Published in the Forum (January 2008)
I carry a Newsweek from last year that has on its cover a profile of a confident young sari clad woman and a caption that blazes: “New India.” My dream is to have Bangladesh on that cover one day, flashing: “The Resurgent Bangladesh.”
In January this year, like most of the populace, I had hoped that we could begin that journey towards resurgence. But it didn’t take long for that bubble to burst. There have been a lot of negatives and positives in the past eleven months. Mistakes have been made, credibilities have been dismantled, moral authority has been lost.
But it is not too late to start to get that Newsweek cover out in 2009 — after our election. If our current power holders can assess where they are now and be innovative about the next few months towards the election, it is still possible to bring back that positive aspiration that has now all but disappeared.
Lessons for the caretakers
The four most important lessons that the government should take from the past few months are:
- The capacity of this government is much more limited compared to the tasks they have taken.
- The political forces are a reality in Bangladesh and they will not just disappear without a fight.
- A policy is a bad one if it does not take into account its macro impact.
- With no direct mandate or moral authority, its not possible to forcibly make drastic changes in the rules of the game without disastrous side effects.
As the government started implementing a more expansionist agenda with increasingly less transparency, its acceptability has gone down and its legitimacy has been questioned. Its response to these events have caused a further down-ward shift in popularity. The moral authority with which the government came to power has slowly eroded over the last eleven months, making it more vulnerable to various internal pressure groups. That pressure is only going to increase if there is no drastic change in how the caretaker government is approaching reform and the upcoming election, and chances are the government may resort to harsher measures to stop the dissent.
There are twelve months left to the election. For a government whose legitimacy is now increasingly under question because of the sweeping changes it is trying to make, that is a long time for things to go as per plan. They must understand that it will be impossible for people to have complete faith in their end game without restoring their moral authority to previous heights. Ultimately, the big question is will the status quo work and what is the best way to move forward keeping the big picture in sight.
In order to see whether the existing set up will work, one must look at the issues that are currently facing the government.
When the government came to power, it was told that it would be purely judged by its actions, and its acceptability and legitimacy will solely depend on their being able to continue to carry the moral authority they came to power with. Unfortunately, the moral authority has somewhat eroded due to certain actions. Unquestionably, the government scored its biggest points by taking on the untouchable high almighties. However, widely reported human rights abuse cases still remain unpunished. The result is that there is a growing number of people who feel the justice is not so blind towards the neo-ruling class.
With a goal towards setting a standard for good governance, along with coming up with a lot of good measures, the advisers themselves have not been able to stand out. As politicians are getting jailed for lying in their wealth statements and government officers are being asked to provide their own wealth statements, the advisers themselves and the our top power brokers strangely seem out of the whole process, not having to furnish their own wealth statements. Most importantly, the government seems to be taking fundamental policy decisions, claiming mandate without bothering to justify it.
The current caretaker government has set a precedent in dealing the politicians who have established reputations in corruption or have been perceived to be corrupt. The efforts were initially seen as cleaning up the politicians’ mess. But it is setting a dangerous precedent for the future. Similarly, the amount of policy decisions they are taking without clear constitutional legitim- macy is setting an alarming precedent that our constitution can be ignored as long as you can claim the people are with you.
The government has tried to engineer the reform process and break up the political parties. With the falling popularity of the government, these reformers are increasing being seen as the latest in the turncoat politicians that the country has seen. In the process, the government has successfully managed to completely disengage the majority of the parties and their grassroots workers.
Given the issues of legitimacy, this government will simply be unable to govern without addressing the issues above. Nothing short of a wholesale change in government policy will actually do that.
Lessons from Iraq and Nepal
The current political mess in Iraq began when the United States banned all members of the Ba’ath party from the new government, as well as from public schools and colleges. Under the previous rule of the Ba’ath party, one could not reach high positions in the government or in the schools without becoming a party member. So by excluding the Baathists, US designed ways to block many experienced and able people to participate in the new government. By the time, they reversed this policy, it was far too late and the political vacuum was filled by far more dangerous extremist elements in the country. The present regime in Bangladesh, has successfully portrayed politics to be a dirty word and decided to leave the politicians out of the process of cleaning up their “mess.” But the end result of this might not be a new set of clean political leaders, but possibly rather sporadic violent protests and the political land grabbing of opportunists like Jamaat-e-Islami,
As the government claims that conspiracies by the “evil-doers” from the political parties caused the unrest a few months ago, it is also tacitly accepting that the political parties are capable of shutting the country down completely as well.
Is nation building for the supposed new era possible without the millions of people that support the mainstream BNP and Awami League? Without venues for expressing dissent, the response from these groups is bound to become increasingly violent if they are not brought in as stakeholders in the process. Similarly, political parties must try to engage in meaningful conversation with the powers that be. In this context, a meaningful national dialogue is in the best interest of the country to come up with a roadmap towards a functional democracy with all the key parties having a stake.
In order to make the political parties stakeholders in the process, we can suggest that the caretaker government should be revamped within the framework of the constitution to include politicians. Some of the advisers from the current lot should be replaced by members of key political parties. The trust between the government and the parties must be brought back. The main political parties along with all the stakeholders in the current government need to come together and sign a national accord to agree on keeping some of the existing reform agenda to be pushed after election by whoever is in power. We have examples of such agreement where in 1991 both BNP and AL agreed to revert to parliamentary democracy in 1991 after the election.
The national accord among other things can discuss having an election like the Nepal model to elect an assembly that may be in place for two years with a room to review the constitution and make amendments as necessary based on what worked and did not work in the past 16 years. Nepal is heading to election to elect a constituent assembly for two years, that will decide the future of monarchy in the country among other things. Not only they are resolving the long-standing Maoist problem by bringing them into the political process, they also are forming a truth commission for all the minority communities to come together and form a constitution where the rights of all these groups are well protected.
Similarly, Bangladesh also can elect a constituent assembly which will be responsible for implementing solutions for the long-standing issues that have plagued our country. This will implement further reforms agreed to by all the parties and further strengthen reform and institution building for the following two years with a much needed legitimacy in their actions.
Post 1/11, the country looked forward to a new kind of politics. Unfortunately, due to some poor decision making, the country is headed for the same old confrontational politics and election boycotting. It is time to throw the challenge back to all the groups to show some vision and far-sightedness.
On one hand we need to admit, the politics and democracy practiced in the last fifteen years had flaws and on the other hand we must acknowledge politicians are key stakeholders in our future progress and bypassing them forcibly will only bring more chaos and unwanted results. So let’s have national unity and regeneration as the key goal towards any future settlement in order to see that Resurgent Bangladesh that we all envision.