Never Say Die
Shayan S. Khan surveys the wreckage of the past 21 months
Munir Uz Zaman/Driknews
The signposts are now visible. The air of change hangs less heavy, almost fading. And after a two-year sojourn in the wilderness of hope, 150 million people trudge slowly back to their fate.
With the symbolic unlocking of a door in the quiet London suburb of Enfield, that fate was finally and decisively released upon us once more. Now, all roads lead back to that harsh truth we had hoped could be unsettled, the equilibrium we had hoped could be disturbed: In Bangladeshi politics, nothing ever changes.
Housed inside that door enjoying the autumn is the poster-boy of all the lice that had woven itself over the fabric of Bangladeshi politics ever since its inception. The greed with which its masters assumed their position, the absolute disregard for the common good of its people, the clan mentality, systematic looting, and divisive ambition.
A snapshot of it all is framed inside the portrait of Tarique Rahman. A few broken bones, perhaps, a few dents as well to the ego, but in the end you have to say he got away with it. And so have many of his brethren, and his mother, and the annoying aunty too.
Some, like Uncle Nazmul got unlucky. But all in all, as a generation, they are now safe. Nothing that cannot be gotten over, when the stakes are so high as control of a nation. Temporarily, they may have to leave the table, but they can all come back for another roll of the dice. It is inevitable that most will.
Witness how loudly it has been whispered that Tarique's forfeiture of his party post is merely temporary. And his party's break-up, once seemingly so imminent, has now lost all momentum. But the bewildering question screaming to be heard above the din in the political discourse of the nation right now is this: What has been the point of the roughly two years post-1/11?
"Administrative and institutional reform," wise men propose, no doubt referring to changes in the operational structures of the Election, Anti-Corruption and Public Services commissions, as well as the separation of the judiciary. "Witness their effect in the long-run," they suggest.
But those wiser point to missed opportunities for more comprehensive and meaningful reforms in the absence of a political government: "It is really only by way of enforcement that they have trumped previous governments," they opine as they brush their smartly-tailored suits, "Which is not saying much given their apolitical stance. Besides, badly needed reforms in education and the police administration have been largely overlooked."
And then the wisest, almost feigning interest, bring the conversation to a shattering finale with their fatal judgment: "This, too, can be undone." They are the voices the optimists among us have been striving to deny attention for the past two years. The ones who knew change was never coming, that it was all an eyewash or a sham or, if well-intentioned, doomed for failure amidst the corrupt landscape of Bangladeshi politics.
They have been vindicated, and in the land of the duped, the pessimist's voice reigns loudest. But what lies at the root of that once-almost thrilling ride towards change coming to such a meek, sputtering surrender, still such a distance from its designated destination?
I have been back in the country for the last six of the 20 months since 1/11, and in that time, one very noticeable absence in my eyes from times before has been the glaringly apparent lack of authority.
We all know this military-backed caretaker government assumed power to fill the vacuum that had eventuated as a result of events in the period between October 2006 and January 2007. But power without authority also lacks legitimacy.
Unelected, and inhibited by the army's strong hand, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed and his team have never succeeded in imposing themselves as the leadership of the nation.
A friend was recounting to me how recently he was at an awards function with the chief adviser (quite logically) as chief guest, and how during Dr. Ahmed's speech, he and his colleagues as part of the production team had to usher throngs of people back to their seats as they started to leave so it wouldn't look too bad for the cameras. They just didn't have the time for it. One can understand, even appreciate, when it is done out of protest, but when it is done out of apathy, no event management team should have to deal with an audience walking out in the midst of a head of government's speech!
General Moeen on the other hand, has consistently and for too long now failed to define himself to the people. Was he the unlikely messiah, there to lead by example and with his loyal troops under him, finally a force to take on and bring down the party cadres and strongmen who (mis)ruled these shores for so long?
Or was he a mere guide, there to play a paternal role as the caretaker government implemented the necessary changes? Or was he, dare I add, even a pawn himself, subject to external pressures, catering to the whims of a powerful international lobby?
