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Tuesday, September 4, 2007
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The mandate that Khaleda Zia wasted

She could have transformed our political culture

Seldom did an elected leader, especially in parliamentary democracy, receive the type of popular mandate as Khaleda Zia did in 2001. In fact she is the only leader who got elected as prime minister twice (We are not counting the controversial election of February '96) in our country's history. Of the 15 years of our unbroken succession of elected governments she was in power for ten years. In the last election in 2001 her party, the BNP, alone won 194 seats in a parliament of 300 seats. With her allies, her total strength in parliament was 217.

With such a mandate and her personal stature as a politician at her peak, she was in a position to totally reshape Bangladesh's political culture and economic prospects. With so many MPs at her command she could have demanded a higher standards of integrity and dedication from them. She could have warned that anyone found wanting in honesty and integrity would be expelled from the party, which would automatically lead, as per our law, to losing their seats in the Jatiya Sangsad. This would have saved us from corrupt politics, the primary reason for which our democracy now stands derailed.

The stability of government that such a massive electoral victory automatically implies could have easily been used to attract FDI. With steady FDI inflow, we could have easily reached our goal of 7 to 8 per cent of growth if not more. It was all within our reach only if she wanted it.

She could have brought an end to our confrontational politics by offering a hand of co-operation to the opposition, which ruling parties with massive parliamentary strengths usually do. Instead, from the very start, she took a tough policy in dealing with them starting from physical attack on the opposition immediately after her election victory. Terming it as wrath of common people for AL's misgovernance, the BNP and its allies turned a blind eye to, if not directly participated in assaults of thousands of AL activists in several districts.

Subsequent repression on rallies by the opposition, denying them their due participation inside the Jatiya Sangsad and never giving any importance to them in formulating policies resulted in the erosion of the moral strength that such a huge mandate usually carries.

Instead of her unprecedented strength leading to farsighted, conciliatory fence-mending attitude, she became imperial in personal style, arrogant in political behaviour and condescending in dealing with important members of her own party. She attributed her party's sweeping victory to her son Tarique Rahman's election management, and as such, she felt ready to bring him directly into the power structure both of the party and of the government.

The proof of this is the growth of the Hawa Bhaban, which truly and practically became the second centre of power after the PMO. In fact, in some instances the Bhaban was more effective than the PMO itself as functionaries often felt that getting the son's support was more useful than the mother's as the latter's consent could be taken for guaranteed if the former's was already there.

In our view, the seed of destruction of Khaleda Zia's government was sown almost immediately after her election victory. That seed was the size of the new government. Initially it was supposed to be small, say of round 35 to 40 members. But about 48 hours before oath-taking the word came out that the cabinet would be nearly of 60 members, the highest ever in Bangladesh, and bigger than most governments in the world.

This was Tarique Rahman's first major foray into governance. He insisted on appointing his loyalists as deputy or state ministers virtually in every ministry. So we had a dual government where the cabinet ministers were reporting to the PM while their deputies to Tarique Rahman.

Over time, as more and more cabinet ministers found out that they were being either overridden in decision making, or totally ignored, they realised where the real governance emanated from and either started visiting Hawa Bhaban or became inactive.

In fact only a few ministers like Saifur Rahman, Mannan Bhuiyan, Khandakar Mosharraf wielded some power. Others literally became ciphers. The duality in government brought about by the rise of the Hawa Bhaban, which Khaleda Zia permitted or at least did nothing to stop, made it impossible for the government to function and as such destroyed it.

As loyalty to the Bhaban resulted in lucrative postings, extensions of job tenure and enhanced stature within the administration, the bureaucracy became totally politicised, followed by other branches of the government, especially the police and its branches.

While the Hawa Bhaban destroyed the government, another action by Khaleda Zia destroyed the BNP itself. That was the unceremonious removal of Dr Badruddoza Chowdhury from the position of the Head of State. The founding secretary general of the BNP, one of the earliest comrades of its founder Gen. Ziaur Rahman, (years before Khaleda Zia entered into politics) and one of its most revered leaders, Dr Chowdhury was made the President after the 2001 election.

Within seven months of assuming the Presidency he fell out of grace (why we still don't know, and in her arrogance she never bothered to give any explanation to parliament or to the public) and was forced to resign in a most humiliating manner. This was done without the slightest consideration to either the dignity of his office (after all it was the highest constitutional post) or respect for the contribution he made in making BNP one of the two largest parties in the country.

The humiliation did not end there. When the venerable doctor wanted to float his own party, BNP goons beat him up and the factories and residences of several of his main supporters were set on fire. So much for respect for rule of law. With the firing and humiliation of Dr Chowdhury it became evident, if evidence was at all necessary, that the BNP from now on would mean only Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman, and that party loyalty would be defined as total, unquestioned and blind support for the Zia family.

The mother and the son's writ would be party law and the slightest trace of dissent would result in the swift dismissal from the party. So the ouster of Dr Chowdhury transformed the BNP from a party with whatever little semblance of collective decision making to one of total centralised power to be run on personal whims and caprice of first the mother, Khaleda Zia, and later the son, Tarique Rahman.

As we had said earlier, the Hawa Bhaban destroyed the government and Dr Chowdhury's dismissal destroyed the party. Both these events occurred within seven months of Khaleda Zia's second term. From then on it was a one-way slide downwards, presided over by the leader who got such a huge parliamentary majority and who really had a chance to change Bangladesh as we know it and who, with a little bit of modesty and capacity for introspection and self criticism, could have done it.

We are deliberately not bring on the issues of corruption under Khaleda Zia's tenure as she has been accused of it and the matter should be decided in court. However, it must be mentioned that evidence of graft was all around. While we continued to be termed as the most corrupt country in the world, our elected government preferred to do nothing to stem it except blaming those who were saying so.

It is amazing how little concern was expressed for the issue of corruption and how little was done to investigate the thousands of corruption stories that the media relentlessly published. Instead of finding out the culprits, it was the media that were accused of deliberately maligning the image of the country. Whether or not Khaleda Zia was personally corrupt the courts will decide. But the fact that she tolerated it and did absolutely nothing to either fight corruption or even to raise it as a matter of concern, are now a matter of record.

Now that Khaleda Zia is in custody we will insist that she be given all the protection of law and rights guaranteed by the constitution, especially since she has been twice our elected prime minister. Yet today we cannot but feel deeply sorry for the magnificent opportunity she wasted. Instead of giving us a Bangladesh of unity and growth she left us in a mire worse than the one when she came to power.

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