Discussion Forum

Join News Letter

Iraq War

Peak Oil

Climate Change

US Imperialism











Gujarat Pogrom



India Elections



Submission Policy

Contact Us

Fill out your
e-mail address
to receive our newsletter!




Power Politics In Bangladesh

By Taj Hashmi

16 November, 2006

After witnessing ten weeks of political standoff, rioting and killing of more than forty political activists on the street by members of political rivals, Bangladesh is now under Emergency rule. On January 11th, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared the State of Emergency as the country was heading towards total anarchy. The Emergency is the outcome of the Awami League-led 16-Party Grand Alliance’s stubborn opposition to taking part in the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 22nd on the pretext that the elections would not be free and fair for various reasons.

One wonders if the State of Emergency by curtailing several fundamental rights of the people will finally lead to free and fair elections, participated by the major political parties and acceptable to all at home and abroad. One is, however, sure about one thing. Unless both the main political rivals, the Awami League- and BNP-led alliances, are convinced of winning the majority of seats in the Parliament, there will not be any elections in the over-polarized polity of Bangladesh.

Here elections neither reflect people’s verdict through the ballot nor are harbingers of democracy. In accordance with the winner-takes-all rule, winning elections is a major step towards grabbing political power. With power come wealth, fame and influence. The average voters, being poor clients in the patron-client hierarchy, are too weak to go against their patron. Having more in common with (rural) community rather than with (urban) society, Bangladesh polity is promoting the politics of faction-ridden, quasi-tribal, village or pre-modern peasant community. Its political culture is “pre-political” by nature, violent and fatalist at the same time; lack of trust and mutual respect being the norm.

And the faction-ridden Bangladesh community provides the smooth playground for the crafty faction chiefs. They take part in elections, making false promises on phony programs. Since “politics”, or “rajniti “ in the common parlance, literally means a prerogative of the raja (king) or rich and powerful in Bangladesh, the average voters do not mind rallying around their respective patrons while the latter are busy playing the game of politics. Besides getting some crumbs and immediate gratifications, voters also hope (albeit faintly) that some future benefits might come in the event of their patrons winning the elections. The widening gaps between the rich and the poor and the institutionalized corruption have turned people apathetic to politics and making corruption a way of life.

Despite their lack of political consciousness, Bangladeshis often love to congratulate themselves for being the “most politically conscious people” in the Subcontinent. However, those familiar with the history, politics and culture of Bangladesh know that the bragging is just another Bengali hyperbole. Living under corrupt and inefficient civil / military oligarchs, the so-called “politically conscious” Bangladeshis glorify their respective political patrons, often members of the various political “dynasties” as the only legitimate rulers of the country.

These political “dynasties”, some more corrupt than others; represent three past leaders – Mujib, Zia and Ershad. Apparently, two not-so-educated matriarchs and the discredited and corrupt former military dictator, Ershad himself, run these “dynasties”, euphemistically as political parties. The Awami League, BNP and Jatiya Party represent the Mujibites, Ziaites and Ershadites, respectively. These parties are conglomerates of political opportunists, devoid of ethics and run like corporations or personal fiefdoms on dynastic lines.

Till before the Emergency, Bangladesh was under a siege of political unrest, economic stagnation and almost on the verge of a civil war a la post-Saddam Iraq. Ominously, the Awami-BNP fault line, not that different from the Shia-Sunni cleavage in Iraq, has more to do with class than with ideology. Traditionally, the Awami League represents the lower middle classes and small town “vernacular elite” belonging to the petty bourgeois classes. On the other hand, the BNP is mainly run by scions of the traditional Muslim elite (former pro-Pakistani Muslim Leaguers) and members of the upper echelons of the nouveau riche. While the former is widely known to be “secular”, (former) “socialist”, “Bangali” and “soft on India”, the latter is considered “communal / political Islamist”, proponent of “Bangladeshi Nationalism” to differentiate Bangladeshis from Indian Bengalis, and “soft on Pakistan”. To some critics, BNP stands for “Bangladesh Now Pakistan”.

