12:00 AM, November 15, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 15, 2012

Strategically Speaking

Competitive, not confrontational, politics

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Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd)

Photo: AFP

This piece has been motivated by the cover picture of the latest edition of The Economist. I am told that this is the world's most twittered picture since it appeared on the internet, reaching nearly a million. It is a picture of the reelected President Obama hugging his wife, his face showing distinct signs of happiness and, perhaps even more, of relief.
Different people will read the picture in different ways but the poignancy of the picture is equally matched by the sublimity of the caption which reads: "Now, hug a Republican." It is difficult to miss the underlying message of the heading which urges the president to reach out to the other side. Nobody knows better than President Obama the need to involve the opposition in conducting the affairs of the state, something that he made abundantly clear in his victory speech last Wednesday. And given the character of the House and the Senate there cannot be any other way. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh reaching out to the opposition is not a part of the political culture.
And that is what made me relate so deeply and so intently with the weekly's cover. That would be so for anyone who wants to see an end to the nature of politics in Bangladesh. The caption could not be more applicable to Bangladesh politics, deeply divided as it is by hostility, confrontation and exclusiveness. The outcomes affect the people severely. What can one expect in a situation where the political opposition is considered an "enemy" not an opponent who needs to be engaged for the larger interest of the people?
Is reaching out to one another by the two major parties so difficult? It is the function of the minds of the leadership, particularly the two leaders, that creates the psychological rift and sustains the hostility that has historical reference.
For Sheikh Hasina, understandably, the events of August 1975 pervade her mind and predominate her thoughts and actions. And it is not unnatural for that to spill over into the realm of politics. And the well-planned attack on her and her party leaders on August 24, 2004, which by all indications was designed to wipe off the AL leadership, has reinforced her conviction that her main opposition is out to eliminate her, in the same manner, she is convinced, the founder of the BNP was complicit in the killing of her father and members of her family. That is the psyche of the leader of the Awami League which has come to inform the collective consciousness of the senior leaders of the party too.
And this mindset is what is resented by the BNP. As for Begum Zia, she feels the accusations are wrong; on the other hand it is the AL that is out to see the end of BNP as a political party. Thus the starting point of our politics is antagonism and mistrust.
I do not think that sinking differences is not impossible by either. And I base my comment on the past understanding and cooperation between the two parties when they came together against President Ershad in the late eighties. If Ershad was the common cause that brought them to a common ground 20 years ago than there are enough causes for them to effect a meeting of the minds.
It will be a folly on AL's part to disregard the political realities. BNP had been twice chosen to run trhe country, and in the two elections that it lost the BNP managed to garner more than 30% of the votes. In discounting the BNP is the AL not in fact ignoring the more than 30% of the electorate? Can it afford to do that? And in any case a parliament without the opposition invalidates the position of the ruling party to a very large extent.
The BNP on its part can ill afford the state of continuing confrontational politics. It has chosen to boycott the parliament thereby depriving its voters of their right to be heard in the parliament. And even the BNP supporters are not convinced that the reasons for keeping away from the parliament, which their leaders offer as reasons for doing so, has to do with politics.
I am told by wiser minds that changing such a mindset will require changing our political culture. That is a tall order since cultures cannot be changed overnight; it needs mutation of the mind to be able to change the culture of politics. Can we wait that long?
And the chance of the present crop of leadership of the two parties passing on the baton to a lot that will not be weighed down by the baggage of the past seems remote, in which case one can only see deliverance from the present state coming in the form of third party offering the voters a free choice. On the other hand, the chance of a third party surviving its gestation period is remote, given the pathological hatred the two major parties have displayed towards the idea of an alternative political party.
We can only hope the two would think of the country and shed the past baggage.

The writer is Editor, Oped & Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.

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