By Bhaskar Roy
Bangladesh has entered that phase when all political parties and their front organizations are looking towards the next general elections. It is not surprising that temperatures between the two leading parties, the BNP and the Awami League are rising and spilling on to the streets. The stakes are very high. The BNP and its Islamic allies, who were almost wiped out in the December 2008 elections, must retrieve lost ground to remain relevant. For this coalition, their job has been made even more difficult because of the various court cases in process – from the 1971 war crimes, to political murders, sponsoring terrorism and corruption during their 2001-2006 tenure in the government. If some of these cases end in prosecution they may lose legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate. BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda has done well to bring back factions that had broken away to form small parties to the fold. From a four party alliance the BNP now leads an 18 party coalition, at least in numbers.
In 2008 the Awami League won 229 of 300 parliamentary seats. It led a grand alliance of 14 parties largely secular and pro-democracy and ardent supporters of liberation of Bangladesh. The two warring alliances are politically and ideologically opposites. The Awami League led coalition stands on a morally high pedestal while the BNP led alliance have blood of their countrymen on their hands. But the country is still divided.
Both political coalitions must understand that the aspirations of the Bangladeshi voters are changing. The last election saw the entry of over 40 percent new voters. The next election will see more new voters joining the electorate. They want stability, economic development, jobs and career progression. Only going abroad is no longer an option. Foreign investments can energize the domestic sector. And investment will come only if there is political and social stability, power and infrastructure, and freedom from bribery and corruption at every step.
In her thirty months as Prime Minister, Sk. Hasina brought up the GDP growth to 6 per cent. It is a significant success considering the state of economy the government inherited. Sk. Hasina has been personally responsible for astute prosecution of foreign policy. And Foreign Minister Dr. Dipu Moni proved equal to the demands. This rate of growth, if it continues for a few more years, will put the country in a new position. Sk. Hasina and her team have resolved issues of Bangladeshi workers abroad especially in the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, as well as Malaysia among others. These workers contribute significantly to forex earnings. Bangladesh’s garment industry is now only second to that of China’s. But owners of the garment industry have become exploiters in a country where jobs are at a premium, especially for women workers.
Much has been done by the Awami League led government, and much more remains to be done. The opposition and their intellectual supporters who are still to come out of the pro-Pakistan and anti-India mind set, and spoke about returning Bangladesh as a confederate of Pakistan, are willing to cut their nose to spite their face, as the old proverb goes.
Leaving aside India’s $ one billion soft aid to Bangladesh, from which $200 million has been converted to outright aid, there are other more fundamental issues that could accelerate Bangladesh’s development. These include the transit facility to India to its north-east region. Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar has opened huge opportunities to become the pivot to South East Asian land connectivity with India, Nepal and Bhutan. But the BNP led opposition has put obstacles in every case including import of much needed power from India. India is willing to take Bangladesh along with its own development, but if Begum Khaleda Zia destroys these initiatives she and her coalition would be responsible for her country’s lack of development and will have to answer to the people.
India also has to get its act correct. The Teesta river water sharing issue has emerged as a very sensitive matter between India and Bangladesh. Unless this issue is resolved equitably and amicably between the two sides it will weaken Sk. Hasina’s hand. While the Indian central government had worked a reasonable formula with Dhaka, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of the West Bengal state through which the Teesta flows to Bangladesh, has put a spanner in the works. She is the key to some of the most important India-Bangladesh relations, but she has decided to be the spoiler in her narrow provincial political interests.
Having said the foregoing, it is time that Prime Minister Sk. Hasina took a hard look at the internal developments which are poised to boil over and be exploited even by interested foreign parties.
Choosing the right political advisors makes for successful leaders. An astute and successful leader always has his/her ears to the ground independent of the advisors, because advisors tend to tell the leader what he/she wants to hear and not the truth. Then falls the leader.
History is replete with such narratives. Late Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Indian Prime Minister who was a comrade-in-arms with Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman, had advisers with genuine foresight in the early 1970s. These advisors like P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, and foreign intelligence chief R. N. Kao were not the run of the mill politicians. But when she got encircled by the run of the mill politicians, Mrs. Gandhi fell from grace. If someone disagrees with the leader he or she must be listened to with much more alacrity. The “yes” men or women are to be guarded against.
The most telling issues, many of which are not untrue, being taken up by the opposition and external interests include the following: violence, unexplained and unresolved killing of journalists; so called encounter killings by security forces; abductions and disappearances; detention and jailing of opposition leaders and protesters; use of the ruling party cadres and workers along with the police forces.
