Back Issues
The Team
Contact us
Volume 4 Issue 1 | January 2009



Original Forum Editorial

Exit Strategies: The Voters Show the Way--Rehman Sobhan
The Quest for a Worthy Government-Shayan S. Khan
Whither Nationalist Politics?-- Jyoti Rahman
Why AL Won--Syeed Ahamed
Photo Feature: Special the world comes to Dhaka
Getting Beyond a Thousand Days-- Farid Bakht
Who Got Elected to the Ninth Parliament?-- Badiul Alam Majumdar
What Next?-- Tazeen M. Murshid
A Fortunate Khaleda Zia, A Fortunate Bangladesh -- Rumi Ahmed
Happily Ever After? -- Afsan Chowdhury
Parliamentary Ethics -- Md. Ali Ashraf
Photo/Month-- Month in Frame


Forum Home


Happily Ever After?

Afsan Chowdhury

Bangladesh has experienced two of its more peaceful years from early 2007 to early 2009, always noteworthy in a land of constant din. This kind on peace often comes when public politics is banned.

This government may have put a lid of mass political activities, but it was neither a non-political government nor a government not dealing with political parties. It has ushered in a new era of civil-military alliance where the establishment army, the establishment parties, and the technocratic elite can live peacefully through organised sharing of state power. The election process and results have endorsed that understanding.

The khaki rule this time was different, because while the gunpowder came from the barracks, the muzzle-loaders arrived mostly from civilian ranks. Mostly technocrats, they had traditionally huddled close to power, but never really shared it unless they put on a party dress. This time, they catalysed their role into facilitators of civil-military understanding.

The military under Moeen and the civilian lobby led by Fakhruddin Ahmed together reached a new threshold of a ruling framework beyond the political partisan. Were they, too, prisoners of history in the classic sense of the term? The method of ruling through a wider consensus than ever before, a grand class coalition, an idea of ruling whose time had forced itself in?

Any review of the Fakhru-Moeen combine will need to look at the interim phase from two positions. One, the internal objectives of the interim regime, and, secondly, the external performance related issues of its rule. The two occasionally conflicting paths spell out much about the political reality that is beginning to emerge in a new world where traditional sources of power and their roots have all been realigned.

Was 1/11 inevitable?
The interim government came to power by common reckoning as a reaction to extreme political chaos and violence. That chaos was in itself the final stage of almost five years of a chaotic political regime which through unsustainable looting had become a threat to the ruling classes in general.

The more conventional methods of wealth creation through a generalised system of favours and deal-makings stretching across the ruling class as a whole was replaced by scoffing of the entire feast by a small group of family and friends. The two sons of Begum Zia and their Hawa Bhaban cronies had turned crony capitalism is to crony feudalism, excluding most of the ruling class members, thereby initiating the inevitable next stage.

Because of its immediate past, BNP was left with no option but to try to cling to power as it did. If it lost the election, the consequences were obvious. Revenge would come not just from political opponents but from the denied members of the rest of the ruling class as well. Creating chaos and trying to manipulate the election situation was an act of desperation. But what made BNP think that it could afford to try?

Almost certainly BNP assumed that it was the army's natural party of affinity and that the men in khaki would stand by them against the traditional anti-army party, the Awami League. Therein lay the rub, to paraphrase the bard.

BNP took into account the army's refusal to take power in 1990, and its preoccupation with large scale peacekeeping duties that made extensive involvement in law and order duties within Bangladesh a very unattractive proposition, plus its own bonhomie with the cantonment as factors against army intervention.

But once chaos broke out after AL and its allied outfits took to the streets, just about everyone was threatened, including the army. The chances of being hired as peacekeepers from a country without peace are low. The army began to feel insecure about its economic future and that is where the fundamental misreading by the BNP took place.

The loyalty of the army, which had been taken for granted, didn't extend to threats to the army's own bread and butter. Once the signal came from the UN, the obstacle to step in was over.

The "international community" was, of course, worried that a failed state might birth more than a few Islamic extremist group. Thus the western diplomats in Dhaka mounted a major campaign for "law and order," which, of course, could only mean, in the final analysis, given the situation, military, or, at least, military-backed rule.

In a sense, the actions of the BNP were more defensive than offensive. It couldn't afford to have any other party except itself in power. So, at the end of 2006, there could only be the street mayhem and political madness. BNP had created a deadlock for the ruling class segments, which the 1/11 intervention, cheered by the international community, unlocked.

The most political government after 1971
The only type of government that is allowed to reign without any socio-economic responsibility is the caretaker government, which, by description, is neutral, and has only one responsibility, which is to supervise an election within a period of 90 days.

Since, in this case, the election holding process rather than the election had become a contentious issue and the supervisory government the main obstacle, the supervising players underwent a transformation to find a better-managed process.

