Landslides are dangerous. Things get buried. People get hurt. The 9th parliamentary elections was to return Bangladesh from a two year military backed caretaker rule to an elected Government. The gathering on the last campaign day was massive, but there were fewer women and more people with white caps than one expected. The BNP candidate in Paltan Maidan boasted of how EVERY household in his candidacy, had assured him of their vote. Awami League candidates, the previous day, postured similarly, but both sides probably felt there was a reasonable chance of winning. The two-year gap between BNP’s misrule and the elections, might have eroded some of the moral gains that Awami League would otherwise have had. Voters sometimes have short memories. A landslide election win for anyone was not on the cards.
The Bangladeshi voter however, is remarkably savvy. They voted out Bhutto in 1971. Despite genocide, it did lead to independence. Since then, in every reasonably free and fair election they have had, they have voted with their heads. Hasina’s lack of repentance about BAKSHAL and previous Awami League misrule cost her the 1991 elections. Khaleda’s police fired upon farmers demanding fertilisers. Even a rigged election didn’t help her in 1996. ‘Safe’ seats of numerous ministers were lost in the re-taken polls. Hasina blew it in her term with her thugs causing havoc on campus and her ministers demanding that journalists be beaten up. The votes went to BNP. Khaleda went overboard yet again, with corruption reaching new heights, and her sons unleashing terror. Rising prices didn’t help. Khaleda made an attempt at apology. It was too little too late. The pendulum swung. History does not appear to be either party’s strong point.
There has however, been a change in the recent script. Political skirmishes in the past, were largely between political cadre, and localised. A few cocktails might have been thrown, but since the killing of general Zia, there had been few assassination attempts. Until recently. Bomb attacks were a new thing. The capture of trucks laden with small arms. The vigilante groups in the rampage in the north. The targeted attacks on secular scholars, were new. Assassination attempts on Hasina took political violence to new levels. The BNP brought in its own vigilante. The black bandanas of the Rapid Action Battalion became another source of terror with hundreds of ‘crossfire’ deaths to their credit.
Against this backdrop, the landslide win of the Awami League, had analysts gushing with excitement. The superlatives flowed. People cheered this ‘historic victory’. A change of government generally starts with a witch-hunt, traditionally meted out to the opposition party previously in power. This caretaker government had stayed rather longer than usual. Given the documented torture of ‘rajkumar’ Tariq Zia (Khaleda’s son and the general secretary of her party), BNP’s return to power would not have been so comfortable for the incumbent government and its unofficial backers. Hasina’s promise of ratifying the misdeeds of this government meant she was the safer bet.
Accusations of the military having actively engineered the Awami League win is probably exaggerated, though news of intimidation was not infrequent, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But that too is history. Hasina’s position regarding her neighbours is more pertinent. She has already declared solidarity towards Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The relationship towards big brother India, will probably have more to do with the relationship with bigger brother USA. The US has always played a major role in recent subcontinental politics. The 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal was needed when the USSR was dominant. Today, the US, Israel and India are close allies, the war on terror being a collective pet project. A pliant military and a grateful Hasina will both play the game. The routing of Jamaat in the elections has to do with people’s sentiments. The war on war criminals to the war on terror is a small bridge to cross. The fluttering flag of democracy will obscure a few indiscretions along the way.
I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.’
— Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theorist, politician, founder of the Italian Communist party
It was a victory for electoral democracy.
I was the first one to cast my vote. We had gone, en famille. My mother was next. Rini, my sister-in-law and Saif, my brother, had taken their precious national ID cards with them, only to be told by polling centre officials that these were not needed, that they should go to the stalls opened by political parties outside the polling centre grounds to get their voter registration number. That updated and complete voter lists were to be found there. Rini was astounded and kept repeating, even after she had cast her vote, `But it is the national Election Commission that registered me as a voter, I didn’t register with any political party’. Someone else’s photo, name, and father’s name graced the space where Saif’s should have been. After a lot of running around and long hours of waiting, he gave up. It was close to four, the polling booths were closing. He was dismayed, and perturbed.
