NOW that the Awami League is off to a new term in office, there are the priorities it needs to set as the party of government once more. The priorities relate, of course, to the necessity of sketching new plans for the future. But let this discourse on what the government must do begin through taking note of the courageous manner in which the prime minister and her colleagues set aside all sorts of pressure, especially from western diplomats, on the question of the elections and went ahead in conducting the voting. There will certainly be questions and quibbling over the nature of the election, over the large number of lawmakers elected unopposed. But what will not be in dispute is the constitutionality of the entire process. That the ruling party did go through with the election not only kept the constitution in place but also sent out the clear message that it is time for all political elements across the board to get down to the business of ensuring proper democracy in the country. And that means, first and foremost, a considered and judicious discarding of the caretaker system of government. You cannot pretend to have democracy with a caretaker system imposed on you every four years and nine months.
Which of course takes us to that matter of priorities. The first of those priorities is the paramount need to have the Election Commission acquire absolute authority over the voting process, to a point where the administration will have absolutely no power to control or influence it. The elections to the five city corporations were a happy sign of the way in which the Election Commission can and should work. To what extent the EC can maintain that record will soon be made known through the upcoming elections to the local bodies. Nothing must be done that can raise any question about the impartiality and fairness of the voting.
Now that we are on the subject of local bodies' elections, we have that second priority before us. And that is for the government to initiate serious and purposeful moves toward empowering the local bodies, action that was not taken in the past five years. The entire calling of democracy will be at risk if rethinking on the modalities of political exercise by the local bodies is not there. As long as members of parliament oversee the upazila parishads, the cause of democratic pluralism will not be served. And, to be sure, there is another area where democracy can be given a fresh shot in the arm by the re-elected government. That will be through ensuring the full authority of the Anti-Corruption Commission, which happily has had the High Court paving part of the way for it to stamp its authority on public life through its power to prosecute public servants without having to seek governmental authorisation to do so.
In these past five years, progress has been made in such vital areas as education and agriculture. With Nurul Islam Nahid and Matia Chowdhury heading their ministries, one can expect the system to be sustained in the two sectors. It is in other areas, though, that the government must show that it means business. A proactive, well-qualified minister at home affairs is called for. In similar fashion, the nation's diplomacy, having been in a poor state for decades, needs to be on the watch of an individual who comprehends the nuances and subtleties of international relations. The country does not need a foreign minister whose idea of foreign affairs is endless travel overseas. It needs a foreign minister whose intellectual abilities will convince the nation that Bangladesh will have a vibrant voice in the councils of the world. And vibrancy will be called for at the cultural affairs ministry as well. With Asaduzzaman Noor in charge, Bangladesh's heritage ought to be on display around the world in the coming months and years.
The broad canvas of policy making and articulation apart, there remains the issue of why the government must stay above the banalities of everyday politics in the country. Ministers should be careful about two things: they must not speak in discordant voices over the policies and programmes of the government they serve and they must spend more time in their offices than at public ceremonies or appearing before the media at every available opportunity. The prime minister does not have to respond to the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party on each and every issue, for the good reason that as the head of government she is the leader of the country and therefore must ignore the barbs thrown her way. A junior minister can respond to any disagreeable statement that might be made by those who did not participate in the elections, were taken by surprise when the elections did take place and who now are lost in the woods.
There is something else the government must do. It must send out the strong, unambiguous message to foreign diplomats based in the country that while they are welcome to deal with the administration on anything and everything of a bilateral or multilateral nature between their governments and ours, their activism in Bangladesh's internal politics must draw to a close. The manner in which some of these diplomats carried themselves in the run-up to the elections has been humiliating for the country. The foreign office must make it clear that a diplomat, no matter what clout his country has around the world, is in no position to ask that fresh elections in Bangladesh be held in June or at any other time. Let the rules of diplomacy be set straight: any diplomat dabbling in Bangladesh's internal politics should be called over to the foreign office and served the necessary warning.
There are other priorities that require urgent, sustained handling. Those who have caused mayhem and murder in these past few months through blockades and strikes have to be hunted down and brought to justice if life must get moving again. The war criminals must face the consequences of their acts in 1971.
On a larger scale, the process of a restoration of secularism, indeed of the constitution as it was in 1972, must begin soon. No compromise or negotiations are ethically acceptable with individuals or groups or parties which have since the mid-1970s made a mockery of decent politics in this country. Let them reform their attitudes first. You do not negotiate with people who repudiate the roots of your nationhood.
All of this is a tall order. And yet there is no turning away from it.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.