Bangladesh: A state of failed politics

For a country born out of political upheavals, the continuing state of affairs in Bangladesh has shrunk the space for the actual practice of politics

Afsan Chowdhury Dhaka 

It’s not unusual to hear about the failure of the Bangladesh state. Yet, mounting evidence shows that though Bangladesh as a corporate entity has done quite well, its politics have fared poorly. Both national and international media have targeted the sheer failure of its political machinery. Even the tales of horror emanating from the Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector are about the failed regulatory responsibility of the government. But the state is a more complex entity and, in Bangladesh, the gap between the government and the state is widening.

Bangladesh’s political system is miserable but the social service delivery system— particularly for the poor-—is doing well. Prof Amartya Sen has said, “On a range of development indicators such as life expectancy, child immunization and child mortality, Bangladesh has pulled ahead of India despite being poorer.”

He said that what makes this comparison so powerful is that Bangladesh has targeted the position of women, not just through government policy, but also through the work of non-governmental organizations, such as Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and the Grameen Bank. As a result, “there have been astonishing successes, such as a dramatic fall in fertility rate and girls now outnumbering boys in education. All this has been achieved despite having half the per capita income of India”.

One explanation for why this works in Bangladesh, despite low public health spending is that both non-state actors and the community play a much bigger role, compared to neighbours. Few in Bangladesh wait for the government to act.

On a range of development indicators such as life expectancy and child mortality, Bangladesh has pulled ahead of India despite being poorer

This may be because politics in Bangladesh have been unstable from its very inception. When Bangladesh’s founding President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, took over, he didn’t succeed in ensuring stability. Post-war reconstruction was a gigantic task, made worse by nepotism and instabilities generated by the new aspirations of an entire people. The Left in various shapes and forms emerged to contest the state and the law and order situation was terrible.

One way to handle this crisis was to repeatedly deploy the military in combing operations, both against ‘criminals’ and the ‘Naxals’. Meanwhile, a paramilitary force known as ‘Rakkhi Bahini’, and directly loyal to Rahman, was constituted with technical assistance from India. It formalized extrajudicial arrests, interrogations and disappearances, which have now become traditions upheld by both ruling parties. More important, the regular army saw Rakkhi Bahini as a rival, creating further resentment.

By 1974, Mujibur Rahman had declared emergency, barely two years after a Constitution promising democracy, secularism, socialism and nationalism was enacted. Within a year of this one-party move, a rogue group of army personnel aided by a section of Rahman’s colleagues slew him and his family members and took over power. This takeover was supported by the US and China.

This group lasted barely three months before another group from the mainstream army, led by a war hero, Col. Khaled Musharraf, threw them out and took over. But their rule lasted barely three days before another group led by Col. Abu Taher, a retired war hero, led another coup on September 7. Taher was linked to the Leftist Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) party and relied on the non-commissioned officers. It was partly fueled by rage against the army brass, and in the ensuing chaos many officers were killed.

 

However, this takeover barely lasted a night. Col. Taher released the chief of army staff, General Ziaur Rahman, from army jail— who had by then become very popular for not joining Musharraf’s coup, which many thought was pro-Indian. He promptly arrested Taher and his coup colleagues, thus beginning the
Zia era.

In 1981, Zia was killed in the port city of Chittagong by a group of officers who were unhappy with his rule. Another war hero, General Abul Manzur was responsible for the assassination. Then army chief Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad mobilized his troops against them, sending the rebels on the run.

Ershad, too, came to power by pushing out President Justice Abdus Sattar in 1982, on a plank of ‘jihad against corruption’. Later, Ershad himself was to be known as a symbol of corruption to most. He ruled from 1982 to 1990, when a mass movement finally dislodged him from power, after all political parties rallied against him. However, since no power transfer occured, the political parties decided to set up a “caretaker government system”—led by then Supreme Court chief Justice Shahbuddin Ahmee—to oversee the elections. Subsequently, this became the system—a caretaker government headed by a SC Justice with members drawn from non-politicians—when elections were to be held. Basically, no party trusts any other, and the Election Commission’s power, rather than its integrity, is held in question. The practice of normal political democracy has no history in Bangladesh.

