Monday, February 23, 2009

Shadow of khaki rule over Bangladesh?

William B Milam, former US Ambassador to Bangladesh, and now a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, warns failure of the political leaders to consolidate the hard-earned democracy could invite another bout of khaki rule in Bangladesh. This should be read together with a recent statement by the PM Sheikh Hasina that politcians should guard democracy so that none can stab it from behind.

The younger, more modern members of both major parties must understand thatWe all know that Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous 1886 novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is a literary exploration of the concept of duality in human nature — a struggle between good and evil that many believe characterises human behaviour. Dr Jekyll is the good guy, sort of, but he is progressively pushed further into his evil other half, Mr Hyde, by drinking a potion which brings out the hidden and repressed bad side of his character. In the story, Hyde wins the struggle, and that is the end of Jekyll as well as Hyde.

Stevenson’s allegory, an early paperback that sold for a shilling in the UK and a dollar in the US, was an immediate best seller — 40,000 copies were sold in the first 6 months of its release, and over the next 15 years, sales reached 250,000. The story was widely quoted in sermons on Sunday, and in religious tracts, and is said to have been widely read by even those who didn’t like fiction as a rule. It seems to strike an inter-generational chord in the public and has, over the 120 years since its publication, been adapted innumerable times for the stage, screen (123 film versions alone), and radio.

One reason, perhaps for the universality of this allegory, is that we see it come to life often in our political lives. Political leaders seem to make all too many wicked — or at least wrong — decisions, for motives they believe are good and moral. I wouldn’t be too hard-pressed to write chapter and verse examples of many countries. In the US, for example, our last president was a stark expression of this duality. So far the present one has avoided, in my view, though not in that of his Republican opposition, straying over to Mr Hyde’s side of moral ledger. It would be equally easy come up with examples from Pakistan’s recent history.

But this column is about the wrong turns — atavistic reversions to the bad old days — that the new leaders of Bangladesh have taken in recent days. It seems as if Bangladesh political leaders are reverting to their Mr Hyde personas of the period before January 10, 2007, when they were thrown out of office by the army. Many observers, including yours truly, worried about such a reversion after it became apparent that the two-year interregnum of a military installed and backed interim technocratic government would fail to accomplish many of its reform objectives.

The hope we all felt after the election of December 29 was inspired by the Dr Jekyll-like statements politicians made before the elections and their equally welcome initial actions right after those elections. They said what we wanted to hear, and we inferred that the interregnum had, somehow, transformed their character, and thus the formerly poisonous political culture.More recently their reversion to the politics of earlier days has set me worrying that there is no real change in their thinking, and Bangladesh will be back to poisonous political culture and miserable governance that characterised it between 1991 and 2007.

If so, I fear that, ultimately, we can expect the kind of drastic change there that is the very antithesis of real and sustainable democracy, change which eschews democratic features such as compromise and evolutionary progress.Yet of the choices the military-civilian hybrid interim government faced in the second half of 2008, it chose the right one. The army intervention two years earlier saved a lot of Bangladeshi lives, and the interim government tried, at least, to lay the foundation for a transformation of Bangladeshi politics and governance. Civilian politicians of good faith could have built on these foundations. Even though na├»ve faith in the civilian politicians may turn out to be a failure, the option of turning back power to them was better than the alternative — staying in power until military professionalism and technocratic expertise was corroded beyond redemption.

Military interventions are flawed by their own contradictions. If they are brief interventions, in the Turkish style, the necessary reform is usually impossible to accomplish. The exception to this may be Turkey. In other cases, the vested interests in the status quo seem too strong to uproot in, say, a two-year period. This is especially true if global forces are at odds with domestic needs. Longer interventions come a cropper because of the flaws of human nature exemplified in the Jekyll and Hyde allegory — the lust for power overcomes the good intentions of those who intervene, and the military it self is corrupted by that power.

The list of particulars which sets off this concern about Bangladesh is lengthy, and much of it is very recent. Echoing Barack Obama, Awami League leaders promised to reach out to the opposition and to make parliament work, as it never has before in Bangladesh. Instead recent news stories tell us that the speaker of parliament, representing the party in power, has ruled that none of the 21 issues that the opposition wanted to discuss in the House will be put on the agenda.Of course, many were frivolous — this is politics after all. But some have the look of legitimacy: the unstable law and order situation (including, I presume, the increasing violence on the university campuses); the violence after the recent election; an alleged crisis in the availability of fertiliser (if true, a real crisis in this densely populated agrarian nation dependent on good agriculture methods for its self-sufficiency in food production).

One item the opposition wanted to discuss was “unusual voter turnout in the parliamentary election”. Obviously, this was to give it a chance again to claim that the election was rigged. But what an opportunity such a debate would have been for the Awami League to claim that its super majority in parliament was, in fact, the result of the voters’ acute memories of the opposition’s execrable five years in power, which led to its rejection at the polls and the desire on the part of most Bangladeshis to reform politics.

In another session of parliament, the prime minister stayed long enough to tell the House that the ruling party intended to “reconstitute” the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). The strengthening of the ACC was, of course, one of those foundation stones that the interim government laid during its two-year tenure. Does this signal a return to the years when Bangladesh was continually designated as the most corrupt country on the planet?Nor should we omit the opposition from our disdain. It has boycotted early parliamentary sessions over minutiae.

Perhaps the supreme ironic example that demonstrates that neither party may have understood the results of the election for what they really meant is the silly squabble about the number of front row seats allotted to the opposition. This is not only arcane but derisory in its importance. The BNP opposition demands more, the AL says the demand is disproportionate to the opposition’s numerical strength in parliament. If this disagreement can’t be worked out amiably, nothing can. Yet the intransigent attitude of both parties surpasses all understanding.

I used the word “atavistic” above to describe such behaviour. Webster’s defines that word as “displaying characteristics of a previous cultural era or previous ancestral form”. Surely, the election was a strong expression of the desire of the great majority of Bangladeshis to move on from the era of malfeasance, corruption and rotten governance that obtained between 1991 and 2007. The younger, more modern members of both major parties must understand that.

If the older generation of party leaders is not able to escape from their past mindsets and experiences, it is time for them to go. If they cannot be encouraged and persuaded to do so, Bangladesh will re-enter the hopeless cycle that it escaped for the past two years, and those two years will be viewed increasingly as the country’s halcyon period, a beacon for whatever political movement, democratic or otherwise, that promises to take Bangladeshis back there.

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