Settling for more than lesser evil

by Mubin S Khan

spc05PEOPLE in the country are in a bit of a catch-22. For most people who claim to believe in the ideals of democracy, it is difficult to condemn the violence triggered by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its partners’ blockade, without admitting that the government should at least sit for dialogue, if not call elections again.
And for those enraged and threatened by the absence of democracy in the country, the absolute futility of the opposition’s strategy — consisting exclusively of petrol bombs and arson attacks — is both embarrassing and indefensible, if one has any respect for law and order.
Both these parties, meanwhile, find themselves in a paradoxical situation.
If we trust the opinion polls carried out by the media, the BNP and its friends would have won, if not swept, the January 5, 2014 elections, had they participated.
But the fact that they did not, or could not, seems to have garnered very little sympathy from the people. In fact, people appear to have taken the denial of their right to exercise their franchise, like a sport. As one poll in late 2014 found out, a government left unpopular for planning ahead a one-sided election (among other things) had suddenly found its popularity rising for going ahead with it.
The events of the last two years — the time leading up to and following the elections — have left us with a couple of difficult questions to answer.
First, going by the last four election results, why has the rejection of the incumbent become so deeply ingrained that it now almost renders a national election pointless? Make no mistake, behind all the rhetoric and explanation, there is only one reason that the Awami League did everything to compel the BNP to stay out of the elections; it’s because they would have most likely lost to them.
Second, if the BNP’s rejection of the elections has so much legitimacy, how on earth have they failed, beyond hired Molotov cocktail-launchers, to find even a trickle of people ready to take to the streets to protest at the injustice done to them, if not the greater threat upon democracy?
There could only be one answer to both these questions. And that is both the major parties, or both the alliances, have lost legitimacy among people as standard-bearers of their aspirations. You could argue about the relative loss among the two sides, but there is no question that both sides have sunk to new lows in the eyes of people. They are chosen, simply because of a lack of alternatives.

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JUDGING by the wild reactions to the ‘injustice’ done to the Bangladesh cricket team during its World Cup match against India, on social media and on the streets, patriotism is certainly not in short supply in this country.
Such patriotism has been on display in recent years beyond the cricket field.
The revival of the demand for the trial of war criminals of 1971, and the movement to ensure exemplary punishment in the trials — the Shahbagh movement — was propped, fuelled and justified through loud displays of patriotic fervour.
In the absence of systematic studies of social phenomenon in this country, I will venture to speculate on some of the reasons for this rise, or at least an outward rise, in displays of patriotism.
First, the earliest members of the generation Bangladesh — people born and raised exclusively in the nation of Bangladesh — have now reached their 40s, and find themselves in important, but not yet crucial, positions of power, prestige and decision-making vantage points.
The generation in their 20s and 30s have not just missed out on the liberation war, many of them also did not consciously experience the dystopia of autocratic rule. The moved through an education system where, despite many drawbacks, session jams had become a declining phenomenon. And so, unlike the wisecracking cynicism of their older generations, who carried student IDs in their mid-30s, these young people were thrust into the job market and the vagaries of making a living, by their mid-20s.
These two generations also grew up in an era of the satellite television and the World Wide Web bringing the world at large, and the events and developments inside it, literally into their bedrooms. They are aware of the technological miracles taking place in the West, the economic advancements made by their neighbours, and struggles for democracy, justice and emancipation sparking up in various flashpoints around the globe. They don’t want to linger on the past, and want to have a say in their future.
Add to this the huge Diaspora of Bangladeshis who is in direct contact with these developments, as are they with their friends and families back home, owing to the advancements in communication.
While there are no clear statistics of reverse brain drain — the phenomenon of Western-educated citizens returning to their home countries instead of opting for lucrative jobs abroad — in the country, unlike in India, it is safe to say that a fraction of that trend has also caught on in Bangladesh. A good number of graduates in social sciences, besides doctors, engineers and lawyers, have found their way back into the country, armed with a knowledge and experience of the numerous ways ‘things can be better’, and are raring to have their say in how things are run around here.
And this is where this motley crew of overlapping generations and dispersed voices find themselves at odds with the leadership at the helm. Both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia had established credentials in a bygone era when HM Ershad was a scary dictator, instead of the butt of joke he has lately become, and these people find their actions, their vision, and, most of all, their rivalry, outdated, if not downright, absurd. Desperate to see things change, they are clutching at every straw that promises change, even if it means sending democracy into hibernation or convincing foreign gods and uniformed guards to referee and manipulate a local game.