Shahidul, made wiser by their experiences, ran off to a political party booth to collect his serial number. After quickly casting his vote, he rushed back to take pictures. A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy.
A landslide victory for the Grand Alliance and its major partner, the Awami League. As the results emerged through the night, I remained glued to the TV screen, hopping from one channel to another, listening to election reporting, news analysis, and discussions. As votes in favour of Abul Maal Abdul Muhit tipped the scales, I watched seasoned journalists debate over whether political superstition — whichever party candidate wins Sylhet-1 forms the government — would prove to be true. And it did, yet again. The BNP candidate, ex-finance minister Saifur Rahman lost to Abdul Muhit by over 38,000 votes.
In the early hours of the morning, as AL’s massive victory became apparent, I watched Nurul Kabir voice strong words of caution on one of the election update programmes on a private channel: given the rout of the opposition, the biggest challenge for the incoming Awami League government would be to not lose its head. Words to be repeated by others, later. Sheikh Hasina herself, in the first press conference, pronounced it to be a victory for democracy. A victory for the nation. People had voted against misrule and corruption, against terrorism and criminal activities, and against fundamentalism. They had voted for good governance, for peace, and secularism. Poverty, she said, was enemy number one. Expressing her wish to share power with the opposition, Sheikh Hasina urged ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to accept the poll results. Our government, she said, will be a government for all. It will initiate a new political culture, one that shuns the politics of confrontation.
Congratulations poured in, in both the print and electronic media. A new sun had risen over the political horizon. December 29th were the best elections ever, kudos to the Election Commission. Awami League’s charter for change was a charter for the nation. It was a charter that had enabled the nation to dream again. To wake up again. A historic revolution — a ballot box revolution — had taken place. Let 2009 herald new political beginnings for Bangladesh. Let darkness be banished, let peace and happiness engulf each home. Let insecurities and turmoil be tales of yester-years. Let us, as a nation, build our own destiny.
There were more cautious, discerning voices too. Promising to lower prices of daily necessities is easy, effect-ing it, is harder. Democracy is much more than voting for MPs, it is popular participation, at all levels of society. In order to change the destiny of the nation, the AL needs to change itself first. Landslide victories can herald landslide disasters.
I turned to analysts who sought to explain the victory. What had brought it about, what did it signal? It was the younger voters, a whole new generation of voters. It was women voters. It was the Jamaat-isation of the BNP, and that the anti-India vote bank, the Muslim vote bank, were now proven to be myths. Khaleda Zia’s pre-election apology had not been enough, people had not forgiven the four-party alliance government’s misrule, and its excesses. The BNP party organisation at the grassroots level had failed to perform their duties with diligence, during the election campaign, and also later, when votes were being counted. The spirit of 1971 had returned, thanks to the Sector Commanders Forum, and to writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, media. People had cast their votes for a separation between state and religion, for the trial of war criminals, for re-building a non-communal Bangladesh. I watched Tazreena Sajjad on television argue that we should not go into a reactive mode, that we should not pre-judge that the AL, since it had gained victory, would now forget the war crimes trial issue. It was important, she said, that war crimes trials be adopted as a policy approach, that the government review the available expertise, the institutional infrastructure, and witnesses needed etc. It was important, added Shameem Reza, another panelist on the programme, that the social pressure for holding the trials should continue unabated.
