ELECTIONS in Bangladesh have a way of being crudely disruptive of civic life. Recent events indicate how the looming elections can suddenly bring to a grinding halt a relatively ambient environment of economic and social progress. Intransigence and inability of the political leadership, across the spectrum, to agree on how to conduct the elections, have already seen unconscionable repercussions: charred human beings, vandalised and destroyed property, the uncertainty of the day labourer, school and office closures, the slowing of economic activity and much more. Even the dead and dying have not been spared the ravages of political contestation.
The citizens of Bangladesh are tired and frustrated by the mindless mayhem that reappears with each election cycle. They want a time out; they desperately want this nightmare to end, once and for all.
Prominent leaders from across the world have repeatedly urged all political actors in Bangladesh to come together, engage in constructive dialogue, strengthen the roots of democracy, and build Bangladesh into a prosperous nation. Underlying these words is a deeper need to rebuild an environment of decency and trust that has long eluded the country's political theater.
Atrociously, the behaviours of politicians have continued to resist change. For example thirteen years ago, in 2000, Rehman Sobhan—a scholar and civic leader—wrote: “It was felt that a last attempt be made to mediate an agreement for bringing all parties together to work out a formula which would permit for a free and fair election.”
The search for that formula is still on hold. It is time to transcend animosities, foster cooperation, and construct a new vision for Bangladesh to allow the country to flourish. Unfortunately, the two main political parties—the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) -- hold such strongly contested narratives on the major national issues, especially on the identity issue, that bringing about consensus appears to be a near-impossible task. And the continual reinforcement of their ideological positions has split the nation into two aggressively opposing camps. Far more serious difficulties lie ahead unless a new vision is constructed, jointly, to bridge the gap and build for the future. It can be done.
Let's face it: If the contesting parties are unwilling to budge from their deeply entrenched positions, nothing will change. There will be the same anarchy and wanton destruction, probably with heightened intensity and animosity, with each approaching election. Another decade will pass and the same points will be reiterated and the same consequences will follow. And the emancipation of 160+ million people of a nation of huge potential and possibility will continue to hang in the balance, much to the pleasure of other nations who see the rising economic strength, innovative capabilities and competitive prowess of the people of Bangladesh as a veritable threat.
What then needs to change? “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That first step ought to be for the contesting parties to hit the pause button and show a deliberate willingness to initiate talks, within a framework of intermediation, to explore the contours of some common ground: elements they hold dearly in their positions that overlap. While there are a number of such issues, it is best that they emerge from these talks that will be decidedly arduous. Yet, this really is the only option, the only decent way to emerge from the present crisis. The alternatives, often gruesome and reprehensible, have not worked and are unlikely to ever work.
Before coming to the table the parties must comprehend a serious need to build trust. Why so? Because, “trust is a social good; when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.” Another view is that trust is “necessary for cooperation and communication, the foundations for cohesive and productive relations.” Without trust civic engagement is not possible. And without such engagement further desolation of an otherwise promising nation is inevitable.
There are persons of caliber within the contesting parties at various layers who can get the dialogue started. They must emerge from their shells and speak out for what is right, what is good and what is desirable for this nation to be free of the clutches of desperation and anarchy. And they must act in good faith on the principle of “nation before party, party before person.”
If a dialogue can be initiated, many of today's politicians may even begin to shed their negative image as a corrupt and brutish lot, conniving constantly to achieve the twin goals of personal advancement and aggrandisement. Instead, they can emerge as iconic figures with vision, wisdom, and statesman-like caliber to take the nation forward. Lifting the veil of darkness and leading the nation to a promising future would be their lasting legacy.
The author teaches at Pennsylvania State University and is affiliated with Bangladesh Development Initiative.