February 24, 2012
M. Serjul Islam
A legitimate allegation against the BNP in the last 3 years of the AL rule has been its boycott of the Parliament. In a parliamentary system, the Parliament is the centre of gravity around which the entire political system revolves. In it, the opposition is as important as the ruling party exemplified in Great Britain where the opposition is officially called Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Nevertheless, Bangladesh is not Great Britain and there are very few points of similarity in the two countries for proper comparison. Yet, the decision of the BNP to boycott the Parliament as if it did not exist is not a good thing for parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, no matter how severely the BNP is criticized; that criticism would look harsh if the realities of our politics is taken for consideration to make a value judgment on the BNP’s boycott of the Parliament.
Unfortunately, the Parliament in Bangladesh has not emerged by a long stretch of imagination as anywhere near what is required to make a parliamentary system functional. That the parliament has come to this sad stage is not the fault of the BNP alone. The AL has also contributed its share. In fact, it is the AL that had taken the leadership to make the parliament dysfunctional. From the very first Parliament of the country, the cardinal principle on which a parliamentary democracy stands, namely the right of free expression of views inside the Parliament, was gagged. The first Parliament came into being after a war of liberation that had fundamentally affected every sector of the country in a bloody manner, with death and destruction.
In that Parliament, the stature of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was so absolute that even the idea that someone would stand in Parliament and criticize his action or that of the Awami League was totally inconceivable. There was also no effective political party in the Opposition to play the role required from the opposition in a parliamentary democracy. Hence, our start was a bad one if it was parliamentary democracy that we were seeking to turn into reality the dreams for which hundreds of thousands had laid down their lives and created Bangladesh.
In his life time, the Father of the Nation ended our tryst with parliamentary democracy by the BAKSAL amendment. Those first few years when the true seeds of good governance under a parliament system could have been sown were wasted, first, by trying out parliamentary democracy where no role was envisaged for the opposition, then, by the BAKSAL amendment that tried to end for good even the concept that there could be any opposition to the Government by introducing one party system.
Those formative years also established the political mindset where those who followed, whether they have been uniformed or elected, have followed the need to make the role of the opposition as insignificant as possible. In fact, it has been the uniformed rulers who have sought to broaden the role of those who were not part of the government in the process of governance. They of course did so selectively but nevertheless they sought to take those they considered useful from the ranks of the opposition to talk with them because they were seeking legitimacy for their backdoor entry to power.
The fall of the military dictatorship of President Ershad was supposed to help establish parliamentary democracy again after 15 years of Presidential rule under the military governments. In fact, both the mainstream parties agreed to bring back parliamentary democracy when fighting unitedly against President Ershad. After his fall, parliamentary democracy was reinstated. Unfortunately, the political mindset of governance without opposition was also re-established although meanwhile the weak almost non-existent opposition that was the case during the first AL rule as well as during the period of the military was replaced by a two-party political system that is considered ideal for parliamentary democracy of the Westminster model.
In the first BNP tenure under Khaleda Zia however it was not the ruling party’s mindset to sideline the opposition that was the main reason why the opposition did not play its role in the parliament. The AL chose to leave the parliament to force down the BNP Government that it claimed wrongly to have been elected by fraudulent means by movement in the streets, through hartals. That set the traditions in our politics to sideline the Parliament to bring down the government by force. In fact, the tradition not to go to the Parliament for realizing political demands was introduced in our politics by the Awami League in the 1991-1996 tenure of the BNP.
In its 1996-2001 term of office, the BNP followed the AL’s example to take politics to the streets. The AL also ensured that the BNP would remain away from the Parliament by not allowing it space in the deliberations of the legislative body. By the time the BNP came around, the politics of conflict and distrust in which the two mainstream parties contributed their share ensured that the Parliament would be an institution where the praises of the ruling party and its leaders dead and alive wound be sung and the opposition party’s leaders dead and alive would be condemned.
When the AL won the last elections by a 3/4th majority, the traditions of our negative politics were deeply entrenched. The fact that the BNP won a historically low number of seats marginalized them even further in the context of participating in the Parliament. In the last 3 years, the AL has condemned the BNP for staying out of the Parliament while making not even the slightest effort to welcome them to it. The AL Parliamentarians have gone to the extent of naming late President Ziaur Rahman as an agent of Pakistan’s ISI! There have been insinuations of the worst type against the BNP leaders that can be anything but incentives to bring the party to parliament. In fact while rendering lip service to the need of the BNP to come to parliament, the AL leaders did everything inside the parliament and out of it to ensure that the BNP would stay out of it permanently.
On the rare occasions under this government that the BNP parliamentarians have attended Parliament, they have also shown scant respect for the leaders dead and alive of the ruling party in the true spirit of tit for tat. The public has been utterly frustrated by the attitude the parties have shown in Parliament with the ruling party doing much better in the game of abuse. These days, sessions of the parliament are shown live. Watching these sessions is nothing short of torture. The quality of deliberations is abjectly poor barring few honourable exceptions. With due respect to women empowerment, those who sit in Parliament on women’s quota do not do themselves or the gender they represent any favour at all. The thing that comes out strongly with what happens in our parliament these days is the competition of the members to shower praises at the Prime Minister, her government and of course at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The only new element in parliamentary deliberations these days and a strange one at that in a parliamentary democracy is the role of some members of the ruling party. Some of their criticisms on ministers of this government and governance would beat the BNP if it was making these criticisms. This no doubt is a reflection of the division within the ruling party with the group that has fallen out of grace due to the role they played against the party during the last CG making the criticisms. Two members of this group have now been silenced with their induction into the Cabinet.
The BNP’s case for not attending the Parliament was perfectly made by the new woman member of Parliament. Her tirade against the BNP and particularly against Khaleda Zia was so full of unparliamentarily language that one English Daily while carrying the news refused to print what she said in view of the venomous language in which she spoke. What was worse was the fact that the Speaker granted her five extra minutes in addition to the 10 she was allotted so that she could carry on with what she was saying. Her speech was applauded and clapped by the Parliamentarians among whom the Prime Minister herself was present.
Clearly, in the “traditions” that have been set in Bangladesh; there is no reason why an opposition party should attend its parliament. The offer that the present ruling party makes all the time that the opposition should place the points it raises in public meetings in the Parliament make very little sense. In the present mindset of the ruling party parliamentarians, the BNP members of parliament would be wasting their time and offering themselves for abuse by attending the parliament. The way this new woman Member of Parliament abused the BNP and Khaleda Zia that the rest of the ruling party members enjoyed that newspapers found disgusting even to print should convince anyone why the BNP should not attend parliament.
The absurd point is the folly in all these that the ruling party does not see. With the floodgate of private TV stations, people are witnessing first stand how democracy is being trampled. The woman MP may have made her party colleagues happy. What she did not realize and her party colleagues too is that voters have seen her act. They would not be encouraged to vote for her party because they too found what she said , disgusting. If only the AL had been a little generous with its 3/4th majority and allowed the BNP time and space in parliament instead of humiliating and abusing the party, it would have gained a lot politically without weakening its position even a little bit. One wonders whether common sense has taken leave of our politics and politicians.
The tirade of the woman MP would convince the BNP even more to stay out of Parliament. They are doing a pretty good job flagging for the people the mistakes of the Government through their long marches and public meetings and earning points for the next general elections. In the parliament without it, the ruling party is helping its cause. At this stage only a firm assurance to restore the CG system could encourage the BNP to return to parliament.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.