Several coup leaders of the 1975 takeover were hanged by the Awami League government. Khaled Musharraf was killed while fleeing from soldiers after his coup collapsed, while Col. Taher was tried and hanged by Zia. Gen. Zia was killed by his soldier colleagues and later the killers were tried and hanged by Gen. Ershad. Gen. Manzur was mysteriously killed as he tried to escape with his family when the coup failed.

The first election under the caretaker government system was won by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 1991, followed by the Awami League in 1996. In 2001, the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami joined hands and trounced the League. In 2006, the BNP tried to fiddle with the caretaker system and ended up with the president of the country, Prof. Yazuddin Ahmed, as the head of the caretaker government. The League responded with a series of violent street agitations and, as the situation got worse, the military—under Gen. Moin U Ahmed—took over. This came as a relief to most people. It was a civil-military alliance, but with the military clearly in charge.

The military first tried getting rid of the leaders of the two parties—Begum Khaleda Zia of the BNP and Sheikh Hasina of the League—through what was called the ‘Minus 2’ formula, which failed when both refused to leave. There were attempts to try both leaders, but that too failed, as the military government had become unpopular by then, and anti-government agitations commonplace. Their efforts to try various politicians and business leaders for corruption backfired and the military was soon facing accusations of extortion and general bungling. Still, elections were held in 2008, and the League won the ballot.

Politically, the military tried to introduce ‘reform’ groups within the two parties, but they soon lost all clout. There were efforts to sponsor several new parties, all of which failed, including projecting Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus as a possible leader. This last didn’t work particularly because of Sheikh Hasina’s enduring hatred for Yunus, which has caused damage to the Grameen Bank as well.

In 2012, Hasina introduced the 15th amendment, through which the caretaker government system was discarded and an all-party government system was introduced, to be headed by the PM in power. In response, the main Opposition party, BNP, declared it would not join elections unless the old system was restored. The battle goes on.

There is no significant evidence for the existence of a democratic tradition in Bangladesh politics; extra-constitutionality is a part of its political system. As a result, state institutions have weakened. The judiciary has seen a great drop in public confidence. This was put on display when the War Crimes Tribunal sentenced an accused to life imprisonment and Dhaka erupted in protest. Thousands marched to Shahbagh in the city, in a spectacular show of defiance against the verdict, insisting that the accused be given a death sentence. In fact, so overwhelming was the public pressure that the government changed laws to introduce the right to appeal in case sentence was felt to be inadequate to the crime.

The Shahbagh movement was a reflection of the rage over the failure to try war criminals even after 42 years. Obviously, people weren’t seeking a trial, but vengeance. In the process, the principles of an increasingly beleaguered ‘rule of law’ were even more diminished. Crowd power became a major factor in judicial decisions. It may be a coincidence, but since then, all accused of war crimes have been found guilty and sentenced to death.
Though in accordance with the wishes of the crowd, this has severely eroded the office of the judiciary.

While the political tradition never even took birth in Bangladesh, the judicial system —once its most powerful institution—has significantly weakened over the years.

Since 1991, members of the Opposition have regularly boycotted parliament, leading to a weakened legislature. The absence of a strong judiciary, a non-existent legislature, and intermittent episodes of military rule, have all deeply eroded the value and practice of politics in Bangladesh.

There’s also the disturbing nexus of corrupt party members who treat politics as a money-making racket—probably the largest economic sector after the RMG. Many RMG owners have interests across party lines; big-time corruption is not possible without government connections. The present regime has seen a series of major scandals involving billions of taka, ranging from a share market crash, to several banking scandals, to the Padma Bridge corruption conspiracy scandal, in which several top-notch advisers and officers of the government were accused by the World Bank of withholding funds.

Where the government is not the sole source of life and liberty of the people, the state of Bangladesh is seeing a mammoth change. This has not happened as a matter of choice, but because political governance never took institutional shape. As a result, this lack of institutionalism has become the norm. Politicians seem to occupy a discrete space of their own, and the separation between the government and the people is unusual for a country that is deeply defined by political aspirations. Whether political chaos is an indicator of that birth pangs, or the last gasps of a dying person, is still unknown. Meanwhile, ordinary people will not put all their eggs into the political basket.

 

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2013