Published in BDnews24.com opinion Section on November 28th.

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Rumi Ahmed

It’s not personal

November 28, 2010

khaleda-cry300pxThe manner in which the leader of the opposition and former prime minister Khaleda Zia was evicted from her cantonment residence was outright shocking to most observers of Bangladesh politics. Not only the physical eviction itself, but the way the opposition leader was literally pushed out of her home of 38 years by an overwhelming government force, speaks volumes of its ‘autocratic’ mentality. The whole chain of events surrounding the eviction process was totally unforeseen in the history of democratic Bangladesh.

Notable in the chain of events were the mind-blowing fast tracking of judiciary, manipulation of hazy legal jargons, and ultimately bypassing of the highest judiciary to push forward with the government’s agenda to remove the opposition leader from her home. The media manipulation of the event was also unprecedented for a democratic government. Advancing on what the previous military-controlled regime did, from the day before the incident, the media was fed with concocted stories of Khaleda Zia leaving her home willingly. And on the day of the event and the day after, the naked dishonesty and partisanship of the defence department’s press wing, ISPR, was simultaneously a painful reminder of the demise of the armed forces as neutral public servants and the last nail in the coffin of an institutional balance of power under present government.

 

Repeated notions were made that all these were about Khaleda Zia’s personal household and this was not a national issue. The major brunt of the criticism focused on this theme that rather than talking about national issues, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is only concerned about its leader’s home. However, the critiques forget the fact that when a person is the leader of the opposition and a major national leader, politically motivated eviction of that person is no longer a personal issue. In any democracy, the leader of the opposition is an institution, probably the second most important institution of the nation after the president or the prime minister. Like the way whatever aircraft the US president boards becomes the Air Force One, whatever household the opposition leader lives in, also becomes part of a national institution. We have to understand that when the nation spends unlimited resources for the safe living, travelling and security of the prime minister or the president, it’s not done for just a person. The nation never complains or questions about the resources spent on the persons who are our president or prime minister. Prime minister’s home or security is not a personal issue, and neither is the opposition leader’s home.

Not only as a powerful pillar of our democracy, the opposition leader as an institution is also important for its symbolic value as the counterbalance to the overwhelming power of government machinery. The leader of the opposition is the face of main pressure group that keeps the ruling party under check. The difference between public following of the leader ruling the nation and the leader of the opposition has never been big in Bangladesh. What has made the winning margin is the number of people who will switch side and decide their vote depending on the quality of the governance. The opposition leader represents a big portion of the nation. She/ he definitely is a force any democratic government must respect.

Rightly so for a democratic system, the political organisations are spread extensively throughout every corner of the country. Both the major political parties are present in every village of the country. These activists speak for the people of their village. Any disapproval of government actions will be expressed via these activists. When activists from the ruling side try to overpower and uproot the opposition activists, the opposition grass roots try to hold their ground. These forces, united together, collectively make the opposition. The opposition leader represents the dissenting voices of nation.

If the leader of the opposition is treated like the way Khaleda Zia has been treated, we can well imagine what repression awaits those village, thana or district level activists who are trying to hold the ground and speak out about people’s dissents against the government.

And precisely for this reason, the eviction of the opposition leader is not an individual’s personal property issue. It is one of our most important national issues.

It is very true that BNP government’s record in dealing with the institution of the opposition leader is not so positive. But BNP’s bad acts do not justify what the current government just did. If that is the case, if such justifications are made, then this eviction will justify worse actions when power changes hand.

Throughout the good governance movement during last BNP regime and during the military-controlled caretaker regime, numerous times the nation was told of the bad effects of politicisation of institutions and the need to protect the integrity of our institutions. This government came to power with a promise to stop the decline of our institutions and protect the institutions by keeping them above political misuse. But in sharp contrast to the promises made, we have just watched how the most empowered institution of the government, i.e. the Prime Minister’s office, by politicising other institutions like the attorney general’s office and defence department, shamelessly undermines the second most important institution, the leader of the opposition.

For a state to stand tall against all the storms, it needs more than one pillar. The institutions are the pillars of the state. If one institution becomes too strong to engulf other institutions and play with the second most powerful institution of democracy like a toy, the state is weakened significantly.

The opposition leader’s house is definitely not a personal property issue. It is a matter of national concern.