At a record 87 per cent, the voter turnout was the biggest ever. International poll monitoring groups, including Washingtonbased National Democratic Institute, Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, unanimously termed the polls free and fair, the election results as being credible. There was no evidence of ‘unprecedented rigging,’ or of the polls having been conducted according to a ‘blueprint’. But, of course, observers maintained, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s allegations should be carefully investigated. At a press conference, the leader of the 33 member NDI delegation, Howard B Schaffer, also an ex-US ambassador to Bangladesh, said that these elections provide Bangladesh an opportunity to nourish and consolidate democracy. As I read reports of the press conference, I think, neither the US administration, nor its ruling classes are known for nourishing and consolidating democracy. The NDI delegation had also included a former USAID official, an organisation that is known for promoting US corporate interests, rather than democracy. Most of USAID’s activities are, as many are probably aware, concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. Many Arabs regard US foreign aid as ‘bribe money’, offered to governments willing to overlook Israel’s policies of occupation. Larry Garber had served as Director of USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Mission from 1999-2004, a period that was partially preceded by four years (1996-200) of USAID withholding $17 million in assistance for a programme to modernise and reform the Palestinian judiciary. The Israelis did not want an independent judiciary. They were afraid it would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state. USAID obliged. And of course, there are other, much worse, US administration stories of felling rather than nurturing democracy. After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the Bush administration had embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government.
Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes? This, of course, remains to be seen. I myself, have two serious misgivings.
A ‘smooth transition’: impunity in the offing?
Reporters had asked Sheikh Hasina as she came out after her meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser, on December 31: will your government legitimise the caretaker government? The reply, highlighted in nearly all newspapers, was: it will be discussed in the parliament. Parliament will decide. I have initiated discussions with constitutional experts. A committee will be formed to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina also added, government is a continuing process. It is the duty of a new government to continue processes that have been initiated by the preceding government, in the interests of a smooth transition. But I had watched news reports on TV, and had noticed the slip between the cup and the lip, between what was said, and what was reported in the print media: the ordinances passed by the government will be discussed, those that are good will be accepted, and those that are not…
How can something as grave, as sinister as the takeover of power by a coterie of people who were backed by the military, a government that was unelected and unaccountable, the suspension of ‘inalienable’ fundamental rights of the people during a 23 month long period of emergency, the abuse of the judiciary, the intimidation of the media by military intelligence agencies, illegal arrests leading to already bursting-at-the-seams prisons, custodial tortures, crossfire deaths, the destruction of means of livelihood of countless subsistence workers, the closure of mills, the havoc wreaked on the economy — be referred to as a bunch of ordinances that need to be discussed and separately reviewed, maybe some of these are to be accepted, others not?
Diluting? Diverting? As I said, I have misgivings.
Allying with bigger terrorists
The separation of religion and politics subsumes the issue of the trial of 1971 war criminals, the local collaborators, the rajakars. But as I watch AL parliamentarians talk on TV channels, I notice a linguistic elision, a seepage occur into discussions of the trials of war criminals. The present is carried over into the past, the past slips into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army’s genocide take on Bush-ian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are ‘terrorists.’ A seamless whole seems to be in the making.
And, as I read of Sheikh Hasina’s support for the US war on terror (expressed to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, 25th of July 2008), and her more recent pledge to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC countries, I wonder whether ‘the spirit of 1971’ will be cashed-in to manufacture support for the US-led war on terror, one that has killed millions, and made homeless several more. All in the name of democracy.
The words were by Ruhul Amin, a boy the children from the “Out of Focus” group had written a story about, for the Junior Summit Magazine in their New Year issue in 2001. The “Out of Focus” group were no longer children, but young adults, and now my colleagues at Drik. The stories they have told me over the years continue to provide food for thought.
“Desh kothai?” is the most common question a new found Bangladeshi acquaintance will always ask you, unless they have been brought up abroad, or are yuppie urbanites. The question, ‘which land are you from’ is a way of placing you, determining your roots, establishing linkages, forming identity. While many Bangladeshis now live in cities, it is the ‘desh’ that they long for.
Come Eid, or any other of the many holidays we have, the cities become empty, and the rooftops of the outbound buses and launches are packed. Sadly, there are frequent accidents, and many deaths. But still they come to the city. In the hope for a job. In the belief that in the big city, things will change.
