The PM is being embarrassed by her own party
Even if her enemies had tried they couldn't have done a better job of embarrassing Sheikh Hasina and her barely two-week-old government. First the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), student wing of Awami League (AL), and now the party's grassroots leaders, including a cabinet minister and an MP, have done precisely the things that she has promised, and is trying to, totally move away from. Their actions have brought blemish upon her and her party's brilliant electoral victory and raised unnecessary doubts in the public mind as to how serious is the AL chief's commitment to bring “change” in politics and in governance.
The mayhem caused by the Chhatra League and its continuance for 11 days in spite of repeated warnings by no less a person than Sheikh Hasina herself, was a clear sign that when it came to money, tender manipulation, hall 'capture' to indulge in extortion during seat allocation, and other related crimes, party ideology or national interest did not have much impact on those responsible for denigrating the sanctity of university campuses and indulging in violence and destruction of public and private property.
In fact many of those involved are “fair-weather friends” who join the ruling party of the day and try and wring benefits from that association. If investigated many of them will be found to have been very active members of the former ruling party's student wing as well.
This is not to exonerate BCL members themselves from any blame, many of whom have been waiting for their 'good fortune' to return as they supposedly 'suffered' during the tenure of the BNP-led four-party alliance government. The reprisal, which took extremely cruel and violent form when BNP won in 2001, and which Sheikh Hasina successfully prevented by cancelling the so-called victory celebrations following her massive win, struck a very positive note of maturity among the public. It earned the AL significant goodwill. This has largely been undone by the criminality of the student league members in these initial days.
The latest interference in the upazila elections not only by the local leaders but by a cabinet minister and an MP in spite of warning by the Election Commission, has revealed a serious lack of party discipline and a worrisome absence of regard for rule of law among a section of AL leaders and workers. Such indiscipline and self-serving political culture will act as a serious impediment toward building the "Digital Bangladesh"- essentially meaning a modern, knowledge based and IT proliferated country- that the PM wants to, and is pledge bound to, build.
It is our view that in addition to all the economic and governance related challenges that Sheikh Hasina faces, a new one must be added to that list -- that of restoration of idealism, honesty and discipline in the party. Awami League has generally been a better organised and ideologically stable party. It is also the one whose lower tiers have had more elections compared to its arch rival, the BNP.
However better it may look compared to BNP, it remains a fact that AL as a political party has not received the serious attention and involvement of its high level leaders that is necessary to rejuvenate, energise and modernise the party and make it fit to deliver the modernist agenda that the party's election manifesto calls for.
It is well understood that the banning of political activities during the state of emergency, the detention of Sheikh Hasina for over a year and the crisis faced by many of its senior leaders during that time naturally prevented inner party work. This may have led to decline in party discipline. The election that followed was also not the proper time for disciplinary work within the party.
The time, therefore, is now. As have been shown by the two recent incidents, first by the BCL and now by the grassroots workers, the party requires a total revamping and change from within. Under her overall supervision, Sheikh Hasina needs to set up a dedicated group of party leaders whose fulltime job will be to reorganise and modernise the party. The number one requirement is a fulltime party general secretary, who may enjoy the rank of a minister but he/she cannot be expected to perform the duties of a minister.
Our recent practice of making the party secretary the LGRD minister has not served either the AL or the BNP well in the past. This must be discarded if the PM really wants a modern party. Along with the general secretary there is definitely a need for a number of other office-bearers to run the party on a day-to-day basis. Without a clear-cut distinction between party hierarchy and government ministers, many workers end up frequenting the secretariat for party work, resulting in disrupting the work of both the government and that of the party.
The incumbent acting secretary, Syed Ashraful Islam, did a creditable job during the trying days of emergency and may be thought of for the future. But in that case he must be relieved from his minister's duties. Otherwise a suitable replacement must be found.
If we look at the reasons for unpopularity of past governments soon after winning elections, the ruling party's failure to control its own members from indulging in corruption had a lot to do with it. The indiscipline, nepotism, mutual distrust, undermining of fellow leaders and backward mindset of party leaders contributed significantly to the failure of those governments.
Sheikh Hasina can ill afford that. So the choice is very clear. For her government to succeed she must clean, reform and modernise her party, and she must start right away as two separate incidents have proved it to her at an undeserving and unnecessary cost to her credibility.
We appreciate the PM's views conveyed by Matia Chowdhury to this paper that the government would not interfere if the EC wants to prosecute the persons involved in the upazila election process. We think the EC must follow through on their initial steps and set examples of punitive actions that create more respect for EC rules and fear against violating them in the future. But the government must also set its own standard of discipline and respect for law by dismissing the cabinet minister who brought such shame to the government and the party that gave him the honour of becoming a cabinet minister.
We conclude by urging the PM and AL chief to take tough actions against the culprits of both the BCL and upazila election incidents. She owes very little to such criminals for winning the election. General people gave her the massive victory, not the party or the BCL goons. Her boldness in denying nominations to people with questionable reputation bore fruit in widespread public appreciation for such a move, resulting in the stunning election victory. We must remember that public support corrodes much faster resulting from one or two actions of party members than all the criticisms of the opposition put together.
If, today, the AL chief takes strong disciplinary actions against her own party's delinquents she will be similarly rewarded by public support. Given her majority in the parliament and continued public support she can easily cleanse her party, and all its wings -- students, youth, labour, peasant, etc -- of all such elements who are not willing to embrace the new politics.
A "Digital Bangladesh" cannot come from the old Awami League. Euphemistically speaking, it needs a "Digital Awami League".