We have never been able to quite place him. And thus, never able to quite invest our faith in him. If he was to be the messiah, he was far too hesitant, too careful to protect his own image from being that of a power-hungry general in the South Asian tradition of names such as Ershad and Musharraf.
If he was to be the guide, his shadow hung too heavy over the caretaker government for the partnership to be an effective one. And if he was just a pawn as some quarters now suggest, even 1/11 was one day too long for him to enjoy the stature he did.
Whatever he was, he has at-least proven what he was not: A leader. And with no-one else there to assume that role during this period, that power vacuum from January 2007 has never really been filled.
We never knew quite which way to look when the prices kept going up, when natural disaster struck, in a word when we needed leadership. Was it in the chief adviser's office, or further down the road inside the cantonment? Without firm leadership, neither could the present situation last, nor could it leave any lasting impact.
Seasoned politicians gleaned that, and they were emboldened by it, as shown by Sheikh Hasina's periodic outbursts and Khaleda Zia's tirade (from the floor of a courthouse no less!) in June when she promised that the present regime would also get its comeuppance in the form of facing trials when an elected government assumes office next.
The sad part is that whether they have succeeded in pulling it off or not, Bangladesh was crying out for the shock to the system that the military-backed caretaker government provided at the time. The alternative was a farce, a more enduring eyewash, an acceptance of perpetual subjection at the altar of a failed yet persistent democracy. The disappointment lies in how the shock has been administered.
Munir Uz Zaman/ Driknews
Corruption can be fought in many ways, and the route chosen in our case was exemplary punishment en masse from the top-down. Whether that was the right choice or not is another matter altogether, but once the choice is made, you at least expect it to be carried out with due diligence to its logical conclusion. In dealing with a problem so deep, there is no room for half-measures.
And so as hundreds of perpetrators reaching into the deepest corridors of power were rounded up, we supported the process. A spate of sentences was handed out, and we nodded in approval. Now, most of them are free. Where does that leave us? Where does that leave anyone who sought, who hoped for, who believed in change?
If the army in conjunction with some of the most respected individuals in our society is too weak a force, who else is left to turn to? Independently, we have seen eminent personalities like Dr. Yunus get flustered by even the shallowest waters of our political terrain and back off. Who is left, then, for us to look up to?
But between the talking heads and the smooth customers and the overtly nostalgic, and above the naysayers and the idealists, I see a people who recognise the sheer pointlessness of it all, the pettiness really, of reducing your country to a prize up for grabs.
I see a people more assertive of its relevance, more secure in its own skin, more receptive to new ideas, more willing to take an initiative, more confident in its stance, more springy in its step.
I see a people on the verge of attaining the Gramscian notion of culture, that it is "organisation, discipline of one's own inner self, a coming to terms with one's own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one's own historical value, one's own function in life, and one's own rights and obligations in life."
They are the young of this nation, and praise be to Neptune, there's no dearth of them. I refuse to impose an age-bracket on them. They are whoever has seen through the myth of government in our country, and decided to grab their futures by the hair themselves, because they can.
They are the ants creeping all over the old order's newspapers, board-rooms, courtrooms, billboards, television screens, policy institutions. They have their grievances, yet they are deferential towards their forefathers' contribution in building this nation to whatever extent they have. So they are quite ready to wait for the baton to be passed, as opposed to grabbing it irreverently.
In the meantime, almost without knowing it, merely by chasing their own dreams, they are laying the foundations for their future hegemony. Their individual visions in unison augur a Bangladesh breaking free of the pettiness that has dogged its development for so long. And there will lie the challenge, in striking that delicate balance between individual ambition and collective progress.
One wonders how they will take to their new shoes. It cannot be too long now. Already, I can hear the pessimists bristle, as they mutter their indignation at such hubris. But even if they had seen it with their own eyes, it is in their code of conduct to write off the ones I'm putting my faith in next. The very last remnants of it.
Shayan S. Khan is Operations Manager, CSR Centre.