• Sunday, March 01, 2015

Dysfunctional democracy

Syed Maqsud Jamil

BANGLADESH was born out of the heroic spirit of liberation and the ideals of democracy. The liberation spirit is still held aloft but democracy flounders in bitter partisanship and acrimonious exchanges. The wages of wrath is a heavy burden for common people to bear. They are but witness to this contest for power and for license to govern according to one's will. It is a tragedy which the people of Bangladesh want to live without but cannot do much to end.
It is a season of despair for Bangladesh. Many innocent lives have perished, but it does not move the heart of the holders and the contestants for power. The issue is the national election for the 10th Parliament. The holders and contestants have drawn the battle lines. The grisly furies of blockades and the all-out stand of the rulers have paralysed the country. It is all about who will reign over the country. The actors are the same, and they have changed sides over the modus operandi.
The government in power this time wants a multi-party government during the interim period. It will not have anything to do with non-party interim or caretaker government. Ironically, it is the AL's baby, for which they agitated in alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jatiya Party during late 1994 and early 1996. They boycotted the parliament and ultimately resigned from it. In fact, the BNP-led government soured the taste of democracy by doctoring Magura bye-election. Bangladesh's 5th Parliament became dysfunctional midway through its term.
The party in opposition now, which will not have anything but the caretaker government, was in power then. The 50:50 formula that the government in power is dourly sticking to is in fact the proposal of Sir Ralph Ninian, a representative of the Commonwealth sent to resolve the crisis then. The then ruling government of BNP was also stubborn but ultimately caved in. But the AL-led alliance would not settle for anything less than a caretaker government. Like the turn of roulette wheel the BNP went ahead for a farcical poll. And there was "Janatar Mancha" (People's Court), a sort of civilian coup in the administration. The caretaker bill was adopted in the first session of the short-lived 6th Parliament.    
AL-led alliance was the victor in the national polls for the 7th Parliament conducted by Justice Habibur Rahman-led caretaker government. It was BNP's turn to boycott the parliament. They went to the streets to sweat under the sun and soak in the rain. The 7th Parliament ended its term with BNP-led opposition alliance boycotting it for much of it term. BNP-led alliance returned to power with thumping majority in the national poll for the 8th Parliament. With the massive majority they proceeded on a course of installing dynastic democracy and of developing the thinking that the days of bliss would never end, which was detrimental to cultivating democratic principle. Justice K.M. Hassan's choice as the head of caretaker government for the next poll was a hornet's nest and Late Professor Iajuddin muddled it further.
Hell was let loose in the winter of 2006 and turmoil followed. What happened few days back, 19 passengers being burned alive inside a bus, also happened when the present government (then in opposition) called a general strike in 2004. 11 passengers were burnt inside a bus. Only the actors changed. The rest is history, with the 'Uddins' at the helm.
Bangladesh moved ahead from those days. The 2008 national polls put AL-led alliance to power with brute majority. It was like a mountain settling on the BNP-led opposition. During the last five years the opposition was brutalised in all possible manner. Democracy was shelved with disdain. The prevailing situation appears to have pushed the BNP to the wall and to throw caution and discretion to the wind. AL wanted to marginalise them into a ragtag band. It did not happen. BNP has been shredded of its old guards and wavering ranks; a bunch of relatively younger and low profile activists have taken over. It is going to be a no holds barred battle with little of democracy in it.
Democracy is the art of the possible where differing views can flourish. Unfortunately, democracy in Bangladesh has become dysfunctional in the bristling thicket of contempt and unremitting hostility with no bridge to build. It is more like a coarse rule of engagement, 'either I stay or you stay.' In such a situation optimism is a difficult virtue to cultivate. The prime minister can rightly talk of the constitutional process. Only the Holy Scripture is not subject to accommodation but a country's constitution always has room for accommodation when the greater good of the country and the people is an issue.
The verdict of the Supreme Court that quashed the caretaker system did not close the door for a way forward. It advises that the caretaker system can be used for conducting the next two national polls in the interest of the safety of the people and the country. Even the parliamentary standing committee recommended that the matter be reviewed further. But the hurry with which the caretaker annulment bill was passed was surely lacking in discretion. The hastiness, only 4 minutes, was most unfortunate keeping in view that the government has a greater responsibility to make democracy functional.   
The last two decades of parliamentary democracy have been a history of dysfunctional democracy. For that matter, the first two decades of Bangladesh cannot be commended for raising a rose garden. The 1973 national poll under the founding father was lamentably tainted. General Zia's elections were held with a cornered AL offering less than adequate opportunity for unfettered participation. General Ershad the autocrat held two abysmally stage-managed national elections in 1986 and 1988.    
It is a fact that the people of Bangladesh have shown a fair example of tolerating these unwholesome proceedings of dysfunctional democracy. They deserve more than what the two major parties have given. Even the most benign attitude has its limit. It is to be seen when and how the tolerance breaks down. Meantime, let sanity prevail over the contending parties.

The writer is a former advertising professional.

Published: 12:00 am Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Last modified: 9:50 pm Wednesday, December 25, 2013

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