Politics


The current political problem in Bangladesh is primarily one of imagination. Obviously, neither Khaleda Zia nor Sheikh Hasina will accept an option that is total defeat for them. However, a study of the priority of the two leaders may allow us to glimpse what s solution to the current, bloody impasse may look like.

If Sheikh Hasina currently allows an election, she will lose. She will hand over the government to BNP for the next five years. She will certainly face many uncomfortable cases and inquiries about the BDR massacre, the Padma Bridge controversy, the atrocities committed by RAB in the days leading to and the aftermath of the 2014 election, the Share Market scam, and so forth. Moreover, given the age of both these individuals, it is highly likely that this would be the last time they would face off. Hasina understandably does not want to end with a defeat.

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In the current conflict of attrition between BNP and Awami League, AL’s main advantage is that it has the resources of the state to inflict as much damage as it can on BNP. Furthermore, the creation of RAB means that AL is able to hand-pick the most AL-leaning of armed forces men and send them on killing sprees, while the rest are kept cooped up in the cantonments. Against this, all BNP can hope for is to slowly unravel the unwieldy coalition of military and civilian bureaucrats and businessmen who are now currently keeping AL in power. In this conflict, as in most conflicts in Bangladesh, the situation favors the state.

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Sheikh Hasina is sitting in her chair at the Prime Minister’s Office. Suddenly, the head of SSF, or BGB, or the Engineering Corp for that matter, suddenly comes into her office and tells her that Tanvir Mohammad Twoki, a brilliant young student, has been murdered and that the suspicion is that the family of Shamim Osman is behind it. Hasina stays silent. Or perhaps, more realistically, she launches several blistering ad hominem attacks against the bearer of the news, Khaleda Zia, “shushil samaj,” and her pet peeves of the day. However, she doesn’t order any specific course of action.

Would that make her culpable for the murder of Tauqi?

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I was visiting Bangladesh when pilkhana massacre happened. As the events were unfolding on the morning of February 25 2009, I was returning to Dhaka from Chittagong. As I returned to Dhaka that afternoon the general narrative dominating our media and civil society discourse puzzled me. I wrote the following post during late afternoon of February 25 2009. I lost the post as the blog website hosting the post went offline-
Today, after the trial verdict of the massacre came out, a friend discovered the post for me from a web archive-
The narrative of public mind, our media and educated class as I described that afternoon is a fascinating reminder of the fickleness of our collective thinking process –
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The last installment of this analysis tried to explain government’s suicidal fixation on undermining Professor Muhammad Yunus. One possible explanation, as alluded to in that piece- was precision pre-planning for a future where Muhammad Yunus could have been the only formidable stature standing while the whole opposition spectrum is decimated – jailed – removed.

Today lets discuss the prequel or to be frank – impossibility of this government planned prequel to the resistance scenario where the opposition gets decimated. It is clear the state is waiting for advances from the opposition – they want the opposition to start it first. They want opposition to call some hartal – annoy people – anger the chattering class belonging to the civil society – then come down hard on the opposition – the way the state came down hard and gagged the post Ilias ali abduction protests. If the top leadership goes behind the bar, Khaleda Zia remains virtually in house arrest incommunicado and the rest of mid level leadership remain on the run – the ground organization of BNP will come to a standstill — this is the assumption of the planners of Hasina war room. May be in the last moment – just after the election schedule is announced – to show some fake sincerity to hold an inclusive election – Khaleda Zia, along with some other senior leaders, will be released. But the mid-level organizers will be kept at a bay to ensure a BNP boycott of the election. Any possible hartal agitation movement will be dealt with harshest state repression. And once an election is somehow conducted with domesticated opposition and some fake break away BNP participating and  as soon as the 3rd Hasina Government  takes oath – full brunt of the state repression will be unleashed upon whatever is remaining of BNP. Khaleda Zia along with her top lieutenants will face harsh or long term sentences. Per PM Hasina’s game plan – vision 2021 will be halfway on its goal.

 

However the above mentioned scenario still remains within the confines of wishful thinking and planning. History tells us again and again – whatever precision planning one may do, whatever full proof the plans may be – eventually, surprise and unplanned factors dictate the flows, the turns and the curves of the history. Another factor that also cannot be ignored by any avid observer of history – is that whatever powerful one may be – without ground based following and a sizable portion of the population backing the regime – no one can stay afloat with absolute power too long. Nature – sometimes presenting as collective public opinion, sometimes presenting as suppressed public demands – finds its way to correct major anomalies against the nature- again an overwhelming public opinion.

 

The state, led by Hasina and her cronies e.g. political advisers, army, RAB and police chiefs, GOCs of strategic military divisions, DMP and other commissioners, bureaucrats – may design the perfect plan of a brutal bloody suppression of the opposition. They may find the confidence and comfort about their success in their successful dress rehearsals of suppressing the opposition movement after Ilias Ali abduction or Hezazate Islam sit in.

