IT is not often that a poor, populous, Muslim majority country, routinely described for the last decade or so as a failing, if not a failed state, is able to script a dramatic turnaround in its political climate, more so when its politics appears increasingly hostage to forces of radical Islam, including global Islamist terror groups. That this transformation was effected by a military establishment who oversaw a successful, free and fair election and handed over power to an elected civilian regime appears almost miraculous and challenges our conventional understanding of the incompatibility between Islam and democracy.
For more than a decade and a half, despite considerable economic and human development gains, Bangladeshi politics and political parties have been in a mess. Though the country went through regular elections which even produced a clear victor, the losing side not only characterized the process as rigged and refused to accept defeat, but worse, even if it reluctantly joined Parliament, ensured that it would not function. With regular walkouts, dharnas and general strikes, much of it accompanied by violence, the country appeared to be slipping into a state of lawlessness and anarchy.
Corruption was widespread as was the use of mastaans (strongmen) to settle political scores. Equally disturbing was the fact that the country seemed to have forgotten the secular and nationalist legacy of its freedom struggle and created space, not just for Islamist radicals but even elements associated with the Pakistani crackdown in 1971. No institution of the state, including the judiciary and military, appeared free from such forces.
The bomb blasts that targeted Sheikh Hasina’s pre-election rally in 2004, claiming 22 lives, proved the final straw. Soon the army stepped in, suspended the constitution and the political process, jailed the leaders of the two major parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and set up an interim administration. Many of us at that stage felt that the Bangladesh story was over and that the country was set to mimic Pakistan.
To everyone’s surprise, the military establishment took an unusual turn – it actually followed its announced script of a time-bound programme of cracking down on corrupt and violent elements, repairing the frayed institutional fabric of the state, and setting into motion a process of holding fresh elections as a prelude to restoring civilian rule.
True, some of the interventions were heavy-handed and ill-advised, be it the jailing of the two begums, Hasina and Khaleda Zia, or the effort to promote new political parties, notably by persuading Md. Yunus of the Grameen Bank to float a new political party. This initiative came a cropper. Nevertheless, initiatives to clean up the political process – revising the electoral rolls and weeding out more than a million fake voters, issuing photo identity cards, putting into place an autonomous election commission, ensuring a more rigorous candidate eligibility criteria and so on – were both courageous and salutary. Unsurprisingly, this was welcomed by a citizenry otherwise sickened by a fractious and debilitating culture of politics. Importantly the military made no effort to delay the elections scheduled for end 2008; nor did it try to field any proxy candidates.
By general consensus, the recent elections were free and fair, and remarkably free of violence. The turnout was unexpectedly high and the electorate returned a clear and decisive verdict, dealing a crippling blow to the BNP and its Islamist allies, notably the Jamaat. Worth noting is the high participation of the youth, a vast majority of whom voted for the Awami League. It is as if at one stroke, the electorate had rejected the tired and negative slogans of ‘save Islam’ and ‘save the nation’ to reaffirm its secular legacy. In refusing to fall prey to the ubiquitous ‘India card’, the Bangladeshi voter demonstrated faith in a self-confident and inclusive nationalism that would not be held captive to imaginary and whipped up fears of being overrun by a larger neighbour.
These are early days yet and it would be foolhardy to believe that the regressive political traditions and culture of the past are safely behind. Yet a beginning has been made. At a time when India is gearing up for its general elections, we must learn from the positive efforts in Bangladesh, in particular the criticality of maintaining the credibility of our constitutional institutions and arrangements. The recent controversies surrounding the Election Commission are worrisome as is our inability to agree on minimal norms about the eligibility criteria of candidates, election expenditures and so on. Above all, we need to eschew the cynicism that has come to accompany politics. That, indeed, would be tragic.