So it was that the streets of Dhaka city were quiet on election day. People had gone back to the villages, to their desh, to vote. Rahnuma’s brother Saif, was telling me of how they had to drive in voters in Richmond, in London, and they’d still end up with only 35% voting. Bangladesh’s enthusiasm for elections was exemplary. There was a good turnout all day, and while in every polling centre I visited, many complained about not having been able to vote, it was put down to faulty lists and inefficiency. There wasn’t the suggestion of foul play.
I met Dadon Mia, the beggar on the pedal chair who staked Satmajsid Road, at one of the polling booths. He didn’t have a fixed address, but his persistence had ensured he was included in the voter’s list. He had voted for the first time. A gentleman I had last seen in Malaysia, when I’d been doing a story on Bangladeshi migrant workers, remembered me. “Do you still cycle? he asked. Yes. “tahole ato mota kan?” (Why are you so fat then?). This Bangladeshi frankness might have been considered rude in other places. But here it was perfectly commonplace. It was with caring concern that he reminded me of my pot belly. The adviser Hossain Zillur Rahman smiled when we briefly met at Dhanmondi Girls School. I had been critical of Zillur in my writing, but on the occasions when we did meet, Zillur had always greeted me with a smile. There was no sign of violence, and apart from the irate, and sometimes tearful voters, who had been denied a vote because the list didn’t have their names, the polling seemed to go remarkably well.
As we stayed up all night, there was initial relief that the visibly corrupt, vote rigging BNP, had not come back to power (it would have given all the wrong signals), and then euphoria upon the knowledge that Jamaat had been routed. But as the enormity of the landslide victory for Awami League sank in, I remembered the Sir Arthur C Clarke quote that my friend Nalaka Gunawardane often used. “Be careful what you wish for,” Sir Arthur would say, “it can come true.” I had voted for the Awami League. Not because I thought they would form a good government – there was ample evidence to suggest they were incapable of that – but because another five years of BNP misrule would have been intolerable. And since we certainly didn’t want military rule, the Awami League it had to be.
The initial rejection of the results by BNP sounded like the usual sour grapes. Why couldn’t they for once, lose gracefully? But then I started thinking of the excessively high turnout figures. We knew the military needed an Awami League win, but had they overdone it a bit? An Awami League majority was one thing, but could we survive an elected BAKSHAL? As media whispers (not published generally) began to talk of the unreported vendettas being played out across the country, of polling officers having been bought out, doubts began to enter my mind.
My earlier concerns of Jamaat returning to power, or Ershad becoming president again, paled when I considered the horror of an unbridled Awami League let loose on the Bangladeshi public. Sir Arthur had detested astrology, but he was rather good with his predictions. My wish had sadly turned true.
Elections are a big thing in Bangladesh. Going back to his village at peak season was an expensive option for my neighourhood fruit seller, Siddique Ali. The election wasn’t so critical in his case, as his candidate was going to get elected virtually unopposed. But he was going to vote all the same.
My workaholic colleague Delower Hossain had also taken leave, not only to vote but to campaign for his candidate. Our electrician was working late into the night so he could get to Dinajpur in time. He too faced a one-sided election, but wasn’t going to take chances.
The euphoria in the streets was contagious. It felt good to be milling with the crowds. The smell of the street had its own magic. Contrary to the usual political rallies, These were not filled with hired crowd fillers or party goons, but people who genuinely loved their party and their leader.
Siddique Ali and Delower, like so many other ordinary Bangladeshis, were hard working, honest and politically astute. When I asked Siddique how well his candidate Shahjahan had done in his previous term, he gave a pragmatic answer. “He was an Awami League MP in a BNP government. You can’t expect him to achieve much.” Still, millions like Siddique and Delower voted. Still, they believed in the power of the people.
