The caretaker syndrome
Legally speaking, the concept of non-partisan and neutral caretaker dispensation as a constitutional contrivance to oversee national elections is a dead issue. The legal demise has, however, not deterred the current political opposition from registering their vehement protest against the annulment of such unique constitutional arrangement. As of now, they have vowed not to enter into any meaningful political discourse with the establishment without a firm commitment to legally reinstate the non-partisan and neutral caretaker system to oversee the next general election.
If one goes by the history of political transactions in Bangladesh, one would be pragmatic to say that the incumbent government would not reinstate a system that has only recently been undone and on which the dominant political players of the ruling party hold strong views. One feels that under such circumstances, there is an over-arching imperative of breaking the rigidities with a view to achieving socio-political peace and stability. Breaking the apparent impasse would demand commendable dexterity and skill on the part of potential negotiators.
It is relevant to recollect that any attempt of political negotiations in Bangladesh is constrained by the deep suspicions about the mutual good faith of either side which divides both parties. These suspicions are further compounded by the mutual antipathies of the two principal protagonists who command enormous authority as the respective leaders of their parties.
The painful distrust of our ever-widening polarised society does not limit itself to the political parties but extends to even non-party persons who are suspected of some partisan leaning. Political utterances of the not-too-distant past reflect the depth of the unfortunate climate of suspicion.
If we retrace our steps we find that the ground reality compelled the then political government in March 1996 to amend the constitution to incorporate the provision of a non-party caretaker government, as the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The irony is that the government which seriously questioned the representative status of the caretaker arrangement ultimately agreed to a system of government that was to be made up entirely of members without any representative status. In fact, the 13th Amendment was the recognition of the validity of the demand for elections under a caretaker government.
The ongoing boycott of parliament, compounded by the inability to negotiate a settlement of the caretaker issue, gives rise to apprehension about the sustainability of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh. It is interesting to note here that in mid-1994 the well-intentioned external intervention by the Commonwealth Secretariat in Bangladesh's politics was seen to reflect poorly on the state of democratic politics where our parties could not even agree on a sufficiently non-partisan Bangladeshi personality to mediate a solution to our domestic problems.
The concept of a caretaker government is principally one of a mechanism for extrication from the political quagmire characterised by boycotting of the legislature, proclivity to reckless and vituperative attacks and retorts, and suspected efforts for election engineering by the establishment.
It would appear that the sad and painful parts of the not-too-past are about to revisit us. Coercive show of strength will beget the same in future. In the opposition's movement to dislodge an elected government, the people will suffer, industry, trade -- national and international -- the developmental process, banking and finance and the ordinary men are to pay costly prices at the altar of power game.
The cynics say that the politicians' motto appears to be in power at any cost. For attaining their goal people must roar. The people do not matter eventually. In such a scenario the people are the last consideration and hardly ever the first.
While the caretaker arrangement might be construed as a scathing indictment on the unreliability of the political class to fairly conduct national elections, it is also a fact that the determined movement for its restoration is displaying signs of desperation leading to an ominous future. In a situation where neither the people nor the country might figure as the first priority, our altruistic virtues would be open to question.
The constitution of the republic enshrines fundamental principles of equity and fair play but in the absence of proactive actions by the principal actors they will remain merely as counsels of moderation. If our society proves to be so perilously polarised that the spirit of moderation is marginally present then nobody can help us. The evasion of responsibility would actually mean the demise of the spirit of moderation. Surely, we do not intend to perish.
The nation urgently requires the exercise of negotiating skill with dexterity and caution. This is not an insurmountable task for our politicians. They may or may not seek the services of persons that are not politically anointed or affiliated but the responsibility of seeking resolution through dialogue and compromise cannot be shrugged off. The imperative is to engage in the arduous process. The demand is for credible elections leading to good government.
The writer is a columnist for The Daily Star.