|Volume 6 | Issue 04 | April 2012|
Confrontational or Infantile Politics?
SYED FATTAHUL ALIM traces the history and contemporary state of bipartisan politics in the country.
As things stand
Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, far from infusing dynamism in politics, the partisan ideologies have rendered it volatile, violence-prone, even destructive. Leaders and activists of the major parties bear nothing but deep hatred (looks like a throwback to the tribal period, though ethnically modern Bengali people represent a homogeneous stock) for one another so much so that often the encounters between their activists and supporters on the street turns violent, while at discussion meetings and talk shows on the TV end up in brawls. And it is due to this intolerance towards one another that so far the national parliament or Jatiya Sangsad could not become the centre of politics.
Rather than enriching themselves with divergent ideas and opinions, their fanaticism passing for partisan-ism and ideology has turned their leaders and activists into veritable bigots. Small wonder that more often than not, a free-for-all ensues as soon as the lawmakers of the two parties engage in a debate in parliament. Enlightened debate and display of good and educative oratory are something unheard of in the speeches those lawmakers make in parliament. On the contrary, the language with which the MPs of one party attack their opponents are replete with uncivil, filthy, ugly and unspeakable words. People would rather shut down their TVs or change channel than hear such exchange of obscenities from their elected representatives.
The woes of our parliamentary democracy do not end in dirty exchanges alone. Most of the time, the business of House remains a one-party affair. The opposition aptly tries to justify its long absence from the sessions in parliament with the excuse that as there was no congenial atmosphere in the House, they would not join its sessions. Though it virtually amounts to boycotting parliament, they will not' usually admit that. Parliamentary boycott is the political stance of a party based on issues. But in absence of a concrete political programme to substantiate such boycotts, the absentee MPs present such lame excuses to skip their responsibility towards their voters. This absenteeism or boycott culture is also as old as the recent history of our parliamentary democracy since 1991. In fact, this chronic boycott culture is the original sin that has finally rendered our JS or parliament dysfunctional.
Who isto blame?
Thus becoming highly critical of this ugly face of our partisan or confrontational politics, many want to get rid of it. They sigh for the nostalgic days of long past when partisan politics, they imagine, had its decency; when activists and leaders of rival parties would show minimum respect towards one another.
But partisan politics was never something rosy even in the remote past. But qualitatively the politics of yore was better because highly enlightened and learned leaders would keep the audience at rallies in the maidans and in parliament spell-bound. They were basically professional politicians.
But a large majority of the recent breed of politicians and parliamentarians are strangers to politics. They are mostly timeservers, have tonnes of unearned money and use this money from purchasing nominations to buying voters, musclemen and corrupt officials in the administration to win the elections. After winning elections, they use their newly acquired political power to plunder public money and property to reap windfall out of the investment they initially made to enter politics.
In the above context, is it any surprise that politics has now become the most profitable and secure form of business nowadays? It is, therefore, not surprising that a sizeable section of this new crop of politicians and their workers resemble the mafia in their behaviour and when there is any conflict of interest, what we see reminds us of nothing, but gangland warfare.
Where dirty money rules, one would be living in a fool's paradise to expect anything better. And by any standard, we cannot call it politics, let alone partisan politics in the true sense of the term.
Nothing good can be expected from this politics, until and unless the existing political parties are cleansed of the non-political elements who have of late taken control of the major political parties. Many among members of the intelligentsia and civil society have been suggesting consensus between the two major contenders for power, the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is but bipartisanism in the West, especially in the USA, as a way out of the ongoing standoff and stagnation in politics. Now the big question is what good even bipartisanism may possibly bring as long as the corruptive influence of money and its brokers hold these parties under their spell?
A brief detour into party histories and ideologies
Now what about the older leadership, who have not yet been sold out for money? Is it possible to restore the traditions of past politics so that the existing parties can at least learn to live together?
However, there is yet another hurdle, other than the curse of dirty money and its patrons and clients. And this hurdle emerges from the genesis of the larger parties and to a certain extent to their ideologies.
In an ideal situation, parties centre on certain ideologies or at least a clear set of aims and objectives that distinguish one party from the other. And the electorate's decision to support one party or the other depends on these ideologies or political programmes. Apart from ideology and programmes, the history of allegiance of different sections of the population to one party or another also plays a part in the electorate's choice of camp following.
In Bangladesh, ideology or programme-wise, it is hard to draw a fine line to distinguish the major parties, namely, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) from one another. However, on the face of it, they seem to have strong ideological differences.