Although an interim government would only ensure a positive polls situation, this interim government became an interregnum government, a government in between, not just two political regimes, but two system of regimes, setting, in the end, a new set of rules about who could govern and how.

It facilitated a series of agreements amongst the existing political parties that has decided the nature of politics for the time being, bringing about what seems to be basic changes in civil-military political relationship, transforming the face of politics as we have seen it since 1972.

The interim government chased a purely political agenda to ensure an arrangement that would make power sharing and hopefully transfer amongst ruling class members safer for some time to come. This could be done as they were not accountable to public opinion or any institution.

In this journey, the interim government at the beginning was actually keener to be the traditional military ruler type, trying to reform civilian politicians through coercion and carrots, but the character of the government evolved over the two years. It turned into a government of reconciliation between civilian and military powers, making certain that the politics of ruling is not disturbed by any extra-political events and that members of the civil and military ruling class could live in peace together.

External performance mileposts
Although the government played quite a dramatic role in managing politics, which was not its formal remit, it did nothing in comparison with economics, an issue on which every government has some obligation to do something. It ensured status quo with an admirable steadiness.

It's a South Asian model of the Manmohon Singh school, to which the entire ruling class belongs, more or less. It differs dramatically from the bourgeoning South American model, which has dared to explore economic governance outside the confines of western academia-taught principles.

In Bangladesh, the exclusive focus on politics and the refusal to deal with structural and procedural issues of economics by the interim government, despite having the opportunity and credentials to do so, displays loyalty to the continuation of the economic wisdom of previous regimes. While the government went dramatic on many matters, its surprising reticence on issues of dramatic poverty reduction despite having the opportunity will have to be read as a statement about the nature of this regime.

Simply put, it was not a pro-poor government which tried to make future safe for the impoverished. It's the prime objective was to make the environment safe for the ruling class hoping to prevent a repeat of 1/11.

There are two other sectors which could be read as being part of a report card: its judiciary related decisions and corruption curbing steps. Both are, however, related to long-term politics as well.

The big achievement of this regime was the separation of the executive from the judiciary, refusing to do which earned the BNP government the ire of the judiciary in general. This separation was a laudable achievement, because keeping the judiciary under executive thumb also meant that only the ruling party would have access to power. This access was widened by the interim government.

Yet the interim government failed to showcase this shining achievement, because, in pursuing their political objectives, the government used the judicial system to a point where people's confidence in the arrest, remand, bail and judgment process has been quite shaken. The arrest and letting off of major leaders, the initial refusal to consider High Court division judgments, etc followed by almost a rush to free as many political under-trials as possible leaves few options, except to consider that the judiciary, too, was a partner in the larger project.

Minus 2 and other politics
In the beginning the interim government was a holier-than-everyone type, which was reflected in its anti-corruption drive. It was high-handed, ad-hoc, and, as the list of arrested grew, quite popular. It was a public relations exercise of the military as the most honest broker and the sole arbiter of the country's political future.

It went on an arrest spree and these stories, splashed across major media outfits, had scant regard for due process and journalistic standards in many cases. It reflected the frustrated but long held desire to see the corrupt and the powerful punished. The military did so with a lot of cheering, although, in the process, it was ending its own remit as a purely military rule, if it ever had one.

It was around this time -- the first year -- that the big names were hauled in and the security agencies, who had been pulling many of the strings from behind, also thought they could become the guarantor of the state's brand name. It's similar to the Pakistan model where the army in general and the security agencies in particular act as the guarantor of the state. This plan didn't work out because, compared to Pakistan, Bangladeshi political parties emerged as far more robust.

An alliance between civil and military forces is not new at all in Bangladesh, but this had always happened at the behest of and under the control of the army. This changed gradually in the second year.

Such asymmetric alliances had happened in case of the BNP's birth, JP's debut, even in the refusal of the army to step in and save Ershad's skin, thereby initiating the "democratic phase." The early phase of this regime saw the arm-twisting of politicians and their supporters through arrests and jailing. It worked up to a point, until cases began to get challenged and accusations proved to be a bad substitute for evidence, even in the public eye.

After the "arrest the corrupt" phase came the "Minus 2" formula, which was to exile the two Begums from politics, but that failed rather spectacularly. The army was still keen to rule the roost on its personal terms and inspired the "reformist" factions within the two political parties. Birthing two political parties, the PDP and the Kalyan Party, during emergency rule when politics was banned showed the determination of a section of the army's ancien regime mind-set. That didn't work at all.

Finally, no other option was left except to arrest the two Begums and try to try them for corruption in what looked like a last move. This event marks the transition moment in political Bangladesh where the collaboration between civilian and military powers became inevitable as both fought towards a draw.

What the military had read poorly was the clout of the political parties and the personal charisma of the two leaders. The security agencies often misread public perception of public leaders and create extreme discomfort for themselves and their leaders through the use of accusations to kill political careers.