However, the Mujibites are not lagging behind in this regard. They have been “Pakistanizing” and “Iraqizing” the country by promoting political Islam and a reign of terror by inciting killing of political rivals and destroying public and private properties in the name of promoting democracy. Of late the so-called ideological and class differences between the Mujibites and Ziaites are waning. As the Awami League is turning more Islamist over night so is the BNP busy making room for lower middle classes and convicted murderers within its folds. The recent Awami and Islamist Khilafat Majlis MOU, signed December 23rd, favouring Shariah, “Blasphemy Law” and “qualified” mullahs’ right to issue fatwa, may be cited in this regard. While the Ershadites and several petty “leftist” and Islamist groups are in alliance with the Mujibites, other petty “dynasties” and Islamists, especially the Jamaat-i-Islami, have thrown their lot with the BNP for political dividends. As reported in daily Prothom Alo (January 15, 2007), while the BNP advanced twenty million taka to get Ershad’s support in the Elections, the Awami camp succeeded in winning over the former dictator by offering him even a higher pay off.

Meanwhile, due to the unbridled corruption of the immediate past BNP-led coalition government (2001-2006), some local and foreign analysts have classified some of the top brasses of the party, including the “crown prince”, among the richest men in Asia. One may surmise, if a short span of five years as a leader in a ruling party in poor Bangladesh can turn someone into one of the richest men in Asia, there is every reason as to why the potentially corrupt elements in the opposition camp would leave no stone unturned to grab power. Once elected and installed to power, the ruling parties legitimizes the electoral process as “free and fair”. And as it is happening since 1991, the losing parties consider the elections fraudulent or rigged and the elected government illegitimate; hence undesirable.

Recently, politically aroused masses, along with politically motivated students, workers, lawyers, lawmakers and university teachers in the name of holding free and fair elections left no institutions unscathed. Some pro-Awami activists wanted to physically assault the chief justice for rejecting their plea to bar the President of the Republic from simultaneously holding the Chief Adviser's position. Some senior lawyers literally chased the attorney general and vandalized property on the premises of the Supreme Court. The peasant rusticity, vulgarity and intolerance are well-pronounced in some politicians’ abusive language and mutual name calling. The two matriarchs of the Awami and BNP “dynasties” not only do not talk to each other, but they also publicly vilify each other as “murderer”, “foreign agent”, “thief” and what not! Sheikh Hasina has been much more offensive and indecent than her BNP counterpart. She even loutishly labeled President Iajuddin as “Yesuddin” for his alleged loyalty to the BNP to rig the elections against the Awamis. Hasina’s crude adherents simply love this pejorative.

It is unbelievably true that the country, which witnessed elections, acceptable to both the winners and losers during the British and Pakistani periods, cannot even get an accurate voter list and neutral government officials to conduct elections. Advisers of the weird, said to be fool-proof, “neutral and non-partisan” caretaker government are not free from criticism either. This is only foolish to expect that any such unelected and unaccountable government would ensure free and fair elections. The very concept of a caretaker government is a by-product of the prevalent lack of mutual trust and respect. The predominance of the lumpen and petty bourgeois classes in the arena of Bangladesh politics, having peasants and lumpen proletariat classes as their active followers, is bound to nurture mistrust, nihilism and conspiracy theories. As the typical peasant does not trust and respect his immediate neighbours and is only willing to respect a rich and powerful non-peasant as his patron; under the pervasive peasant culture, the average Bangladeshi loves to believe that some hidden hands are pulling the invisible string to his detriment. The ubiquitous “we-against-them” mentality is the mother of the caretaker government and what followed in its wake since its inception in 1996.

