Where politics has gone fugitive . . .
Politics in Bangladesh received a massive jolt through the assassinations of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the four national leaders between August and November 1975. And then came a point when General Ziaur Rahman, as the country's first military ruler, publicly spoke of his intention to make politics difficult. That, coupled with the re-entry into the scene of the collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army, in time led to a de-secularisation of the state and the advent of a second military regime under General Hussein Muhammad Ershad.
The long, sustained struggle against the Ershad dispensation by the Awami League-led fifteen-party alliance and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led seven-party combine culminated in triumph for the forces of democracy in December 1990. Politics, or so it appeared, was on its way to a grand revival in the country. This truth was borne out by the elections of February 1991 through the victory of the BNP under Khaleda Zia.
Ironically, politics began a fresh new descent into what increasingly looked like an abyss when the ruling party presided over a patent rigging of a by-election in Magura in 1994, a blunder that not only led to the inauguration of a culture of parliamentary boycott by the opposition but also raised anew the demand for a caretaker government to oversee subsequent general elections in the country. Politics hit a new low when the rising conflict between the major political parties compelled the Commonwealth to dispatch a representative, Sir Ninian Stephen, to Dhaka to try to broker a settlement. The mission turned out to be abortive.
At this point of time, politics clearly has gone fugitive in Bangladesh. Despite the efforts at mediation between the AL and the BNP by the UN's Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, there is the clear perception across the country that anarchy is about to take over, if it has not already gained the upper hand. The rather sudden move by the ruling Awami League, in 2011, to do away with the caretaker system of government in the constitution proved to be a fillip to the opposition BNP and its alliance partner Jamaat-e-Islami to haul politics back on to the streets. In simple terms, the degree of violence let loose by the BNP and the Jamaat on the streets has pushed democratic politics into a state of the comatose, to a point where innocent people have been made victims of arson and sundry forms of violence. With trees being cut down to impede normal traffic movement on the highways and railway tracks being uprooted in diverse parts of the country, there is hardly any reason to suppose that politics is yet in activist mould. It is not.
That politics is haemorrhaging comes through the abnormality of Bangladesh's leading political figures pointedly refusing to preserve any semblance of inter-personal links between them. Where in the past, meaning the 1960s and early 1970s, politicians made clear distinctions between political beliefs and personal ties, in the period beginning in the early 1990s, the chiefs of the two major national parties elevated, in a tongue-in-cheek manner of speaking, non-communication into something of a negative art. Add to that the bitterness and rancour shining through the verbal assaults they make at each other, a form of behavior swiftly replicated at the lower tiers of their parties, all the way down to the village level. The clear distinction is one of white being in contrast to black, or the other way round. The colour grey is conspicuous by its absence.
The decline of politics manifests itself, again, through the survival, in however quixotic a form, of the deposed military ruler Ershad. He cannot hope to return to power, but he knows and so does the country that the two women who pushed him from power twenty three years ago need his support to prevail against each other. Therein lies irony. And ironic too is the rise of medieval forces unabashedly advocating everything that militates against progress and liberalism, indeed is a throwback to pre-modern era darkness.
Ask the bus driver, the man who drives the CNG-scooter, the day labourer, the rickshaw-puller, the child trying to go to school, the mother desperate about saving her children on the riotous streets. They know what it means to be caught in the crossfire between feuding politicians and their frenzied acolytes operating in the alleys and lanes and streets.
Ask the leader of the opposition, for she has set this train of anti-politics into motion. She knows citizens have been dying. And she blames the ruling party for the killings. She says nothing about the grenades, the petrol bombs, the charred remains of human bodies, the flowing tears of those whose bread winners have died in this 'movement' for 'democratic politics'.
Politics is nowhere to be seen. On the streets, in the safe confines of drawing rooms, through the steam rising out of coffee mugs in elitist banalities, the talk is of retaining power…or seizing it. The 160 million people of Bangladesh do not matter.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.