A rush of smiles on a sprawling lawn
Everyone is talking about the moment Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia met the other day, about the way they greeted each other and smiled at each other. Knowing the way things go in Bangladesh, you can be sure that it is a subject over which a lot of people will spend a lot of time talking. The process is already under way, and not even the adviser for home affairs could resist the temptation of telling us what actually transpired at the armed forces day reception. It was he who let us in on the revelation that the Awami League chief had sometimes cooked her own food while in incarceration and had sent some of it to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson. We have not been told, though, if Begum Zia had done some cooking on her own and whether she had reciprocated Sheikh Hasina's gesture.
Even so, that bit on Sheikh Hasina's culinary skills was rather enlightening.
Be that as it may, it was quite a cheering sight watching the two pre-eminent women in our politics speaking to each other on that lawn, in full view of the country. You could see the gleam in the eyes of all the men before them. Advisers tried to come as close as they possibly could to the two leaders. A slightly irritating moment was there with security seemingly refusing to budge, but then everything turned out fine and every face had a smile from ear to ear.
Somehow you had the feeling that before you was a collective advertisement for toothpaste. Or a feeling that everyone would now live happily ever after. On the television channels, nearly every intellectual as also pseudo-intellectual went into overdrive dissecting the meeting, drawing from it conclusions that simply were not there.
But then, that is the nature of things in a country where politicians refuse to speak to one another, indeed do not even have time to steal glances at each other. Consider this: when politicians all over the world are interacting regularly over a host of issues, when no one raises any question of whether or not they will meet and sit down to tea and talks, in Bangladesh the very fact that Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have spoken -- Allah be praised! -- gets to be headline news for days on end.
So what happens now? Not much, really, unless of course you are an incorrigible optimist. In that case, you might suggest that politics will soon be undergoing the kind of transformation we have always imagined it would in the depths of the night; and you might tell yourselves that our politicians will now reinvent themselves through focusing on the priorities of the future.
You have a right to hold such views. But think again, think deeper. In a country where political culture has by and large been one of paramount political leaders looking away from one another, it will be naïve to think that a single meeting between the leaders of the nation's major political parties will lead to things on a grand scale. Look back at history.
In the early 1980s, when General Ershad decided that he needed to communicate with the politicians, Sheikh Hasina reciprocated his wish and went to see him with her team. Begum Zia ended up doing something pretty dramatic. Accompanied by Kazi Zafar Ahmed (who ironically was in the BNP but was about to jump ship and join Ershad), she went to Bangabhaban but refused to sit down and talk to the military ruler. Ershad repeatedly requested her to take a seat. She did not. She demanded the withdrawal of martial law and then stalked out of the room.
It is for you to judge whether or not that attitude was proper or politically correct. But what you cannot miss is the sheer peculiarity of it all. In this day and age, you do not expect politicians not to speak to one another, not to banter and debate the issues.
In the 1990s, the Indian government decided that opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee needed to be sent to a conference abroad to speak for the country. And he did. In 1961, President Kennedy developed the notion that the man he had defeated for the senate in 1952, Henry Cabot Lodge (who in 1960 was Richard Nixon's running mate against the Kennedy-Johnson ticket), would make an effective envoy to South Vietnam.
In the event, Lodge was to serve in Saigon for a number of years, beyond Kennedy's assassination. That is how politics works, in the broad interest of society. It does not always have to be a matter of sending political rivals on significant missions abroad. Political accommodation and tolerance can also be symbolised through powerful individuals actually sitting down to conversations at home, even if those conversations do not lead to anything substantive.
In the days before the partition of India, Congress and Muslim League leaders were not averse to meeting the leading figures of the colonial administration as part of the efforts toward gaining freedom for the country.
More crucially, Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah did not refuse to meet and did not shy away from hammering on the issues they felt needed to be debated across the table. Nehru clearly did not like Jinnah, who was only too happy to return the compliment. But that did not come in the way of their negotiations over the future of the country. Subhas Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi were not kindly disposed toward each other, but they nevertheless communicated regularly on the priorities before Indians.
Closer to our times, despite the huge chasm that kept them from finding common ground, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto never entertained thoughts of placing a wall of silence between themselves. And in February 1969, Bangabandhu could have told us that he would not speak to Ayub Khan and could have demanded his resignation from the presidency. He did not. He went all the way to Rawalpindi to be part of the round table conference called to debate Pakistan's constitutional future.
Mujib and Ayub talked, without acrimony and with full knowledge of the country's future being dependent on their political positions. In free Bangladesh, Bangabandhu and Moulana Bhashani had little in terms of shared politics. But they met in a regular pattern. They never lost the old sense of camaraderie.
But, yes, politics can be strange business at times. Joseph Stalin easily disposed of his rivals and felt not bad about it at all. Mao Zedong loved Lin Biao and named him his successor. Then came a day when Lin died and Mao and his loyalists went excitedly into the business of badmouthing him.
Morarji Desai thought Indira Gandhi was a chhokri, a mere slip of a girl. Maumoon Gayoom had Mohammad Nasheed tortured in prison, until Nasheed beat him at the presidential election in the Maldives. Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto persecuted each other in Pakistan for years.
Aren't we fortunate, in light of these disquieting images, to have our two former prime ministers smile and laugh and talk on that sprawling lawn? It is, of course, another matter of what they do in the run-up to the general elections next month. One of them will be prime minister again. Will the other keep smiling?