The military in Bangladesh should have been able to read the scenario when they earlier arrested and tried some university teachers for protesting military rule, which went down very badly with the people. Their crime was not theft but inciting students to protest, which is no crime in a country where protest is considered sacred. It showed the shallow level of the minds that planned and pursued the case and strengthened the stigma of army as anti-intellectuals, a stigma that still sticks.

In fact, no government ever survives an attack on teachers, and in this case ultimately all had to be freed, including the incited students. In the public eye, the teachers were never proven guilty, so court verdicts had little value. By failing to read the public mood, they went ahead to their next disastrous step, which was to try the two leaders.

No single source
It was around this period that the political reality began to assert itself on the interim government: there was no single political source of power, either civil or military. It happened because despite very strong efforts, politicians couldn't be demonised and attempts to manipulate their party or hierarchy didn't respond to external tactics either. Both leaders remained as popular as before.

Both Khaleda and Hasina mounted remarkable fight backs and neutralised all attempts to make the political parties subservient to the interim regime. On the way, the politicians rehabilitated themselves in the public eye, because, while their family members, party followers, and the rest can be accused of crime, the leaders are beyond corruption charges. It made the civilian politicians far stronger than they were earlier. As reform efforts began to wane, the old method of military rule began to give away and the reality of new equations thrust themselves on all.

Most international reports on the regime also say that it's around early 2008 that it dawned that the task of redoing Bangladesh as per a conventional agenda was quite beyond the capacity of the ruling combine alone. Security agencies had had their solo run for a year, but failed to deliver much. As international pressures, long-term policy needs, and other priorities began to exert, the character of the interim government also began to yield to reality.

Pressure mounted from other sources, too, like the government's inability to control prices and manage rehabilitation after natural disasters, apart from coping with the global financial crisis. They may not have been responsible for the maladies, but the public perception was, why blame the politicians when the interim-wallahs were doing no better?

From early 2008, exit strategies began to be given serious consideration, and it was obvious that continuation of interim rule was untenable and the task that it had initially set for itself was not possible. The focus was intensified on the political process by creating a more politician-friendly package. In the end, this process transformed politics as we know it, quite simply because that was the only goal possible, tenable, and perhaps invisible but always there.

The real interim government
It's at this point that the interim government began to become an interim government in the real sense of the term. It was government for transition from civil and military rules to civil-military rule. As the security agency-driven attempt to install a military-led governing arrangement began to falter, the civilians and politicians gained in strength.

It was partly fuelled by the weakness or absence of any economic program of the ruling combine which could have given them necessary legitimacy for rule extension, but then its task, too, began to be clear only when the political experiments of the first year failed. The differences between the earlier and later phase of the regime is as critical as understanding the difference between earlier regimes and this regime:

- It was never a military government, but one which was military-backed, and that was a fundamental difference.

- It was not a government by coup, a khaki government that took over by chucking out elected leaders or killing them. It was a government to take care of a situation created by political instability and chart a course for the future.

- It was military-planned but civilian-run, even as it took power. Unlike previous instances, it couldn't spawn a civilian political party like the BNP or the JP, but it came to an understanding with existing political parties it had hoped to replace.

This indicates an attitudinal change within the powers that be, because unlike previous incarnations, the political operators provided not just new approaches to political formulations, but took a longer-term view by strengthening the power-sharing framework through its expansion to include other political players.

By mid 2008, after the failure of the Minus 2 formula, individual corruption charges, political reform, political party trashing, and tarnishing the image of the leaders, it was time to cut deals with them and improve the system in general for everyone's sake. Again, unlike previous instances, the technocrats didn't join to get a slice of the pie, but made sure the pie was there to be shared by all. It was this combined effort by members of the civil-military alliance that created the platform for continued stability.

Welcome Plus 2
In Bangladesh, political power can be held only by three parties: the Awami League, the BNP, and the army. Previous arrangements had one party in power with support from the other, usually the army.

BNP and JP contested to make an alliance with the army party and the BNP won. BNP thought the bond between BNP and the army was a permanent one when in conflict with the AL. But events have shown that the army has gone beyond the old brotherhood and begun to form civilian professional alliances outside cantonment-inspired political parties like the BNP and the JP only.

In this process, what the military learnt was that the political parties were no longer of the earlier variety that would turn around and accept subservient political lives with the army in command as BNP and JP once did. Or contest military they were involvement at all costs. Instead, it ready to demand and accept equal entitlement to run Bangladesh in partnership with the army.

Thus, the military, the older version that made money from extra-constitutional means, is gone, and the present one that dominantly earns its pension from peace-keeping duties, is here. That has changed the army considerably as the benefits of power are no longer exclusive to the senior brass.

