The government realises only too well the imperative for an election that must be free and transparent and therefore credible, writes Syed Badrul Ahsan
In the ten months or so, Bangladesh will choose its next government at elections that could be held in December this year or early January 2024. For the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the vote will be crucial given that it will be a reflection of the popular will regarding the various development programmes as well as foreign policy measures that the ruling Awami League has undertaken since its return to power in January 2009.
The government realises only too well the imperative for an election that must be free and transparent and therefore credible. Such a need arises from the perception among many that the elections of 2014 and 2018 suffered from drawbacks that the government has had a hard time trying to explain away. As the new elections approach, the feeling grows that the vote must not only be transparent but it will also ensure continuity in terms of the policies that the government has pursued domestically as well as abroad.
That said, the hard reality in Bangladesh today is that the ruling party is once again confronted with a political opposition whose policies in the sense of a historical interpretation of the country’s emergence have consistently raised questions of a rather disturbing sort.
In recent weeks, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), founded by the country’s first military ruler General Ziaur Rahman, has come forth with a 27-point programme it believes will lead to a process of a reform of the state. The BNP’s belief is that the state, indeed the institutions of the state, have either been undermined or politicised by the Hasina government in these past many years.
The difficulty for Bangladesh’s people comes through the BNP’s inability or reluctance to explain its inclination or otherwise toward undertaking reforms within itself before it can go ahead with its election-related plans. And that precisely is where the dilemma for Bangladesh’s people comes in.
The BNP in its years in power under General Ziaur Rahman, Justice Abdus Sattar and Khaleda Zia, promoted an ideology of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ which was at variance with the concept of Bengali nationalism espoused by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League in the mid-1960s and leading up to the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971. Up until the assassination in August 1975 of Sheikh Mujib, revered as Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) and father of the nation by his people, Bengali nationalism served as the core of the nation’s constitution, underscored as it was by the principles of secularism, socialism and democracy.
When, therefore, talk of free elections comes up in the country, public attention is quickly drawn to the failure of the opposition to come forth with any guarantees that the divisive policies it pursued in the years between 1975-1996 and again between 2001-2006 will be abandoned and that it will embrace the principles enunciated and brought into fruition through the emergence of the sovereign state of Bangladesh in 1971.
In simple terms, Bangladesh is now caught between a rock and a hard place. With the elections approaching, the government is doing all it can to fend off western, essentially American pressure in national politics. Curiously enough, the degree of influence necessary to convince the electorate that the opposition is now ready to go for policy change and political reforms within itself has been conspicuous by its absence.
And that fundamentally is where the danger lies. At the October 2001 elections which saw the Awami League lose to an alliance of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, it was a new turning back of the clock which occurred in the country. Successive military and quasi-military regimes having already accommodated the collaborators of the 1971 Pakistan occupation army in the administration, the BNP-Jamaat government in 2001 only solidified the arrangement through bringing into the cabinet some notorious collaborators of the Yahya Khan-Tikka Khan regime.
Matiur Rahman Nizami, Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mujaheed and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, all of whom played leading, and notorious, roles against the Bangladesh independence movement in 1971, were later tried — and this was after the Awami League’s return to office in 2009 — and sent to the gallows.
The BNP remains confined to the past in the sense that it has never taken any steps to turn a new page, indeed to repudiate the policies that have been a systematic assault on the original principles of the Bangladesh state. At another end, the Jatiyo Party of the country’s second military dictator, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, has like the BNP never sought to recast itself in terms of the foundational principles of the republic.
General Ershad, in his years in power between 1982 and 1990, simply took off from where General Zia had left. Where Zia through dictatorial fiat prised secularism and socialism out of the constitution, Ershad imposed Islam on the country through decreeing it as the religion of the state.
It is these impediments to governance which the Awami League will need to do away with. That the principles of 1971 need to be restored before the state can move on is an imperative at this point of time even as calls for free elections are heard both at home and abroad.
Islamist militancy may have been curbed by the government in an appreciable way, but that is hardly any reassurance that religious militants are a spent force considering the series of militant hideouts the security forces have been unearthing in recent months.
The danger will increase, perhaps exponentially, if the Bangladesh state is once again seized by forces, meaning the political parties which have failed to convince the nation that they have reformed themselves policy-wise, responsible for the slide which defined the dark period 1975-1996 once more make their way to power.
Polarised politics is the truth in Bangladesh today. The larger truth is the failure of political parties and elements on the right-wing to identify with the ideology that shaped the idea of Bangladesh more than a half century ago.
Hence the worry assailing secularists in the country.
(Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist, author and commentator on South Asian and American politics based in Dhaka and London. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)