I was driving back from Florida last week. While passing through the gorgeous plantation-style homes and palm trees in my route, it suddenly came to me what Khaleda Zia should have actually said on the 29th. Instead of attacking the people of an entire district, which is unfair, since they do not bear collective responsibility for the action of certain individuals. She should have lamented, “Gopalganj is too small to be its own country, and too large to be a mental asylum.”*
But Gonobhaban, I think, is just the right size to be a mental asylum. And the current occupant of Gonobhaban is now spreading her own brand of insanity to the rest of Bangladesh.
Exhibit A in this on spread of dementia is, of course, the insistence by those defending this government as one necessary to “protect the continuity of the Constitution.” An election in which 154 seats are not contested may be good for several things, but they do not uphold the Constitution. The Constitution of Bangladesh calls for free and fair elections in which voters are presented a genuine choice. What took place on 5th January is the antithesis of such an arrangement.
Sheikh Hasina now has crossed a line that many people had hoped, perhaps naively, that she would not cross. She has shed off the role of a democratic prime minister and instead opted to become a dictator. This change, for the head of Bangladesh’s oldest political party, and for a leader who asserts herself as an icon of democracy every chance she gets, will be difficult to process for many Bangladeshis. It will produce mental dissonance and a lot of hand-wringing. But the bottom-line, unfortunately, is unmistakable – Bangladesh is no longer a democracy. Which unfortunately leaves Bangladesh, if I am not mistaken, with the only current female dictator in the world today.
I am firmly against military interventions. I fervently hope that Bangladesh does not lose any trade access because of a single person’s ambitions. I don’t want to read about Bangladesh in foreign publications as a country that is headed towards civil war. Finally, I believe that this mess has been created by Bangladeshis, and must be solved by Bangladeshis.
Much has been written about BNP’s lackings as a political party. But the sad truth is that Awami League is not in much better shape. At the recently-concluded rally in Suhrawardy Udyan, the two largest groups present were supporters of Haji Selim and Shamim Osman. And good luck to Sheikh Hasina if she thinks that she can run a government, much less a country, for five years on the backs of those two. Awami League, as an organizational party, is semi-decayed. Except for the cooperation of the police, RAB, and other security forces, it has no capability of its own.
I think a truth that is always under-appreciated is how willing Sheikh Hasina is to cross boundaries; she has a knack for doing the very thing that her sincere well-wishers ask her not to try. After coming to office with overwhelming and absolute support in 2009, she couldn’t resist the temptation to take down Dr. Yunus, perhaps the only thing that could have made her international supporters turn away from her. Similarly, in the just-concluded election, Bangladesh’s thought-leaders and a large part of the international community were ready to accept the election if the percentage of votes cast was anything above the 25% mark. Instead, she oversaw an election with 154 uncontested seats, which was too much for anyone to swallow. The current composition of her ruling coalition is simply not built to last five years. Hasina would have been better advised to give JSD and Worker’s Party 20 seats each – instead of depending on Jatiyo Party to be the rump opposition.
To those asking for fresh dialogue or chiding BNP for not joining this election (I am looking at you, David Bergman), it should be apparent by now that there was never a possibility for Hasina to voluntarily hand over power to BNP, or anyone else, for that matter. Going forward, this is a truth that bears repeating: Sheikh Hasina will not voluntarily hand over power to anyone else, not even a fellow Awami League leader such as President Abdul Hamid or Prime Minister Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, let alone some technocratic figurehead.
In her side, Hasina has the bogey of Jamaat – although it is becoming clearer and clearer that to those asking for Jamaat to be banned, the logical next step is asking BNP to also be banned. By the beginning of June, Hasina will likely lose whatever international cover she now possesses as a new government looks set to take power in India. She is now in the position where she cannot afford to let BNP arrange even a single meeting in Dhaka – because she is, and from now, always will be, just one tactical defeat away from a complete collapse.
Furthermore, waiting in the wings is the dark horse of Bangladeshi politics. As his opening act, Mahmudur Rahman published a damning corruption report about Sajeeb Wazed, Hasina’s unimaginative and disappointing son and heir, which earned him a direct one-year sentence from Bangladesh’s Supreme Court. Last year, he took on and dismantled the Gonojagaran Manch, proving more than equal to the greatest assemblage of cultural and soft power in Bangladesh’s post-independent history. If and when he gets out this time, he will be salivating to take on this government at its weakened state. History often rewards, not the most deserving, nor the most diligent, but the most daring, especially in the right time and place.
41 years after it first happened, Bangladesh is again faced with a dictator with the trappings of, but little interest in, democracy. The massacres of August to November 1975s were mistakes, for which the country paid a high price. The challenge this time will be to solve this puzzle without bloodshed. Those interested in the furthering of Bangladeshi democracy should seize this opportunity as a teachable moment. Democracy is not a fancy parliament building or some words on a page – it is a concept that is enshrined in hearts of a republic’s citizens. How much the citizens of Bangladesh are willing to sacrifice for democracy will, in the final count, be the only determinant of how soon it returns to the country.
*”South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” James L. Petigru, 1860.