Parking my bicycle near the stadium I followed the crowd into Paltan. There were hundreds of policemen along the way, and everyone was being checked. My camera jacket and my dangling camera allowed me to get through several of the checks, but I did get stopped and politely asked to show the contents of my camera bag. There wasn’t the rudeness that greets one at a western airport, but they were making sure. Times had changed.
I remembered crowding around Hasina and Khaleda during the 1991 campaigns. Ershad had just been removed and there was hope in the air. Whoever won, we would have democracy. At least that was what we felt then
As another military government was stepping down, I knew too well, that this elected government was unlikely to yield democracy outright. The young man with Hasina painted on his chest reminded me of Noor Hossain, the worker killed by Ershad’s police, because he had wanted “Democracy to be Freed”. I remembered that the autocratic general Ershad was back, an ally of the Awami League. And the party made up of war criminals, Jamaat, was on course, an ally of BNP.
One could have predicted Hasina’s speech. There was not an iota of remorse. Not the slightest admission of wrong-doing. With the arrogance that has become her hallmark, she glorified her previous rule, and villified her opponent. And went on to insult the intelligence of the crowd by promising that every young man and woman would be given a job.
Through her proposed Internet revolution, no villager would ever again need to go to the city. The complete eradication of poverty was thrown in for good measure. The saying in Bangla ‘kothar upor tax nai’ “there is no tax on words” could not have been more apt.
Khaleda, the following day, had done no less. Her promise of leaving no family homeless, was perhaps less extreme than the promise of a job for every youth, but it was still sheer hype. She too promised the magic of the computer, which apparently, could solve all problems. Having overseen the most corrupt five years of Bangladesh’s history.
Having had her second attempt at a rigged election derailed by a fighting opposition and a defiant public, she spoke of how, if voted into power, she would shape a corruption free Bangladesh! Bypassing the most blatant misdeeds of her sons and their cronies, she spoke of the ill deeds of her opponents. The master vote-stealer even warned of vote stealing. There was perhaps one significant difference between the two. Khaleda did acknowledge that perhaps some mistakes might have been made, and if so, apologised for them. Even such half admissions of blatant misdeeds, is a landmark in Bangladeshi politics.
The security was less stringent for Khaleda, and I was able to get to the inner corral without being frisked or having my camera bag checked. Significantly, she chose not to use the bullet proof glass that had protected Hasina the day before. I had been surprised by the lack of women at Hasina’s rally, where I estimated less than a thousand women had gathered.
At Khaleda’s a rough head count yielded figures well below one fifty. Predictably however, there were many white capped men, and the yellow head bands of Jamaat’s militant student wing Shibir. Her’s was a more jubilant crowd, with slogans and chanting going on right through the rally, even during her speech. In comparison, Hasina’s rally had been a more reserved affair. Perhaps an indication of Khaleda’s younger following.
They had plenty of ammunition. Hasina reminded voters of the foreign bank accounts of Khaleda’s sons, and that the BNP had teamed up with war criminals. Khaleda reminded them of the one party rule of BAKSHAL, and the irony of Hasina’s statement that the partners of autocrats were traitors to the nation. Despite Khaleda’s tangential reference to ‘possible mistakes’, neither leader made any direct admission to any of the misdeeds that had ravaged the nation.
I felt insulted and humiliated. But I could not deny, that both leaders had their followers. Many of the people in the crowd did love them dearly, though there was little evidence to suggest that their leaders deserved, or respected this unrequited love.
So why this great longing for an elected government? Why this great love for undeserving leaders? An election offers the one hope for a disenfranchised public to be heard. They cling on to these unlikely champions of democracy as their only real hope for a system of governance that may eventually value their will.
Hopefully the misadventures over the last two years has taught the military that the Bangladeshi public is a tough nut to crack. Even these two arrogant leaders face a more robust media and a more questioning public than they’ve been used to. Delower and Siddique Ali might not get the democracy they deserve, but their love for democracy, will eventually force a change.