not show a trace of worry because the Prime Minister was not inclined to put his job on the line.

At this juncture the debate in the parliament over the roads took place. Some leading members of the ruling party and its coalition members fell upon the Minister of Communications like hunters going for the kill. All they said was what the public wanted to hear. It would all have been good for democracy in general and great for parliamentary democracy if what we saw in the parliament that day was indeed done in democratic spirit. In fact, it would have been a dream come true.

However what transpired left no one in doubt eventually that it was anything but democratic spirit that was played out in parliament that day. The Deputy Speaker who was presiding over the unbelievable session gave a hint of what was actually happening. He advised the Ministers to go to the Prime Minister with their complaints instead of blaming one another and allowing the members to attack them on the floor of the parliament. His advice was no doubt prompted because the members by then had crossed over to criticizing the government that he did not want under his watch.

The Deputy Speaker’s advice fell on deaf ears and the “debate” became even more animated afterwards. A good number of parliamentarians were not ready to let a chance pass by in just not attacking the Minister of Communications; they attacked a few other Ministers, criticizing their public behaviour that was embarrassing the Government. The Whip of the Party and the Deputy Leader also tried to calm the members down, sensing that the Treasury bench members were in fact acting as opposition members and were doing a fine job in humiliating the government. One senior Minister was seen urging members to keep up their attacks instead of listening to the Whip to calm tempers down!

One leader of a party in the ruling coalition had a dig at the performance of the government in a manner that even the opposition could not have articulated. He accused the government of failure in controlling inflation, the share market scam and rising prices of essentials that has the nation reeling. The Finance Minister was also made the object of particular wrath. His role in the pitiable state of affairs in the share market was attacked with both venom and sarcasm.

Those who spoke that day ended up criticizing the government in a manner is if they were long in waiting for such a chance and was not ready to let it go. For many, the proceedings left no doubt that they were using an opportunity to express their personal frustrations with this government. Some of those who took the lead are senior members of the ruling party and leaders of the coalition whose ministerial aspirations were bypassed when the government was formed after the elections.

It is an open secret of our politics that senior leaders within the ruling party have been encouraging intra-party conflicts since the ruling party came to power out of their personal frustrations. The opposition has been too weak to muster any meaningful pressure on the government. Yet, there have been continuous political disturbances all over the country. Most of these disturbances and agitations have been carried out by the students and other wings of the ruling party with encouragement of these senior leaders. Many attempts of the Prime Minister to rein in the Chatra League have failed. For many, the parliamentary debate that day was proof of truth in the open secret.

What we saw in the parliamentary debate therefore should not fool anyone as signs of democratic behaviour. It has in fact revealed the intra-party conflicts of an unhealthy nature. This state of affairs in the ruling party explains why it has fallen so far behind fulfilling many of its election promises. It is this intra-party conflict that is also largely responsible for the 3/4th majority and the huge mandate the ruling party received in the last elections being wasted.

It has also left many worried. Such conflict within the ruling party has a sad history. It is high time that those in charge in the ruling party should take the parliamentary debate as a wakeup call to resolve intra-party conflict by democratic means to avoid history from repeating itself.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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