BANGLADESH: Wrestling, Freestyle

The politics of relentless confrontation between the two main political parties has ravaged the political discourse in what could be a vibrant democracy

Smruti S Pattanaik Delhi

Ever since 1991, when Bangladesh transited from a military dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, the polity is characterised by the politics of street fighting, lack of consensus, boycott of Parliament and street agitations, often violent. The bonhomie that existed between the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) during their joint agitation against Gen Mohammad Ershad’s military regime gave way to the politics of confrontation which was marked by a zero sum game. It is important to understand why the political transition in 1990 did not bring about a paradigm shift in the relations between the two political parties, giving rise to a conflicting scenario of sharply polarised politics.

The Awami League has always looked at itself as a party that was instrumental in the fight for liberation. Its Centre-Left ideology and ‘commitment to secularism’ has attracted the minorities to its fold. It has a long political history. It was at the forefront of the movement for democracy in erstwhile East Pakistan and played a prominent role during the language movement of 1952 which subsequently made Bengali one of the national languages of Pakistan.

After the liberation war, the Awami League formed the government and the party drafted the 1972 Constitution which enshrined the ideals of secularism, democracy, socialism and the Bengali language as the four foundational principles of the State. In contrast, the BNP was established in 1978 and was born in the cantonment to provide political legitimacy to Gen Ziaur Rahman who was largely seen as being close to the army. He was himself a liberation war hero who had declared independence in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. However, given the circumstances under which Zia took over, he placed his party as the ideological opposite to the Awami League, banking on Rightist elements who were marginalised after the liberation war due to their role during the war.

To provide an ideological mooring which could be identified with the party, the BNP courted the Right-wingers, lifted the ban on religious politics, and removed secularism and declared ‘nationalism’ as one of the founding principles after Gen Zia assumed power as the Chief Martial Law Administrator. It inserted ‘Bismillahur Rahmanur Rahim’ in the opening line of the Constitution. It followed the policy of distancing itself from India to signal a change from Sheikh Mujib’s foreign policy and strengthened fraternal ties with Muslim countries for politico-ideological and economic reasons.

The Awami League believes that Gen Zia was in some ways responsible for the killing of Sheikh Mujib and his family as he indirectly supported the coup by army majors and rehabilitated those who were directly involved in the assassination. The BNP prides itself as the party which reestablished multi-party democracy that was derailed after the announcement of one-party rule by the Awami League. Thus, the two parties have ritualistically contested their roles in the liberation war and have tried to project their founding fathers as leaders who played the most important role in the liberation of Bangladesh.

The leaders of the two principal parties do not even meet or exchange greetings in public

Given theis history of ideological division, the relationship between the two during the anti-Ershad agitation ended with the resurfacing of old antagonistic politics. The student unions of the BNP (leading a seven-party alliance) and the Awami League (leading an eight party alliance), the Jatiyo Chatra Dal and Chatra League respectively, played a crucial role in forming a joint front against Ershad. the BNP assumed power in 1991.

The Awami League, shocked by its electoral defeat, refused to accept the election results. Predictably, the consensus that had emerged while participating in the anti-Ershad movement broke down. The problems started while filing the nomination for the post of president soon after the elections. The BNP and Jamaat entered into an alliance to form the first democratically elected government in the country.

Post-1991, polarised politics peaked with the BNP and Awami League acting as two disparate poles—Centre Left and Centre-Right alliances led by the Awami League and BNP, respectively. Other parties like the Jatiyo Party and the Jamaat emerged as major players in forming governments. At present, the Jamaat is part of the BNP alliance and the Jatiyo Party is part of the ruling Awami League government.

The two political parties also engaged in rewriting history textbooks, glorifying their founding father’s role each time they assumed power. The politics of contestation has not left any room for debate; as a result, democracy in Bangladesh has remained dysfunctional and the attitude of the ruling party symbolises the ‘winner takes all’ syndrome.

There have been attempts to indirectly involve the military in this politics of contestation. The politicisation of the bureaucracy and judiciary has only worsened the state of democracy. The election commission has been politicised; the system of caretaker government was introduced in 1996. This too was abolished by the League via the 15th Amendment.

The BNP has categorically refused to contest the next parliamentary elections unless the system of caretaker government is restored—a repetition of the 1996 situation when the Awami League did not participate in the sixth parliamentary election. Clearly, Bangladesh is moving towards serious political uncertainty.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012