Season of the bizarre
Things are rarely as they seem in Bangladesh politics, but there has been something unusually inexplicable in the machinations of the past few months, suggests Syed Badrul Ahsan.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv
Much as the Awami League, or a part of it, would like to deny it, the truth is that its deal with the Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish strikes a grievous blow at secular democracy in the country. The party's general secretary has lately been doing all he can to convince the nation that the move for an accommodation with the BKM is not an agreement per se but only a memorandum of understanding. That is surely not good enough, for the very plain reason that there is a mere fine line, nothing more, that separates an actual deal and a MOU.
Fundamentally, when two parties agree that certain moves will be made, or certain steps will not be taken, they are in effect convincing themselves that they have a pact between themselves. And that, precisely, is what has now come to pass between the Awami League, historically the fountainhead of Bangladesh's secular politics, and the Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish, which by any definition is an organization dedicated to the promotion of Muslim communalism in the country.
The deal between the Awami League and the BKM is, if you have cared to observe, one of the many quixotic happenings that have come to define national politics in this season of ambitions and dreams. There are far too many ambitions than the country can deal with, and these happen to be nurtured within the camps of those who clearly would like pieces of the cake once the dust has settled. And the dreams? That is something you surely cannot fail to spot in the permutations and combinations that have been, and are being, made as loyalties are ditched, new friendships are made, and old enemies are brought together, all through the rather innocuous process of a handing over of bouquets from one set of politicians to another.
Observe the alacrity with which Shah Moazzem Hossain, infamous for the many obscenities he hurled at Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina as Ershad's deputy prime minister, walked up to the door of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to be accepted as one of its newest members. And with him was Syeda Razia Faiz, for a very long time an Ershad acolyte, and, back in the 1960s, a follower of Field Marshal Ayub Khan in the Pakistan national assembly before making herself part of the Pakistani team to the UN in 1971 to argue against the "secessionism" of Bengalis.
Politics is certainly the art of acquiring power, or striving towards an attainment of it. It is, again, underpinned by the idea of principles, the core belief that individuals and parties, while ever ready for compromise and consensus on significant national issues, remain glued to the beliefs that have sustained them through a lifetime of political experience. But what has been happening in this riotous season of much wooing, much pole-vaulting and much merry-making has been as unprecedented as it has been eerie. Consider the huge efforts expended by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to pull General Ershad into its fold.
Khaleda Zia's child, in company with the much-talking and little-producing Lutfozzaman Babar, turned up at the former dictator's residence, had dinner with him, and at the end of it everyone emerged to let the country know that an alliance between the crusty old soldier and the people who had persecuted him (because he had persecuted them in his own glory days) was in the offing. Days later, Ershad went even further, to acquaint the country with a pseudo-philosophical explanation of why he was going over to the BNP-led camp. His Jatiyo Party and the BNP, said he, believed in "Bangladeshi nationalism," which was why he could not link up with those defenders of Bengali nationalism in the Awami League. When his sibling GM Quader chose to disagree, he simply faxed a letter from London, expelling Quader from the party.
And then came the reversal. There were the whispers that Ershad was outraged at the paltry offer of seats the BNP-wallahs were making to him. In contrast, the Awami League, whose leader Sheikh Hasina had, over the years, demonized Ershad in every manner conceivable -- he was a thief, a plunderer, a corrupt politician, a usurper, et al -- was tantalizing him with a better proposition. The general went into hiding for a day, to avoid being pounced upon by the BNP men and influenced into staying with the Bangladeshi nationalist camp.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv
When he turned up in public, it was to mount the stage at the fourteen-party rally at Paltan Maidan. He bravely declared that he was a soldier and was not afraid to die. In between those bouts of courage, he came forth with apologies to the nation for any wrongs that he might have committed while in office. And that was that. But there are yet the cynics who see little reason to trust Ershad and his party. What guarantee is there that the general will not link up with the Begum again?
Questions, questions! It is a time when principles have been the casualty; and the terrible thought that there is no last word in politics truly and readily seems to have taken hold of politicians' imaginations. Consider the story of AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury. In the weeks leading up to the general elections of October 2001 he had led a vigorous television campaign to undermine the Awami League, to a point where there did not seem to be any difference between his portrayal of Sheikh Hasina and her followers and that of the world of General Yahya Khan and the Pakistan army way back in 1971.
The Pakistanis had pillaged and killed. In Badruddoza's opinion, the Awami League had done a similar thing in its five years in office between 1996 and 2001. The propaganda horrified all conscious, liberal sections of Bengali society. But it worked, and Badruddoza Chowdhury took unquestioned pride in his achievement. But, in line with that old idea of a tide coming into the affairs of men (and women), the same Badruddoza Chowdhury has now stepped forth to wage a combined war against the BNP and its allies.