 

The problem is that what the planners of Mrs. Hasina fail to see is that the state power has a shelf life. It decays with time. The vigor this state had shown during Ilias Ali agitation or even during hefazate Islami sit in, is no longer there with the state machinery. In the elected autocratic democracies like Bangladesh – the state power and the opposition strength is mutually complimentary. The stronger the state is, the weaker is the opposition. The weaker the state gets – the more invigorated the opposition gets. Even if the high command orders a brutal crackdown of the opposition, it will be unlikely that all ground level enforcers of the state will comply to high command orders with full complicity. Every single police officer, every single district level administrator will think twice before executing any drastic suppression. Because like the rest of the nation they will also be skeptical about PM Hasina Government’s plans to hang on to a second term by force. They will be very careful in trying not alienating the future ruling party. The state may have foreseen and preempted this problem by heavily recruiting hardcore ruling party zealots from a certain part of the country- but these zealots will be too little too weak to negate the skepticism and inaction of self-serving skeptic members of the  administration.

At the same time the opposition force Hasina’s state machinery will face on the streets will be much stronger than before.  Possibility of an upcoming election will drive constituency based resistance to state suppression. Potential candidates of each constituency as well as their ward level followers will try their best to show their support and organizational capacity in launching a resistance. The incentives were not as high two years ago, the hope of an end to the oppression and hopes of paybacks were not as near.

 

Then comes the other surprise factors. The strongest Prime Minister in history of Bangladesh could not contain a young newbie grassroots leader of her party during Gazipur city corporation elections.  Even when our PM’s clout and stature was at the peak we saw Ivy-Shamim Osman, Afsar Uddin- Simin Hossain Rimi type organizational chaos. At the end of her tenure, how she would expect to contain all the deprived leaders of the party? Esp. how she would dissuade the local leaders  who know it very well that if they again remain within the list of the deprived, if they have to pave the way for the other leader to become the MP or Upazilla Chairman, their political career is practically over.

This factor will weigh heavily in suppressing the opposition. May be the opposition BNP activists will see unexpected allies among the ruling party deprived factions.

 

Then other shocking surprises like 1/11, August 15 is always there in the horizon.

The facts above suggest it very clearly that if the government has any plan to oppress the opposition and hold a one party election, although it will not be impossible, it will not be walking on a cake. If we go back to the Terminator movie analogy – precision planning by the strongest super computer Skynet system and all the full proof pre-emptive acts to protect the planned future failed to human resilience and surprises.  Prime Minister Hasina, with all organs of the state behind her with solid subservience, may have found herself invincible during last four and half years. But her invincibility will be seriously tested by a skeptic administration, a chaotic feuding organization she leads and a n invigorated opposition.

 

[ In the third and final installment of the analysis, we’ll discuss the best exit plan of PM Hasina and about the 3rd Hasina Government if PM Hasina somehow succeeds in hanging on to power]

Mahfuz Anam’s recent editorial, The Sons are Coming, makes for interesting reading. I advise readers to then go back and read a pair of his columns from 2007: How could BNP come to this stage?, written after the arrest of Tarique Rahman on March 9, 2007, and The mandate that Khaleda Zia Wasted, that ran on September 4, 2007, the day after Khaleda Zia was arrested.

Browsing through Daily Star in 2007 is like watching a super-sad movie: you know how all this is going to end, but you cannot help but be touched by the optimism in the middle. An article on the National Coordination Committee, written by the breathless Julfiqar Ali Manik (as a part of his competition with Zafar Sobhan to see who could make grander pronouncements about the all-encompassing success of the CTG), nicely illustrates the point. It would have “ultra-crime bust forces” and a “mighty committee.” It would “be at the helm of all major hunts for corruption and criminal suspects.” It “will not rest on filing of cases but follow those up till the disposal by keeping constant contacts and communications with relevant authorities.” In fact, short of wearing leotards and flying through the sky, it would virtually have no other limitations.

Newt Gingrich apparently shut down the US government because Bill Clinton did not invite him to the presidential cabin while taking a trip in Air Force One. Did Mahfuz Anam support a coup because he was “teased” (Mr. Anam’s words, not mine) by TR?

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We are at, possibly, the last lull before the next storm hits Bangladesh. Ramadan will let BNP and AL figure out where they stand and what they want to do next. The months after Eid are likely to be as action-packed and eventful as the stretch between February and May.

One worry I have heard for a long time is that AL won’t allow elections at all. I do not believe this will come to pass. Awami League will certainly tilt the playing field their way as much as possible, but ultimately, I think they will call elections. There is a significant section of AL that believes that BNP will come to any election, under any terms, because the party has seen that it is hopeless at street agitations.

So, the question becomes, under what circumstances should BNP agree to participate in the election?

Here, as in much else, the Mahabharat has a point to make.

Before an epic war, two leaders from the two opposing sides go to see Lord Krishna. He is sleeping, so one sits at his head and the other at his feet. Once he awakens, they both ask for his support. Krishna offers them a choice: they can either choose his vast armies, including the elite corp called Narayani Sena, or himself, in a noncombatant role. The two captains made their choices and both departed feeling that they had gotten the better of the other side.

BNP should make the following offer to Awami League and Hasina, either:

i. They will abide by the terms of the 15th Amendment, and go to election with the current EC, with all the current MPs and ministers still remaining in office, only if Sheikh Hasina steps down and lets someone else, potentially President Abdul Hamid or Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, act as interim head of government, or

ii. Hasina can stay as PM, but Parliament has to be disbanded, with all MPs and ministers resigning, and an interim group of ten advisors, as non-partisan as possible, to act as the cabinet similar to the past caretaker governments. Hasina could be the caretaker chief.

And then sit back and let Hasina mull the choices, and the consequences of each.

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