In its brief, chequered history, Bangladesh has moved from crisis to crisis, playing havoc with the lives of the people and the future of the country. Since 1990, the epicentre of political developments in Bangladesh has been the bitter rivalry between Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and Sheikh Hasina, supremo of the Awami League. Many thought democracy would be well-served when constitutional provisions were made in 1991 to install a neutral caretaker government to conduct general elections, but this has turned out to be a naïve hope.
In the last 15 years, the two Begums have alternated in power. Khaleda Zia’s last regime, which ended in October 2006, has been a political disaster for the Bangladeshi polity, even though the country made some gains in economic management. Unfortunately, her only focus appeared to be to promote her son, Tariq Rahman, and perpetuate the BNP regime under his virtual leadership. Rahman and his coterie saw no value in probity and restraint in politics and threw all scruples to the wind to consolidate their hold over the bureaucracy and gain money power through rapacious financial dealings. The top echelons of administration were manned by contracted bureaucrats. About 300 bureaucrats were re-employed and assigned key posts in the government.
More alarming was the charge that the voters’ list, revised during the BNP regime, included 12.2 million names entered in ‘duplicate’ or by ‘mistake’. This was substantiated in a study conducted by the US-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Quite obviously, the son and the mother were desperate to ensure victory in the general elections as the alternative could very likely be not merely sitting in the Opposition, but also facing grave criminal charges of corruption and nepotism.
Knowing well that free and fair elections were not possible under prevailing conditions, the 17-party Opposition alliance led by the Awami League sought the setting aside of the voters’ list, changes in the caretaker government and postponement of the polls scheduled for January 22, 2007. The agitation actually challenged the Constitution and its provisions for the installation of an ‘interim government’, which ironically was supposed to ensure free and fair elections. The alliance threatened to boycott the elections if the demands were not met.
Within a matter of a few months, the alliance met with remarkable success. The character of the caretaker government changed, with retired Chief Justice KM Hassan, President Iajuddin Ahmed and Chief Election Commissioner MA Aziz, all suspect in the eyes of Awami League, stepping aside, and with the swearing-in of a neutral figure, Fakhruddin Ahmed, as the head of the interim government. Elections were postponed and complaints against the voters’ list are likely to be looked into.
To an outsider, it is indeed astounding how the Constitution could be so challenged. It is indicative of a fragile and unstable polity. It also indicates that there is widespread resentment against the BNP government and the anti-incumbency factor will play a major role when elections are held.
An important factor determining the course of development was the growing international opinion that without the participation of the Awami League-led alliance, polls would lack legitimacy. The UN and the EU announced cancellation of the international observation teams being organised to monitor the elections. Thankfully, the West is keen on ensuring that democracy is not jeopardised in Bangladesh, otherwise we would have witnessed bloody coups, as was the pattern in the 1970s and 1980s.
The BNP had won the last general elections held in 2001, and reckoned that the solid vote-bank of its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, had given it a decisive advantage. The latter fully exploited the situation and under its patronage, Islamic fundamentalists as well as militant groups have taken firm root in Bangladesh. Islamic fundamentalist movements linked to al-Qaeda and the ISI are developing Bangladesh into a hub for terrorist operations in India and South-East Asia. Fazlul Rahman, a Bangladeshi militant leader, was one of the six signatories to Osama’s first declaration of holy war against the US in 1998. Investigations into terrorist attacks in Bangalore, Varanasi and Mumbai have revealed the involvement of Bangladeshi terrorists belonging to Harquat-ul-Jehad al-Islami and the Bangladesh chapter of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. The BNP government has clearly failed to deal with the problem effectively.
While victory for the Awami League-led alliance seems almost certain, the defeat of the BNP-Jamaat alliance alone will provide room for corrective measures to bring Bangladesh closer to its initial liberal moorings, which was the basis for its successful liberation struggle. This is important for the future of Bangladesh and would be welcomed both in the West and India. Bangladesh is the soft underbelly of India and what happens there has a direct impact on the security and the stability of India’s eastern and North-eastern states. It is in India’s interest that Bangladesh does not become a failed State and Bangladeshi politicians, too, need to come out of the time warp and give up their fear of friendship with India. Bangladesh’s future lies not in confrontation but close cooperation with India.
JK Sinha is former Special Secretary, R&AW