Published in the Forum (August 2008 )
SINCE 1/11, and shortly prior to that, there had been attempts to launch a third political platform beyond the Awami League and BNP/Jamaat coalition in Bangladesh politics. Long before the end of the BNP government’s five-year tenure, there were murmurs about a “third force” taking over as people could predict the upcoming impasse.
What did people mean when they talked about the third force at that time? Was it: (a) an army coup (like Thailand), (b) a national coalition government heavily backed by civil/international society, or (c) an Iranian-style Islamic revolution?
As it turned out, a hybrid of (a) and (b) happened, with promises of a massive cleanup of corruption and holding of a free and fair election. (I don’t know why it’s always called “free and fair” — free election should mean a fair one — but I guess reality of power struggle is not that simple for us average citizens to understand.) So a hybrid government came (I’m calling this government ”hybrid” for lack of a better term) and started a kind of cleanup and reform. It seemed they were going for the cleaning up of corruption first. At some point it seemed that the exit strategy of the hybrid government would involve creating a political platform. There were several new political groupings that started during this time. One of the attempts to create a political platform was taken by Dr. Muhammad Yunus under the banner of Nagorik Shokti (NS) but, after a couple of months of hectic and seemingly unorganised activity, he decided not to pursue it after all, and the whole initiative fell apart.
The reasons behind its failure
The whole movement seemed to have been centred on Dr. Yunus’s public persona. The strategists (if there were any) behind NS might have calculated that they needed a public figure of national scale to attract people’s attention and jump start this third platform.
Perhaps they didn’t calculate the kind of attack opponents would launch against Dr. Yunus as a person. One of the criticisms of the existing political parties is that they are centred on public figures and are personality cults. The strategy to launch the “one-man show” failed because the criticism was centred on the same “one man.” It seemed like an attempt to create yet another “personality” in our politics.
Over time, people have become aware of the politics of these personality-based cults, and perhaps they didn’t see anything special here. The “Yunus Somorthok Gosthi” (Yunus Support Groups) raised the eyebrows of those who were looking for a different brand of politics.
In his attempt to engage the people in the process, Dr. Yunus invited and received thousands of letters from all over the country supporting his initiative.
While the brand value of Dr. Yunus’s name in politics was proving to be a momentum gathering plus, the lack of discussion on ideology, history, organisation, etc. meant it was going to be another one-person show. In the Bangladeshi context, personality-based politics may give the third platform some early recognition and momentum; however, the lack of ideology and organisational structure made the new platform very similar to the existing large political forces.
What was Dr. Yunus’s political ideology? Where did he or his camp stand on the question of our national identity or governance policy, or what views did they have about guiding principles for the society? Sure he was pro-democracy, pro-free market, and ultimately pro-good relations with the West. Fine.
However it is the “identity” related questions that define political ideology in most people’s minds in Bangladesh. What did he think about the “spirit of the Liberation War,” or “Islamic values,” or “defending sovereignty” (representing the Awami, Islamic, and BNP quarters respectively)? The leftists seem to have abandoned him from the beginning, and he never cared for them either. But where did he fit in the spectrum?
In my observation, which made me hopeful at times, he seemed to have been talking about people power, people’s initiatives, etc. His success with Grameen indicated that he was someone who would rather encourage citizens to solve their own problems without getting the government bureaucracy involved.
This less-government, more-citizen initiative approach could have been a great foundation for future policy discussions. This libertarian ideology could have set this movement apart from the rest.
Unfortunately, this was not articulated well enough. Dr. Yunus’s life can be a great example of liberal ideology, however, the movement failed to understand the essence and promote this. The name, Nagorik Shokti, was right, but the meaning wasn’t articulated to find the resonance with the people. People didn’t get to understand clearly what his ideology would be. Lesson to learn — failure to communicate the ideology can clearly cause failure in creating a niche.
There were a lot of rumours that his platform was being floated to become another King’s Party, like BNP or JP in the past. If the “king” floats a new political party, some giddy politicians will definitely start licking their lips at the prospect of getting a piece of the “power.”
Governmental positions, business deals, contracts, tenders, relief distribution, and photo ops are the matters that define power in Bangladesh. This is a dream come true for small-time politicians. Remember what happened to the leftist politicians of the 50s and 60s? They forgot their lifelong ideology and principles and became ready fodder of the army generals in the 70s and 80s. It benefited both sides. Power brought them riches that can only be acquired in dreams.
People are aware of this situation. While these turncoat politicians may draw some local votes, opportunists don’t fare well in national politics. Was Dr. Yunus headed that way? It was the sight of the opportunists in his camp that made people uneasy.
It seemed like his platform was taking advantage of the caretaker government’s silent approval in this bid to launch a third platform. When all kinds of political activity were banned, his activity seemed to have enjoyed a blind-eye from the
authority. Ultimately, was this helpful in the perception of his platform? His political opponents capitalised on this.
For a successful campaign, you need a well thought out strategy and a group of people who can execute it efficiently. Even though it was an inside matter, and little was revealed to the public (understandably so), from outside it seemed almost chaotic. So who were his strategists? Who was advising him? At one point, there were rumours that Sirajul Alam Khan was advising him. There was his brother leading the discussions with the media types. There were rumours of foreign embassies influencing him. There was news of him putting together a group of advisers from the diaspora. Were there any co-ordinated efforts to bind all these enthusiasts together or to filter out the opportunists?
Enthusiasts wanted him to don the superhero suit and solve all the problems right then. However, some small details went missing. What was the strategy? How was he going to execute the strategy? Was he getting too much advice from too many people? It seemed he faltered in what seemed to be his strength. For someone who has built a mega-organisation like Grameen — not to be able to float a political organisation with so much support amounted to a failure.
