11 o'clock tick tock | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 13, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 13, 2008

Straight Talk

11 o'clock tick tock

It was almost a year ago that the current government faced its first existential crisis. Back in August 2007 it seemed as though the fate of the government might well end up hanging on an umbrella that was opened at an inopportune moment at a football game at Dhaka University. That incident led, eventually, to street riots that at one point looked like they might spiral out of control before the government was able to restore order and authority.
Today, it is not an open umbrella but something even smaller, a hearing aid, upon which the immediate future of the country seems to rest. But on such little things do governments rise and fall.
I do not mean to suggest that there is no genuine need for AL chief and ex-prime minister Sheikh Hasina to have her hearing aid replaced and indeed to have extensive check-ups to ensure that everything is alright. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that the ex-prime minister has a legitimate need to see a specialist outside the country.
But, be that as it may, no one is fooled. Her medical need is no greater today than it was one, two, or ten months ago. The political nature of the deal that has been made to permit her eight weeks of medical parole is so transparent that even in the lead news article on the matter in this paper, the phrase "for better treatment" is put inside inverted commas.
But that's fine. Apart from the chronic malcontents who can never be pleased and smugly point to the granting of medical parole as further damning evidence of the judiciary's continued subservience to the executive (there's a news-flash!) -- most people see this as an encouraging and pragmatic sign of compromise.
In fact, the compromise that led to the release of the ex-prime minister on medical parole for eight weeks is the most encouraging sign of progress towards a democratic and participatory election since the arrival of the caretaker government some 16 months ago.
In an apparent quid pro quo, the AL has agreed to sit for dialogue with the caretaker government and looks set to participate in the upcoming elections. The charges against Hasina remain in place and exactly what will happen once the designated eight weeks are up remains, for all practical purposes, open for discussion. Thus is honour equally satisfied on both sides.
With the country not so long ago heading towards what looked like an impasse, with worrisome implications for the future, the current compromise is a good thing. Now we need to build on that compromise.
There remain issues of the disposal of the cases against Hasina and her ability and inclination to run as a candidate in the upcoming elections and her role on the national stage thereafter. These issues will be difficult to resolve to the satisfaction of all parties concerned, but it seems to me that at the very least the door to such a discussion has been opened, and this can only be a good thing.
Two weeks ago I wrote that compromise was very possible and that remains the case. Fortunately, we are not locked in a situation where there is no possible win-win resolution. All that is required is for cool and calm heads to prevail at this sensitive time. There is no reason to push things unnecessarily towards confrontation. The agreement to release Hasina on medical parole is an encouraging step down the path of resolution.
It seems as though, as senior AL leader Saber Hossain Chowdhury was quoted as suggesting last month in the Financial Times, that the government has perhaps begun to stop "[seeing] Hasina as the problem but rather as a part of the solution."
Sheikh Hasina now has the chance to be part of the solution, and not just on the issue of elections, but also on the issue of the kind of polity the nation will inherit in the future. One hopes that she will stand firm on the need for the AL to participate in the upcoming elections and for the necessity for the reforms of the past 16 months to be preserved under a political dispensation.
Of course, many maintain that the government's initial instincts on this matter are correct, and that Hasina remains part of the problem. Either way, however, what has happened with her medical parole is that we now seem to be moving inexorably in the direction of elections, and, ultimately, what we all want: a democratic resolution -- whether that resolution eventually encompasses Hasina or not -- and that is a good thing.
Now comes the issue of how to deal with the BNP. Again, it seems to me that some kind of compassionate release, perhaps also on "medical" grounds of Begum Zia might well be possible, though she herself has queered the pitch for that somewhat by stating that neither is she unwell nor does she have any desire to leave the country.
Begum Zia's preferred price for co-operation is the freedom of her sons, but this could prove more problematic. If there are genuine medical grounds for their release, then it could happen. But it is unclear that such grounds exist, and, in any event, there is considerable danger of flight, which is not the case with either Hasina or Khaleda. Sexagenarian ex-prime ministers are not flight risks; ne'er-do-well sons of an ex-prime minister, facing a slate of serious and credible charges, are.
No one can accurately predict the next chapter. Some suggest that Hasina's departure is the beginning of the end for any efforts to remake the political landscape of the country and that we are on the fast track back to the pre-1/11 status quo ante. Some suggest that her departure is the first step towards her permanent exile from the political arena if not the country. Some suggest that the most likely eventuality will be something in between these two extremes. No one knows for sure. But what we do know for sure is that we are far closer to a fully democratic and participatory election than we were before.
In truth, there is no great reason to be overly optimistic for the future. Both the AL and the BNP as well as the current government and its backers in the cantonment have shown a distressing propensity for making serious strategic blunders when the situation calls for sensitivity.
Nevertheless, the parties to the current imbroglio may yet surprise us and navigate the country skillfully through the present crisis and towards good elections and functional democracy. The recent compromise suggests to me that there is still enough reason to remain hopeful. Let us see what comes next.

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.

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