There have been repeated hiccups in the continuation of Bangladesh’s governance and national politics. It has taken hardly a day to switch from one system to the other, and that too without any acquiescence of the people. The people woke up to find one fine day they were in a completely different system of governance than they were the day before. And they simply accepted it all in silence, or had no choice other than to do so.
For three years after independence, the country ran under a parliamentary system. It had its faults and weaknesses, but it was a recognised and known system. For a decade before independence, the people had been fed with hope for such a system. That had been the aspiration of the people. And after the independence, the country at the time had a leader in whom the people had boundless trust. After all, it was under his leadership than the country gained independence. His presence itself imbibed hope. But then the parliamentary system switched over to the one-party presidential system, without taking people’s views into cognizance, without any referendum, without any discussion or debate inside or outside of the parliament. The people didn’t get the chance for second thought.
Was it only the responsibility of the ruling party to discuss that one-party system? Did the others have no responsibility? Were there no other parties in the country at the time? What was the role of the leaders of all those parties that were banned? If there had been any mistake or wrongdoing, the politicians of the time cannot escape blame. General Osmany and barrister Mainul Hossain expressed their difference of opinion and did not join BKSAL. Bangabandhu didn’t send them to jail for that.
After Pakistan was created in 1947, the country was run by a parliamentary system under the provisions of the Government of Indian Act 1935. There were the provincial assemblies and until the constitution was drawn up in 1956, there was the national assembly at the centre.
In October1958, Ayub Khan slaughtered the parliamentary system and replaced it with ‘basic democracy’. The people had no choice but to accept. Many renowned writers, poets and intellectuals wrote volumes in his praise. Not even a single secretly written handbill against basic democracy caught the eye.
Though they gained independence at the same time, while democracy fell flat on its face in Pakistan, it thrived in India. In Pakistan, the opposition had no say. In India, heed was paid to the opposition. Left wing politician and writer Hirendranath Mukhapadhaya once told me that the prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru would listen attentively to his deliveries made on behalf of CPI in the Lok Sabha. He would even be given more time to speak. In West Bengal’s Vidhan Sabha, Dr Bidhanchandra Roy enjoyed Jyoti Basu’s speeches and would tell the speaker, “Let Jyoti speak some more!” All this was happening at a time when in East Pakistan’s legislative assembly, deputy speaker Shahed Ali’s skull was cracked open and not only did he have to leave the assembly, but had to bid farewell to the world forever.
There is no room for divergent views in a feudal system. However, in a democracy there is need for not just a ruling party, but also for an opposition. (Of course, in post 2014 Bangladesh, the opposition in Bangladesh parliament stands second to none in the world). For example, the ruling parliament may not be able to control one of its ministers. It makes it easier for the ruling party to take action against him if the opposition delivers strong statements in parliament against his misconduct or corruption. And a government can also gain in popularity if it adjusts itself in keeping with the opposition’s constructive criticism of its faults and weaknesses.
If there was democracy in Bangladesh and an opposition in parliament, then the world heritage Sundarbans would survive, and the national committee and UNESCO would need to lose sleep over this mangrove forest.
It is good to have democracy in place, but things do run even without democracy. However, whether there is democracy or not, a modern state needs something called politics. There was no democracy in this country from 1958 till 1971. The country was run by civil and military bureaucracy, but there was politics. And because there was politics, the war of liberation was possible.
There is an administration in Bangladesh today. There is the police, the law and the courts. There are cultural activities. There is trade and commerce, ‘development’ activities, bribery and corruption, but what is missing is politics. A young schoolchild may ask, if there are so many political parties in Bangladesh, why is there no politics? Are political parties and politics two different things? I would answer, in the 21st century, ‘political parties’ and ‘politics’ are two entirely different things.
Around three months ago I entered the press club on a grand mission to save the nation, and met an old friend there. I met him after a long time. He is a simple and good man, not well-to-do. He had had a bypass quite some time back. He also had diabetes. I asked him how he was doing. He said he was fine and handed over a four-page paper to me. He said he had formed a united front, an alliance. I asked if it was an association of bypass patients or some such thing which hadn’t been formed as yet. He said no, read the paper. It’s an election alliance.
I read the paper and was not surprised. In fact, I enjoyed reading it. It was about an election alliance comprise 37 or 38 ‘political parties’. I said, wouldn’t it be better to add a few more parties? Also, if you win the majority in the 2019 election, have you decided who to select at prime minister and president? He replied, we won’t get many seats in the next election. I said, even if the presidents and secretaries of all the parties win a seat, you will get around 74 or 75 seats in parliament. I saw a happy flicker of hope pass across his face.
My friend had sincere intentions. His alliance would go to power and clamp down on corruption. It would bring back all the money siphoned out to the Swiss banks. Not only would it create a visa-free world, it also had the long-term objective of eventually establishing a one-state world. No one has the right to call a Bengali insane, even us who imagine ourselves to be sane. But the actions of some certainly do drive one to near insanity.
Every few months the media reveals new parties and new alliances popping up through conferences in the press club. The convenors are mostly unknown faces. Everyone has the fundamental right to form a political party, if his concern for the country compels him to do so. It is a violation of his constitutional rights to prevent him from doing so. One can only ask, who are you in politics, my friend?
Over a period of 35 years, ‘left alternatives’ have surfaced at regular intervals. Sometimes it is a ‘third force’. There are the Bangali and the Bangladeshi camps which have failed to give the country anything. And so the ‘left alternative’ or ‘third force’ is required. Surely the Bengalis are not foolish enough to doubt the future of these alternatives and these forces.
The main leader of every political party has a constituency. We have no idea to which constituencies the ‘alternatives’ and the ‘forces’ belong. The national election and national politics are serious matters. There are often union parishad chairman and member elections held in the country. There are the pourashava polls. How many people do these left alternatives or third forces have among the thousands and thousands of union parishad members around the country?
There is nothing wrong in forming parties and alliances in the press club or in the drawing room, but the public wants to see real politicians among the people. I doubt if anyone over the past 40 years has seen the leaders of the 37 or 38 parties comprising my friend’s alliance, in Ullapara, Jhikargachha or Bhurungamari. Coming even closer, no one has heard of them even visiting Kamrangirchar or any village in Tongi on the banks of the river Balu, and addressing public gatherings there. But they certain have the energy to rush off to Delhi, London and New York at the drop of a hat!
There are many who do not practice politics, yet are politicians in name. They are not with the people, but gaze longingly at the seat of power. They eagerly wait to see what kind of assistive government will run the coming election, but never even murmured a word of protest when the 16th amendment was passed in haste. Many of them only now are smugly hailing the Supreme Court judgement. In the next election even if 253 persons are elected uncontested and the remaining 47 seats are given to the third alternative force, what good will that do for the nation?
The people are fed up. They are fed up not only with the ruling party and its front organisations, but also with the leaders of the opposition. The developments in this political vacuum have put pressure on the people’s nerves. They are unable to express their anger in the absence of leadership. They are assailed by suppressed sufferings. The nation wants relief from this suffocating situation.
* Syed Abul Maksud is a columnist and researcher. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.