Published in Himal SouthAsian (June 2007)
Ever since the current caretaker government took over in January, Bangladeshi politics has been going through a rare and unique period of political dynamism. The determined act of the caretaker government and the military to send to jail some of the most powerful and corrupt political elites has ruptured the seemingly unbreakable web of corruption and extortion that had crept into almost every sphere of life. The jailing of some key people has virtually destabilised the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), while significantly weakening the Awami League. These parties may now think twice about appointing thoroughly corrupt people to important leadership roles – something that was unimaginable even a few months ago.
There have been other changes too. By early May, there was a growing cry within both the BNP and the Awami League for a change in the dynastic leadership that has gone unquestioned in the parties over the past decades. And the government’s recent drive to prohibit party politics on university campuses could prove to be a monumental step towards the eradication of the practice of student wings providing militant and sometimes armed support to party leaderships.
There is no doubt that these changes, if sustained, hold the potential to take Bangladeshi politics in a new direction. But the question of the sustainability of the reforms remains, especially given some of the more controversial and less daring decisions recently taken by the caretaker government. The cumulative effect of these has been a questioning of whether the seemingly positive changes facilitated by the caretaker government are really about re-establishing democracy, or whether the priority to ensure an uncontested transfer of power to illegitimate authorities.