It is evident that the untrained police forces have gone amuck. They would do the same, as they did earlier, if the opposition was in power. This is an urgent administrative issue that begs correction.
These and more including corruption are telling truths that must be addressed by the government without delay, and without fear and favour. Hard decisions have to be taken. The cabinet must take time out to consider why the national media which welcomed Sk. Hasina and her party with such enthusiasm are now criticising them almost on a daily basis on issues of law and order and governance.
Equally unfortunate is the fact that Sk. Hasina not only has enemies at home, but also abroad. It appears that certain interested parties perceive that if she is politically destroyed or removed altogether, the Awami League will crumble. With the opposition BNP and Jamaet-e-Islami (JEI) enjoying rather dubious reputation, a new political dispensation can be created. This perception may not be too far misplaced.
The influential British weekly, The Economist, launched another personal attack on Sk. Hasina in its May 26 issue. One article was headlined “Bangladesh’s toxic politics; Hello, Delhi – It is up to India to try to stop Sheikh Hasina ruining Bangladesh”. The other was titled “Politics in Bangladesh: Banged about – The Prime Minister sets the country on a dangerous path”. This is not the first such attack by this reputed weekly whose credibility and neutrality can be seriously questioned.
Last August, The Economist carried two articles unleashing a vitriolic attack on Sk. Hasina and her government, while giving an almost clean chit to the earlier BNP-JEI led government despite their political murders, nurturing of Islamic terrorists both for domestic politics and export of Pakistan-backed terrorists to India among other things using official machinery. India was also roundly villified alleging New Delhi had secretly funded Awami League election with “bags of money and advice” and acted as a regional hegemon.
There is very little difference in this weekly’s August 2011 reportage and the May 2012 articles. Overall, the Economist repeats exactly the same charges made by the BNP against the government.
Some of the allegations that The Economist made against the government include (i) scrapping the caretaker government system indicate plans to rig the next elections (ii) cracking down on civil groups, NGOs (iii) murders, attacks on activists and intimidation (iv) Sk. Hasina runs one of the world’s worst governments (v) harassing Nobel Laureate Dr. Md. Yunus, founder of the micro financing Grameen Bank because he dared to set up a “third (political) front” in 2007. What the article does not clarify who set up Dr. Yunus. It was the US. The planners did not calculate that Md. Yunus had no political base. He would have to depend on defectors from the existing political parties. This also amounts to external interference in a sovereign country.
Last August, the most serious allegation against the Awami League government included the following (i) the 1971 war crimes trial was vengeance politics and dynastic retribution against Begum Khaleda Zia (ii) attempts to decimate the Islamic political party, JEI, (iii) vengeance politics against Khaleda Zia’s sons Tareque and Arafat Rehman among several others.
Now, a poor and transparent attempt to balance the report was made by briefly criticising the earlier BNP government. In the context of these articles the endeavour fails miserably.
In the August 2011 reportage, India was pointed as a villain. In the current article it was hinted that India should forget the Bangladesh government’s success against terrorism, and discipline the government. As an incentive it adds BNP leader may be looking at positive relations with India.
It must be understood that India is not playing a zero sum game in Bangladesh or with any of the other neighbours.
The allegations made by the Economist are astounding if not bizarre. It appears to be a sustained campaign with an agenda.
All governments have their problems, especially in developing countries with a volatile political history like Bangladesh where core issues of liberation have not been resolved yet.
The BNP’s distorting of Bangladesh’s history from 1971, especially that of the language movement, the liberation war and the genocide associated with it including the brutal massacre of intellectuals, by Pakistani forces and pro-Pakistani elements must not be forgotten. It is, therefore, highly curious why so many interests around the world are trying to obliterate the war crimes.
It is difficult for most people of Bangladesh, except for the perpetrators and their supporters, to forget the reign of terror and mentoring of terrorist organizations during the BNP-JEI rule. Their Prime Minister Khaleda Zia remained in denial of the existence of the terrorist organization Jamatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB), till US President George W. Bush issued a warning in 2005 during his visit to India. Overnight, the JMB became real, its top leaders arrested. But the country had to wait for the caretaker government for their execution. Incidents like these are galore. The attempt on Sk. Hasina’s life in 2004 was hatched by BNP ministers and executed by HUJI commander Mufti Hannan, who confessed to the crime. The list of misdeeds of the BNP-JEI government is long. Unless the culprits are punished transparently according to law the country can slide back to state sponsored anarchy if and when the Awami League goes out of power.
At the same time Prime Minister Sk. Hasina and her government must take matters into hand. She is under a microscope. The Awami League leaders and workers must realize that misdeeds by their predecessors do not give them licence to repeat the same offences.