So far as they openly declare, both parties believe in nationalism, though no nation state is conceivable without some kind of nationalism. Since nationalism is implicit in our very existence as a nation state, to express it as a party ideology is to a large measure a redundant proposition.
The AL prefers to call its version of nationalism Bengali nationalism, while BNP and Jatiya Party (JP) call theirs Bangladeshi nationalism. The semantics apart, as it is practised in Bangladesh, there is nothing much to tell one version of nationalism from another. To continue the slogan of Bengali nationalism further by any party of consequence, particularly after the independence of Bangladesh, may prove very sensitive, since a large number of Bengali-speaking people live beyond the national boundary of Bangladesh in a separate country. And the question of national liberation of the entire Bengali people is beyond the purview of any political party in Bangladesh.
All these parties, at least in theory, believe in multiparty democracy. In modern parlance, existence of more than one party is the sine qua non of democracy. The antithesis of multiparty system is one party rule. And since both these parties advocate multi-party democracy, it does not also convey anything special so as to differentiate them.
But some differences they certainly have and those lie mostly in the history of their birth. AL is much older than BNP or JP. AL was born long before the birth of Bangladesh, while the other two parties were created in the late 1970s and mid-1980s. Modern AL had its origin in Awami Muslim League created in the early phase of Pakistan. Awami Muslim League in its turn developed in the womb of the then-Muslim League, which was behind the creation of Pakistan through partition of the subcontinent as the British colonialist wound up their empire from this part of the world.
Later in history, the AL took the leading role during Bangladesh's Independence War. During its pre-Bangladesh phase, AL was a believer in multiparty system. But after the emergence of Bangladesh, it declared socialism, nationalism, secularism and democracy to be its ideals and included those as four pillars of the state in the first constitution of the country in 1972.
In the nascent phase of Bangladesh, AL reigned supreme with its overwhelming sway over the masses. Its leadership gradually turned vain and intolerant of criticism. The then-prime minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman brought 4th amendment to the constitution and abolished multiparty democracy and introduced one-party rule under Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal) and closed down most of the newspapers. However, this system was short-lived as the supreme leader along with most of his family members were assassinated in 1975 in a bloody coup d'etat.
After the tragedy, the nation went through many upheavals, coups and counter-coups. At a stage military strongman Ziaur Rahman took over. Gradually, from military dictatorship, he switched to civilian rule and lifted the constitutional restriction (due to 4th amendment) on political parties. As a result, the original Awami League was restored. President Ziaur Rahman formed a political party from his position in power. Some pro-left organisations including a faction of National Awami Party (NAP), which was an anti-imperialist, pro-non-aligned movement and populist political platform created by Maulana Bhasani during Pakistan era, and some other pro-left groups, individual as well some rightist elements joined this new party. The political vacuum created in the wake of 1975's changeover created the condition for this new party. After Ziaur Rahman's assassination in 1981, military dictator Hussein Muhammad Ershad usurped power and created his own party, the Jatiya Party, in the style of BNP. The only difference between the geneses of these two parties is that the founder of one was an independence war hero, while that of the other was not.
As expected, when the question of comparison among these parties arises, the AL claims its superiority for obvious reasons. And the political wilderness that the AL was pushed into in the aftermath of 1975 has made its leadership, activists and supporters alike, bitter and hardened in their attitude. So, after they assumed power, settling a score with the past became a part of their political agenda.
So the complex of superiority coupled with the race for taking all the credit for leadership in the war of independence has become the source of all conflicts that have spilled over from the corridors of the parliament and party offices into society at large.
Any way out?
What should we call our own situation?
It is true that since 1991, the senseless, often very nasty and destructive face-offs between the two major power contenders have caused common people to suffer, held back the desired growth of the economy and failed to institutionalise democracy.
And in majority of the cases, it was pure infantilism rather than mature political issues that presented it as the hallmark of their hostile posture.
But when infantilism turns out to be the biggest obstacle to a nation's growth and progress, then the public will naturally look for an alternative. At 40, it is undoubtedly a sad commentary on a nation that we have not yet grown adult. Even so, we have to move forward and for the purpose follow the basic rules of the political game. And since the major political parties like AL and BNP are yet to evince necessary political maturity to lead the nation in a genuinely partisan spirit, a consensus or bipartisan arrangement, as suggested by many thinking people, should be seriously thought out. The question is, who will bell the cat?
Syed Fattahul Alim is Editor, Science and Life, The Daily Star.
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