All things considered, though, it is fair to ask if all the horse-trading that has been going on, all the farce (if you can call it that) enacted, is not a direct consequence of the absence of political leadership in the country. Look around you, and you will be appalled to discover that in this hour of major peril for the country there is no national leader you and I can turn to for courage and support and reassurance where our collective future is concerned.
A deepening sense of tribalism has been making holes in the canvas of national politics; and neither Sheikh Hasina nor Khaleda Zia appears to have been able to convince the country that partisanship is an activity they can soon subsume to the national interest. The two major political parties, once again on the look-out for superannuated civil servants and retired soldiers to buttress their ranks, are obviously not driven by the thought that those they pull into their camps could well be men and women whose sense of self-aggrandizement is a whole shade more important than a preservation of party policy, or an upholding of the national interest.
Speaking of self-aggrandizement, try not to overlook the strange tale of the once-upon-a-time bureaucrat Abu Hena. His vociferous condemnation of his party's, the BNP's that is, patronization of Islamic fundamentalists swiftly led to his being thrown out by Begum Zia last year. He spent time abroad or, when he was back in the country, in the safe confines of a hotel in the nation's capital. When the brand new Liberal Democratic Party, with of course the old faces the country has seen in circulation for decades, came along, Hena thought he saw light at the end of the dark road ahead. He jumped on to the bandwagon -- and then, for reasons we know not but can only think we can put our fingers on, went back to the BNP.
That, you might be tempted to suggest, is the quixotic side of politics. And of course you could be right. In 2001, failing to come by a parliamentary nomination of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, retired Major General Subid Ali Bhuiyan simply walked over to the Awami League, signed a primary membership form, and eventually rose to importance in the party. This time around he has been rewarded: the Awami League has given him the nomination the BNP did not (back when the AL was contesting the election).
The stories could go on and on. And even as you thought that there was nothing more left to be said, you suddenly came up with newer, grosser revelations about the doings of men and women around you. Some weeks ago, bureaucrat Haider Ali, having been pushed to the sidelines through being made an officer on special duty, turned up at the home of the former prime minister's former parliamentary affairs advisor. Obviously he was peeved at the action against him. That is again understandable. But that does not quite explain why he had to find his way to the doorstep of a politician.
If he was seriously interested in politics, he could have thrown away that bureaucratic garb and donned some new clothes. Much the same could be said about ASM Abdul Halim who, as cabinet secretary, went merrily soliciting support for his eventual participation in the elections. It is all right for men and women across the social frontiers to entertain bigger dreams of self-satisfying ambition, but why must such goals tear through the fences of decency and the law?
But let all that be. And let the gaze turn to Bangabhaban where the element of drama that characterized its activities in this election season has never before been surpassed by earlier occupants of the presidential palace. Images of a head of state who, in a thickening shadow of questions, took charge as chief of the caretaker administration; of his palpable intentions of keeping his advisors on the fringes and in the dark about his moves; of the bubbling frustration that compelled four of those advisors into quitting their jobs; of the shadowy operations of certain men around the president -- all of these have pushed our political sensitivities several notches higher than they should have.
Add to these tales those very disturbing reports of a chief election commissioner refusing to get the message and so moving on. When he did move on, it was too late and pretty inconsequential. And then, just as the country waited for one of the election commissioners to take the same path to temporary oblivion, President Iajuddin Ahmed nearly made the nation choke on its emotions through appointing a new commissioner, this one in the person of a former inspector general of police who once made clear his vision of being a BNP nominee at the elections. And then, of course, there have been all those 1971-related allegations against him.
You could put it to me, to yourself, that such is the way things happen in Bangladesh. Things happen. Of course. But note the bizarre quality of everything that happens. The BNP is not worried about welcoming its old enemies into its fold. The Awami League strikes a deal with the peddlers of the "fatwa" and yet would like the country to take comfort in its secular underpinnings. And the Jatiyo Party remains in constant search of a foothold on life. You could be forgiven for thinking that all these parties have lost their way. And you would not be too far wrong to think so.
Politics, at this sharpened point in time, batters and bruises itself as it pushes its way through the thicket. That is certainly not a pretty sight for a nation which, quite inexplicably, keeps believing in the ability of its political classes to create new rainbow dreams for it. Sometimes hope can work wonders. Lingering too long, hope gains a toxicity that can only destroy a world.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the former Executive Editor, Dhaka Courier.