What Sheikh Hasina should do now

Mridul Chowdhury
Publised in the Daily Star on 31 Dec 2008.

WE have made history! Not only in the national context, but also in the global context. Just when many were thinking that our country was increasingly falling within the grip of Islamic fundamentalists and that their religion-based fear-mongering campaigning was working, the people of this nation have spoken with decisiveness.

Just when many were thinking that even the army-backed caretaker government has almost completely failed in its mission of ridding politics of corruption with most of the old faces back in the race, the people have taken a stance with determination.

Bangladesh now stands on the brink of becoming one of the few Muslim-majority countries that have given a very strong national verdict about keeping religion out of politics. The nation also stands a very good chance of overturning its image as one of the most corrupt in the world. However, a lot needs to be done before any of these dreams can be materialised.

The fact that the Awami League has received such an overwhelming mandate from the people is just as much a cause for grave worry as it is for a sigh of relief. The people of this nation had seen landslide victories before, in 1973 and 2001, and neither of them worked well for this nation. In fact, both were disasters. One led to a “transfer of power” through multiple political assassinations, and the other led to a “clinging to power” at all cost through tampering with the courts.

Both led to power centralisation, trampling over opposition, and high-levels of corruption that went beyond the control of the government. Worst of all, both eventually led to a near-breakdown of democracy, the very apparatus the respective parties hailed when they initially came to power. So, if history is any lesson, there is no reason to be too jubilant too soon.

Now, what should AL/Sk. Hasina do to make sure that past mistakes after landslide victory are not repeated? Here is my list of to-do’s besides the economic and infrastructural goals:

– Sk. Hasina should not surround herself with sycophants, who will give her a rosy picture of the country to serve their own individual interests — this mistake led to the downfall of Bangabandhu. The fact that the people have given the AL such a huge mandate does not mean that they are beholden to the AL for 5 years — if anything, it means that their expectations from AL are sky-high and that their disappointments will be “space-high.” Sk. Hasina needs to keep her ears to the ground at all times.

– She should allow the utmost freedom to the media. This is the best possible way of keeping in touch with the pulse of the nation. Any kind of self-complacency can lead to the kind of disaster we have seen before. It is always important to remember that people have voted for AL in such large numbers, not because they are blind supporters of the AL but because they want change; and change is what AL has to deliver. If the citizens are not satisfied, a free and fearless media will be able to pick it up much before the politicians can or will want to.

– AL should seriously consider adopting a BNP manifesto promise — that the speaker and the deputy speaker will resign from their respective parties and the deputy speaker and some parliamentary committee chairmen will be chosen from the opposition. Realistically speaking, there is a good possibility that the BNP alliance may very well “walk-out” on the results of this election, if past behaviour of our parties is any indication. Nevertheless, the AL should sincerely try to retain their respectful involvement in the parliament — this can only enhance the image of AL and perhaps even neutralise opposition resistance and hartals.

– Sk. Hasina should choose some able technocrats to run critical ministries such as finance, commerce, foreign, education and health, or at least take them as deputy ministers. She will possibly be under intense pressure to distribute the major ministries among the AL presidium members and senior mohajot leaders as reward for winning her the landslide victory. However, I hope she recognises that this aspect of our democratic system is not at all “democratic” — the practice of distributing key ministries to MPs based on their seniority and influence in the party, and not as much on their ability to perform in that position. In one of the acclaimed democracies — the USA, the president chooses his/her cabinet almost fully from technocrats; their ability to perform in a particular position is the single-most important criterion taken under consideration. Even if due to political expedience, she has to choose her ministers from senior MPs who are mostly in the final phase of their careers, I hope that she will take the deputy ministers from technocratic backgrounds. By the same token, I hope that she will break from the past and will resist the temptation of placing her own family members in important political and diplomatic positions without required training and proof of competence.

– Sk. Hasina should bring back the issue of secularism to national center stage as promised in AL’s manifesto through the following clearly stated words: “Use of religion for politics will be stopped.” With more than a two-third majority in the Parliament, the AL should be in a position to even change the constitution, if needed, to restore the ideals around which this country was created. It is apparent from the results that the citizens in general are in a mood for change — all the more reason for the hardest challenges to be taken up the soonest before the mood fades.

– Sk. Hasina should not postpone the trial of war criminals with the excuse that citizens have more important things to care about. Nothing can be more important than the question of our identity, which will always be muddled as long as war criminals are around to twist our history. Bangabandhu postponed it, the price of which we are having to pay till today. Bangabandhu did not realise the consequences of his action since he could not see the future, but now that we have seen “the future,” we know how important it is not to repeat the same mistake.

– Sk. Hasina should recognise that the success of AL is largely due to the youth votes. If translated to astute political terms, it means that it is this constituency that she has to give high priority to, starting from the highly-talked about economic opportunities to less-talked about political opportunities. There should be an explicit effort to try to bring more and more young people into prominence in the core political party — they should not only be regarded as part of Chatro League. Younger but able politicians within the AL ranks should be given prominence when distributing responsible positions. Age was a critical factor in targeting campaign priorities, as was indicated by AL’s declaration that the manifesto is dedicated to the youth. Now, we, the youth, will keep a close watch on what the AL does when it comes to giving importance to the youth from a political standpoint.


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