He floated several very practical ideas and was talking against the crippling feuds between the two major parties. People liked a voice of sanity in the middle. Then again, he was drawing too much from his experiences at Grameen. His proposals, like giving the management of Chittagong port to the Grameen women, were not realistic in any sense. Did he think that a Grameen model could be applied to solve all the problems we face?
Even though Dr. Yunus went to Shaheed Minar and Smritishoudho to pay homage to the liberation struggle martyrs, he never spoke clearly about the liberation war or Bangabandhu — so suspicion grew quickly in the Awami camp. They never got the reassurance from him about the core values of the Liberation War that make them different from the others. It was surprising how effective Sheikh Hasina’s “shudkhor” labeling was. Overnight, Dr. Yunus’s Grameen became the target of fair and unfair scrutiny of the press.
The Islamic camp had long been criticising the NGO culture that Dr. Yunus and Grameen are synonymous with. Grameen and other NGOs have been targets of Islamist extremism and violence in the rural areas for years. (Though they didn’t miss the photo op when he got the Nobel Prize. Chhatra Shibir president met him the day after and the Dainik Sangram didn’t miss the opportunity to publish a picture of their meeting). People following BNP and JP were perhaps closer to Dr. Yunus in terms of politics. He is strongly pro-business and pro-Western and possibly non-Awami. However, their spirit was dampened when he talked about closer ties with India and a visa-free sub-continent.
The buzz that the Nobel Prize was given to him by the design of US interests started soon after he was awarded. It was said that he was being groomed for the eventual third force that was going to take power if the stalemate didn’t end. This made an early dent in his popularity, and he never made any effort to counter such negative propaganda. The easy but paranoid equation being dished out by the perpetual India-haters was that India was implementing a grand US strategy (sic) to destabilise Bangladesh in order to create a pretext to invade.
Some people, such as the populist columnist Farhad Mazhar, conveniently saw a grand-scale US, Israeli, and Indian conspiracy to thwart Islam on a global scale, and they portrayed Dr. Yunus as a part of this grand imperial plot. Dr. Yunus and his camp never really made any attempt to counter these allegations. In Bangladesh, this Islam-in-danger rhetoric, especially involving India and Israel, is a surefire way of becoming an authority on the country’s sovereignty and patriotism. Dr. Yunus and his team failed to understand the potency of such propaganda.
His vision of creating a prosperous, free, open, democratic country near two economic giants of the 21st century was a good one to start with. However, who was he looking for to join his political party? His target seemed to be the people who were tired of Awami League or BNP/Jamaat politics. Fine. However, how do you woo them to your platform? People may have been fed up with the prevalent politics but they also needed to go through some kind of political process themselves to be associated with a new platform.
Obviously, Dr. Yunus was vocal against the traditional hartal/ andolon, etc; however, we never got a clear picture of the alternatives. Were large public meetings on the way if the campaign got enough momentum? We heard a lot about being an alternative to traditional politics, but we never had anyone defining what these alternative political processes were. Did his success with Grameen lead him to think that he could solve any and every problem in Bangladesh?
There’s a feeling in Bangladesh that politics has gone to the goons, and if good citizens didn’t step up the country would go down the drain. This is an oversimplification of a complex situation. It is elitist thinking that only “good” foreign-educated people can be the messiahs of our country. Dr. Yunus’s campaign got a lot of momentum among the educated elite, the upper class of the Bangladesh. His rhetoric of eliminating poverty from Bangladesh resonated well with the urban upper class. Why not, it sounded like a perfect appeal to the wealthy people with a bit of a social guilt. The coffee-sipping “development” thinkers of the green zones would like to see poverty gone from the country, especially because of someone whose method was hailed/approved by the West. Fine, the super-rich of Bangladesh liked him, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And, obviously, his strength in organising the poor of the villages gave him good footing among the people at the lower end of the economic pole. His strength in creating huge networks among the poor and the overall hope for the poor was almost a natural advantage for him.
However, what was missing from this campaign was an effort to reach the middle class. He probably ignored the fact that the identity-politics-obsessed middle class has been the real opinion leader of the country. For some reason, he or his campaign had no appeal for the middle class psyche or values like ethnic or religious or cultural identity. His strategists had completely missed accounting for that. Perhaps his team didn’t know how to reach this middle class and bring it into the fold. Capturing the middle class will be the key to any future attempts like this.
Power is a strange thing. We have been told that absolute power corrupts absolutely, yet, we are always lining up for it. When an accomplished person like Dr. Yunus wanted to get into politics, I, along with many others, wondered why. The answer seemed to be obvious. Being fed-up with the current political stalemate, and being able to choose between only a few choices, Bangladesh needed an alternative political platform that could rise above the mud-slinging and make substantial progress. So Dr. Yunus was convinced that he could float a political party, take power and save the nation. He made an attempt. There are many among us who want to get to power and fix the country. Nothing wrong with that — we call this politics. We have placed enormous expectations around it. We have attached such emotions as patriotism, serving the country, love of the people, etc with it to glorify and justify the politics for power. If Dr. Yunus’s achievement of empowering people can be translated into politics, it will mean less emphasis on “power of few.”
Evaluating all the factors, it can be said that the bid for becoming an alternative to the existing political platforms is not a distant dream. If an ideology provides overall guidance, an unambiguous stand on history and the country’s founding ideals is taken, a clear strategy is drawn and executed, and the right audience is courted, a new political force is not so unrealistic.