Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On dissent in Awami League

As I See It Column
The Independent
November 5, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

One issue that came to forefront during the last Caretaker Government about politics in the country was the lack of dissent within the mainstream political parties. It was also an issue that had concerned most people because they felt that parties that did not allow dissent within their ranks could not be expected to establish democracy in the country.

At least in one of the mainstream political parties now, it is clear that there is too much dissent. It started in an uncoordinated manner when the Awami League assumed power after the last elections. We witnessed initially subdued criticisms of some Ministers by some senior members of the party. We also saw dissent in wings of the party, the student wing for instance, that refused to follow directives coming from the top.

Recently, this dissent within the Awami League seems to have taken a new turn. When the Prime Minister was away attending the Commonwealth Summit in Perth, a section within the party had a field day in parliament. They took the Ministers apart for their absence from the parliament. They had choicest words for some of the Ministers. They were furious about the role of the Advisers.

The members who led the attack were given ammunition by the Ministers by their willful absence from the parliament. Leading the way was Tofael Ahmed who noted that out of 50 Ministers; only 6 were present that day. Another AL leader Sheikh Selim said that the Ministers attend parliament only to please the Prime Minister or for fear of her. They have no respect for the parliament.

Another senior leader Suranjit Singh did not mince words, stating both sarcastically and angrily that the Ministers do not care for the Parliament and instead spend their time for retaining their jobs by sycophancy with powers that matter. The speakers were most critical on the Advisers. Sheikh Selim said that they are Advisers to the Prime Minister and not to the Government and most definitely not to the Parliament. He and others regretted that the Advisers run the Government but not answerable to it and felt indignant about it.

All who spoke left no one in doubt that they had a lot of pent up anger and frustration to get off their chest. Although they expressed their anger on the Ministers and the Advisers, they ended in criticizing the democratic foundations of the government. They ended describing the present government as one the Prime Minister runs with her un-elected Advisers where the Ministers are powerless. In fact, they ended criticizing the government so severely that the opposition would have felt proud if they were the ones criticizing the government instead.

Not long ago, when the country was engrossed with corruption in the communications sector, the Minister for Communications was subjected to harassment rather than criticism in parliament. Other Ministers, for instance the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Commerce have also been subjected to critical scrutiny by the members of their own party in the parliament in a manner that humiliated them as much as it embarrassed and humiliated the government.

Dissent and criticism of policies, decisions and leadership by its own members is no doubt a sign of democracy in a political party. Therefore, in the first instance, the critical views expressed by the members of the ruling party about the Ministers not attending parliamentary sessions and about the un-elected Advisers controlling elected Ministers are developments that must be welcomed. Likewise, criticisms of certain Ministers who have become controversial are also to be commended.

However, on deeper examination a few facts emerge that point at a different direction and not really towards growth of democratic dissent in the ruling party. In fact, it reflects a growing revolt by the senior members of the ruling party whose views have significant following within the party.
These are the leaders who have been left out of the Cabinet and other favours from the Government after the AL came to power for their attempts at reform during the Caretaker Government with encouragement of the military intelligence.

The only issue that is keeping their dissent from becoming open revolt is the fact that they are not yet ready to openly take on the Prime Minister. Their fear of the Prime Minister notwithstanding, they are nevertheless pointing fingers at the Prime Minister anyway. They have gone ahead and criticized the Ministers in full knowledge that the Prime Minister has appointed them and any criticisms of the Ministers would also fall upon her. Likewise, they know that the Advisers are closer to the Prime Minister than her Ministers. Yet, their criticism of the Advisers has been more severe.

Thus, what is happening within the Awami League does not appear to be democratic dissent but expressions of personal anger and frustration by a section of the Awami League leadership for being left out from political power. What is disturbing is the fact that the number of parliamentarians who are critical of the Ministers and Advisers is not a small one. It is also disturbing that no member of the ruling party attempted to defend the Ministers and the Advisers when they were subjected to such severe criticism in parliament although it is common knowledge in the ruling party that the Ministers and the Advisers all enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister.

In fact, the Prime Minister defended the Ministers who were subjected to harassment and criticism by senior members of the ruling party on issue of competence and corruption very strongly, showing contempt at their critics. One therefore has to wait and see how the Prime Minister reacts to the latest show of frustration and anger of senior members of the party with more joining their ranks. Her reaction notwithstanding, the dissent in the ruling party that we are now witnessing may be growing signs of serious conflict within the party instead of emerging signs of democracy in it.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies

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