In view of the above, undoubtedly the BNP as the immediate past ruling party appointed loyal officials in key positions to manipulate the election results. And with a few exceptions, most BNP lawmakers, ministers and party officials are alleged to have embezzled millions from the state coffer. However, this is also true that the Awami League during its tenure as the ruling party (1996-2001) did not promote honesty as its top leaders were widely known for promoting corruption, nepotism and terrorism. What the party did while in the opposition was equally heinous. Sheikh Hasina made history by rejecting the nationally and globally acceptable poll results in 1991 and 2001 as by-products of “subtle” and “crude” rigging, respectively. After the Ziaite Khaleda Zia became the Prime Minister in 1991, Hasina publicly stated : “I won’t let Khaleda rule in peace for a day”. And she kept her words. She organized almost a non-stop five-year-long country-wide agitations, general strikes and blockade to overthrow an elected government. During the Awami rule (1996-2001) the BNP played the dirty villainous role. The Awamis again resorted to violence and vandalism to overthrow the BNP-led Coalition government for the second time (2001-2006).

The Awami opportunism, as mentioned above, is reflected in its recent signing of the MOU with Islamist Khelafat Majlis by discarding its fifty-two years of secular traditions favouring all sorts of obscurantism in the name of Islam. Embracing Ershad, a former convicted dictator, as a comrade-in-arms in its “march towards democracy” is yet another example of Awami Machiavellianism. However, the height of Awami opportunism and bankruptcy was its volte-face. One week after deciding to contest the parliamentary elections on December 26 (emboldened by getting the Ershadites as allies), on January 3rd 2007 the Mujibites decided to oppose the Elections scheduled for January 22nd; the specious grounds being faulty voter list and “unconstitutional” nature of the caretaker government. No major changes took place between December 26 and January 3 vis-à-vis the voter list to precipitate the sudden change of mood in the Awami camp. Only one major shift had forced the Awamis to change their mind. Meanwhile, the judiciary had disqualified Ershad to remain a candidate in the Elections as more criminal charges had been brought against him. So, the Awami resumption of political agitation to boycott the polls was nothing but a badly written play staged by unskilled actors.

In sum, the country with all the potentials to emerge as another Asian Tiger in the next twenty years or so is in total mess. Despite its fertile land, better land-man ratio than that of Japan and South Korea, resolute and hard-working people, plenty of water and almost untapped natural resources (natural gas and hydro-energy) Bangladesh remains the poorest in the Subcontinent. It is also one of the most chaotic, corrupt and ungovernable countries in the world. Since we do not believe in conspiracy theories and blaming the victims, the poor, exploited and misled masses; we have only the Bangladeshi political, business and professional elites to point fingers at for what is becoming the “Bangladesh Syndrome”.

In short, the “Bangladesh Syndrome” stands for retarded growth and prosperity and the reversal of all that a country achieved in the last few hundred years. A country, with the highest per capita income in Asia in 1949, except Japan’s and Singapore’s [Department of Economic Affairs, UN, National and Per Capita Income of Seventy Countries in 1949, New York, 1950, pp.14-15] is one of the poorest because of its leaders. And the apathy of the highly educated Bangladeshis from taking part in national politics has brought the most corrupt and least competent people in the arena of politics. Those who could not qualify for the civil and military services, and other lucrative professions as doctors, lawyers, engineers, college / university teachers swelled the ranks of lower court solicitors and politicians. Of late, traders and newly emerging bankers and industrialists have joined politics; more as an investment to make more money than to serve the nation. Many, if not most, of them are absolutely corrupt. Some of them have criminal records and links with the under world. Consequently while the average Bangladeshis are getting disillusioned with “democracy” – opinion polls suggest many of them favour a non-political caretaker government or a state of emergency – politicians with no known sources of income or profession and others having vested interests in “politics”, which is now synonymous with the most lucrative business are striving for “democracy”. The country needs a presidential form of government with technocrats and honest leaders as advisers / ministers. As honest and capable technocrats and professionals cannot get elected as MPs under the prevalent political culture and socio-economic setup, the days of running a “Westminster type” democracy should be over in Bangladesh. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel if the people force the existing / future government to drive away the corrupt and evil politicians and end political “dynasties” and their cronies for good. Otherwise Bangladesh might go the Pakistan, and even worse, the Iraq way in the not-so-distant future.

Leave A Comment
Share Your Insights


Get CC HeadlinesOn your Desk Top



Search Our Archive

Our Site