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MARCH 26, 1971, the day we declared independence from Pakistan, also represents an interesting juncture in the history of the two leading parties in this country.
Only hours before, the undisputed leader of the liberation movement, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had been arrested by the Pakistan forces and over the next nine months he would be missing from the armed struggle, when many heroes and villains would leave their mark on the birth of the nation.
One of those making a mark would be Ziaur Rahman, who, a day later, would for the first time be introduced to the general population, reading out the declaration of independence.
While the history of the Awami League is deeply intertwined with the history of the nation, the modern version of the mutual coexistence of the two parties began in the 1980s, when the two women inherited the parties on the back of strong sympathy for their slain predecessors and a common enemy in the autocratic ruler.
But it was always an uncomfortable coexistence — given that the BNP’s birth owed a lot to the Awami League being at one of its lowest point in history — threatening to come apart at any time. And over the last decade, as we witnessed a subtle and direct process of handing over the baton of leadership to the next generation of family, we also witnessed a process of that brittle coexistence coming apart. The former, in many ways, contributing to the latter.
Contesting versions of history and a ‘Montague vs. Capulet’-style family rivalry are not the only points where the seams come apart. While the two parties can barely be distinguished in terms of policy — given our IMF-prescribed wholehearted embracing of market economy since 1991 — who gets to carry out the policy is where the parties have their swords drawn out.
Over the last three decades, what both parties lost in terms of credibility among the people, they made up through setting up an extensive patronage network. Today, the Awami League and the BNP act as two of the largest corporations in the country, providing employment at every single political unit of the state, at every economic unit of society. Starting from distribution of fertiliser among farmers, to becoming a vice-chancellor of a university, to securing a lucrative contract for building a bridge, nothing happens without blessings from the top.
And so eight and a half years without employment is a long time, which is why the BNP is desperate to return to power. And given how high the stakes have been raised in the rivalry over the last decade — from grenade attacks killing leaders to leaders altogether disappearing for good — the Awami League knows that it risks losing more than an election, by giving an election.

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ONE of the casualties, among many, in this fierce rivalry fought over every inch of real and imagined territory, is the term ‘the spirit of the liberation war’. Used and abused at every juncture and point in history, to justify both good and evil actions, the term appears to have been hollowed out of any meaning.
But one imagines when millions took up arms to face a brutal enemy, ready to shed blood to secure their right to make their own choices, and to shape their own future, ‘the spirit’ at one time must have meant a lot, and contained in it enough power to bring so many people together.
So what was the spirit?
There appears to have been an economic compulsion for the war — to ensure that wealth created in the land was enjoyed equitably by the people of the land, and not just by the rulers and their cronies.
There appears to have been a cultural compulsion — so that people were not forced to parrot the historical interpretations and cultural preferences of the ruling class, and were allowed to exercise their tongues in the language they felt most comfortable in.
There appears to have been a socio-religious compulsion — that a certain group of people were not excluded because of their identification with a race or religion, so that everyone became equal in the eyes of the state.
And there was the more immediate democratic compulsion — to ensure that governments were run by elected representatives of people, and that elections and their results reflected the aspirations of the people.
On our 44th birthday, it certainly calls for pulling out that ledger to find out how far those spirits have been realised.
True the economy has expanded, but it mostly expanded to accommodate the reach of a new, albeit larger, ruling class, rather than reflect the good health of the entire populace. The state became secular, than converted to Islam, and recently settled on a strange mix of secularism and Islam. Bengali culture has thrived in the rhetorical domain, but from Supreme Court judgements, to official edicts, to children of the affluent, power speaks in a different language. History, meanwhile, appears to have accommodated two sets of events in the same space and time, if we are to believe both versions fed by the alternating rulers.
As for democracy, the results are for all to see on the streets of the country.
True, there have been many gains, and the two forces who ruled the country roughly for 33 of its 44 years, certainly deserve credit for many of them. But they must also bear the responsibility for the failures, and in times like these, when a body count of 130 people is two-thirds shared by the opposition, and a third by the government, in a battle which people have refused to partake in, the failures become more glaring than the dim glow of success that accompany them.
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AND so this is where we stand, on this warm March morning, on the 44th anniversary of our birth.
We have a nation and people that have made strides — from the cricket field to the hallways of the Swedish Academy — led by a political class that has desperately fallen behind on the times, drowning in its petty quarrels.
On one side, we have one party trying to take advantage of our desire for uninterrupted growth, and using it to justify taking away our democratic rights. On the other side, we have another party desperate to return to power, appealing to our sense of loss of our democratic rights, failing to explain how exactly they offer anything different from what we already have.
Which then leaves us with the real, imagined and fantasised about people on the sidelines — the third force. The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party in India and Tehrik-e-Insaaf in Pakistan appears to have inspired many people in this country to hope for a change in guard outside the two dominant forces. But so far, most such enthusiasts, many of them from the generation Bangladesh, have restricted themselves to urging the person next to him or her to lead the charge in change, without offering themselves up to the service. Some old faces have come forward, but they are mostly ones who lurked in the shadows of the power centres until recently, till they fell out of favour.
The fear of challenging the old guards, given the deep tentacles of their patronage network and their ability to orchestrate violence, is understandable. But until and unless we begin to share a personal stake in the fate of this nation, it is hard to see how any bit of tweaking and twisting of the old order can bring about the changes we aspire to. And to do that we can always take inspiration from our older generation, who united in the spirit of the liberation war, to become masters of their own destiny.
Mubin S Khan is special correspondent, New Age.

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