However, this army can't afford to run the country by itself, and exercise of power internally, which is basically only officer-friendly, is an unsustainable proposition. Peacekeeping is much more financially democratic, with non-officers benefiting at a mass scale. It makes military coups a difficult product to sell to the rank and file.

So the army has been changed by external income factors and that is why the army's response to ruling over a long time also had to change. One should remember that this army stepped in only after being assured by the UN that its lucrative duties would not be interfered with.

It seems that the top political brass of the military and the civilian politicians saw each other's strength and weakness better this time around. The display of complete disregard for all matters of process and legality by the last BNP rule had threatened the corruption industry itself on which many of the ruling class survive.

It meant that Tarique and company had taken corruption to unsustainable territory. Bangladesh economy is structured around legal and illegal ways, call it corruption, but like so many other countries that has its own structure, etiquettes, and rules. By stretching that, the BNP had put everyone under a sentence of annihilation and that included the army. The attack on hyper-corruption as practiced by the BNP leaders and their cronies by the interim regime, was, in some parts, to rescue reasonable and acceptable levels of corruption that can continue now.

Once it became clear that the corruption system was too integrated into the economic system, political parties were too strong to be cowed down, and the people were no longer impressed by standard khaki rhetoric, the mission of this government matured, and the alliance building process began. In the end, it became a win-win situation for Bangladeshi establishment politics.

Electoral postscript
The election results confirm the argument that this was an election of understanding, and all parties seem to have agreed to abide by certain principles, which includes accepting the election results. This was no longer an election held by the military for its own civilian party, like when BNP or JP contested and won.

This was about endorsing the new power sharing arrangements. The three parties must have consented to the terms and conditions beforehand. Given the margin of defeat, BNP couldn't have been expected to welcome it immediately, but by accepting it in the end, it has accepted the terms of the agreement, also the inevitable.

The election has elements of questionability as the EU election observation team has also pointed out, but nothing of the sort that would change the verdict. That mood of victory of the election rather than any party victory is in the air, and the environment for any protest is missing. People are proud of this election for the time being, happy to have voted without fear. That's how little people ask from politics and it's here for the term.

The sea-change, it seems, is the emergence of the Awami League as the party of choice, or at least co-existence, of the cantonment. For quite a while, it was obvious that the new army felt more comfortable with the younger-looking AL rather than the BNP manned by old stalwarts. So the sea-change of tri-partite politics is now fairly well established until new equations are needed.

The formula, of course, is that any two parties will rule, meaning Minus 2 arithmetic has been replaced by the Plus 2 equation. The army party has now become part of the political equation directly, and, instead of being a force of coercion, it will be one of co-operation. It might have significantly reduced concerns about future military intervention.

Finally, the Jamaat puzzle
The puzzle of Jamaat-e-Islami still remains, because, despite having so much clout, pressure from civil society, and public demand, the interim-wallahs never made a move on this, arguing that it was a political party decision. Given the highly controversial nature of the business, it's partly true. The other part could be that nobody really wants to try them anymore due to various reasons.

Initiating a war crimes tribunal almost forty years after the event is not easy. Nobody ever tried to do this before seriously and the legal and evidentiary issues for a trial are not fully known. Plus, Jamaat does have almost 5% of public support, more or less the same it had in 1971, so agitation, including violence, given the present global political climate, is possible. So it's a risky issue.

For the moment, though, JI is a weak force in Bangladesh and the electoral decimation may seem enough of revenge to the Awami League. Meanwhile, demands for a war crimes trial from civil society members, especially the new voters, is also high.

The AL may also consider the advantages of expelling JI from Bangladesh politics, though all the pro-Jamaat voters will swell BNP ranks so it's an internal calculation of political loss and gain by the AL and the army that will play a role behind its decision.

The army's concern relates to security. Does one invite more militancy by banning JI or reduce it by trying them? One notes that extreme militancy happens only when there is a nationalist cause stoking it -- Kashmir, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Tamil Elam, Assam, etc -- which in Bangladesh is absent.

But the military has to agree to a trial as the third party involved, and they may wish to look at security costs of holding such a trial from their own angle. However, some means to marginalise those who actively participated against the birth of Bangladesh and are now preaching the Jinnah mantra is needed for closure on 1971 and political vote retention by the AL. There can always be instability on this issue and the new voters who most probably decided the fate of this election, may go against the AL in future if JI is left completely alone.

And so there it stands: a government which, in essence, is more modern than the governments before, because the public has advanced more than the parties have, and a political catch up game is on. The military stands by the election, making it a truly interim government, one of transition from conventional civil-military confrontational type to one where all segments of the ruling class can feel comfortable in each other's company.

Photos: Amirul Rajiv

Afsan Chowdhury, the 2008 Oak Fellow at Colby College, Maine, is an eminent Bangladeshi journalist and writer.

© thedailystar.net, 2009. All Rights Reserved