There is no last word in politics. Politicians are rarely the ones to acknowledge this truth about their vocation and rarely, if at all, are they in the habit of being candid about it. But Mahathir Mohamad, the grand old man of Malaysian politics, is not your average politician. When asked about the criticism over several “U-turns” in his government's policies lately, the 93-year-old Mahathir, whose political life itself equals the average life span of a Bangladeshi (72 years), hinted that reneging on pledges is not only normal but also to be expected, as politicians are not “perfect” people. They make mistakes but “turn around but only if necessary.” But in the end, politics is nothing if not an art of flip-flops and reversals.
And nowhere in the world is this phenomenon more prominently on display than in Bangladesh at this moment.
With Bangladesh's national election barely two weeks away, the old adage about the relativity of political commitments has assumed particular significance because of the rise of what I call the “ex-factor” in politics: ex-loyalists, ex-MPs and ex-colleagues—once sworn defenders of a cause that they no longer believe in—all crawling out of the woodwork before the election, some with more credible reasons than others. The shifting allegiance of these exes—and people behaving like exes—represents the shifting ground beneath the enduring appeal of party politics in Bangladesh.
Consider some recent events that have generated considerable discussion in the political circles. In the first incident, on December 8, several groups of BNP activists vandalised the party chairperson's office in Gulshan and kept the central party office in Naya Paltan under lock and key as part of protests over several nomination decisions. Call it a case of unrequited love but clearly, they felt ignored, even betrayed, by their party which refused to honour their wish by nominating their chosen candidates. But party politics can be quite ruthless that way as it demands that you put your faith in the party symbol, not the individual candidates. One of the candidates who sought nomination but was denied subsequently was an ex-minister. Another was an ex-MP. It's ironic that another nomination aspirant had to suffer rejection because of a former lawmaker from the rival Awami League who had defected to BNP about two weeks ago.
The exes and other disillusioned party members and leaders continue to threaten the veneer of unity so vital to BNP's plan to make a political comeback. There are legitimate concerns that poor performance in the election may trigger large-scale defection from the party. BNP had to grapple with the disruptive influence of several high-profile defectors in the past. Awami League too had its fair share of defections of late, notably of a former information minister, the son of a former minister of finance, and a former organising secretary.
For Awami League, however, the problem now is not so much with the exes as with the potential exes—or “rebels”, as they are being called—who may split party vote by running as independent candidates if not persuaded otherwise. For both Awami League and BNP, the rebel phenomenon, which came about partly in response to coalition politics which required that certain constituencies had to be left to the coalition partners, depriving party loyalists, may emerge as a threat to their electoral prospects, and although both parties appeared confident that they can resolve the issue, there is no telling how it will end eventually. Awami League seems to have adopted a “carrot or stick” principle to both co-opt and coerce—whichever method works—the ex-loyalists. A very persuasive letter sent to the rebels by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the leader of Awami League, seeks to bring them back into the party fold with a promise to reward their loyalty although, on earlier occasions, she had taken a much tougher stance, threatening to expel them from the party should they continue to resist the call for realignment.
But loyalty has a price. Bereft of a greater cause to fight for, the appeal of symbols in party politics works so long as there is the possibility of “returns” for the hard work and dedication of the party members. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. The ex-factor lays bare the hollow nature of this unholy nexus. We have time and again witnessed the disturbing and often violent outcomes of this arrangement, most recently on December 14, when Jatiya Oikyafront chief Dr Kamal Hossain's motorcade and several of his opposition alliance colleagues came under attack from men allegedly connected with the ruling party. The latest round of violence began on December 11, after the contesting parties officially hit the campaign trail. On that day, according to a report, there were violent scuffles in at least 18 districts between the activists of Awami League and BNP. Two leaders of the ruling party also died on that day. The pre-poll violence will most likely continue in the coming days.
But the ex-factor in politics is not just about the turncoats and ex-loyalists. It's also about the politico-ideological shapeshifting—the drastic reworking of one's former pledges and commitments driven by the principles of necessity and convenience, which has become a central feature of today's party politics. There is no good or bad in this kind of politics, no unbreakable vow—there is only what's necessary. Jatiya Party's HM Ershad, a former president, may have tweaked his stances more times than any other but he is a survivor and he knows that to survive is to “evolve”. He is a kingmaker who aspires to be a “king” now, a political has-been who refuses to be treated as such. Ershad has reportedly managed to secure only 29 seats for his party from the Awami League-led coalition—a sore point within the party—but strategically kept the option open to field his candidates in nearly 150 constituencies. This may be a simple case of grandstanding, a trick to appease disgruntled party leaders, or he is simply trying to cut a better deal behind the scenes.
It will be unfair, however, to not talk about the other varieties of exes that exist, including the ex-bureaucrats and ex-servicemen who have lately joined politics or switched sides (having already joined it before) to get a slice of the pie that election is. Their move has added a new dimension to what already promises to be a very complicated power equation. In all likelihood, these exes and people behaving like exes may have an unpredictable impact on the results of the upcoming election. Just how much of an impact that will be, only time can tell.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at
The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org