The elections are knocking on the door in Bangladesh. It is important in any democratic country, sometimes even considered as historic event. It can bring about epoch-making changes.
Bangalees has witnessed such elections down the years, first in 1937, then in 1946, thirdly in 1954 and then, of course, the 1970 election. The 1991 election was also a significant one for independent Bangladesh.
The first democratic government was established in this subcontinent in 1937. Of the 250 sears in the Bengal provincial legislative assembly, 120 were reserved for the Muslims. There were three major political parties contesting in the elections: Congress, Muslim League and Krishak Praja Party. The League won only 43 seats, but this went up to 59 when a few independent candidates joined the League. A total of 126 seats were required to form the government.
In that election, Muslim League had pledged to uphold the interests of the Muslims in Bengal. But though the people of Bengal were religious, to them economic issues were important. Krishak Praja Party leader AK Fazlul Huq told the people that if elected, he would ensure ‘dal-bhaat,’ or three square meals for them. He would rescue the peasants from the blood-sucking money lenders. The people turned to the Praja Party rather than the Islamic incantations of the League. A majority of the Muslims in Bengal were oppressed by the landowners and heavily burdened with loans. They wanted to live.
Fazlul Huq wanted to form a coalition with Congress and establish a secular democratic government in Bengal. Congress leader Sharat Basu was also eager to do so, but the Congress high command rejected their proposal. Huq was obliged to forge a coalition with the League and form a cabinet. His government did good work, but could not ensure ‘dal-bhaat’. His first cabinet couldn’t free the peasants from their debts either. His second cabinet formed a loan arbitration board, though the bill for this law was drawn up by the government of Khawaja Nazimuddin. The draft of the law was drawn up by ICS officer Aziz Ahmed.
In 1946 the election was held on the Pakistan issue, the Bangalee Muslims voted in favour Pakistan and Pakistan was founded on the basis of Muslim nationalism. It was said that Islamic justice and equality would be established. But independence saw quite a different reality. In fact, Bangla culture and language were hit hard and the Bangalees were disenchanted with the League.
The mantra of 1954 election was Bangalee nationalism and autonomy of East Bengal. Huq, Bhasani and Suhrawardy strongly advocated this ideology. The League chief minister was defeated and the Prajas saw a landslide victory. Muslim nationalism was done and buried, Bangalee nationalism won. But they couldn’t finish their term as martial law marched in and Pakistan’s democracy was neatly placed in a coffin.
The 1970 election was a game changer for the Bangalee nation. The Bangalee made their stand clear in unequivocal terms to the Pakistani rulers.
The Bangalee dream for a non-communal democratic Bangladesh remained unfulfilled. Independence was achieved, but the repression and exploitation continued. The burning question of the 1970s was, why is ‘Golden Bengal’ now a graveyard? The fact remains, the country was never really a graveyard, nor was it ever golden. It was replete with greenery, crops and rivers. The people had enough to eat, but they did not get democracy for which they aspired.
After much ups and downs, the 1991 election arrived and the mantra then was ‘down with autocracy!’ The pledge was for parliamentary democracy. The leaders kept their pledge, but the people did not quite get the sweet taste of democracy. During the reign of every government, the opposition leaders where pitched into prison. The motorbike-riding musclemen of the ruling parties dashed democracy to the ground. Communalism and fundamentalism arose and fanaticism spread.
The 2008 election was significant. The Bangladesh people voted against fundamentalist communalism. The voters were clearly in favour of a non-communal democratic Bangladesh. But there is no guarantee that the people will get what they want. Those who are to grant their wishes, have to be sincere in doing so.
The nation is on the brink of another election. An election is not just about the actual day of voting, it is a massive process. In countries where multiparty politics exists, the parties begin to prepare for the election way in advance. A few months are spent in preliminary campaigns. The parties and candidates go to the people with their pledges and programmes. Their speeches reveal things that are not always in the media. They discuss the state of the country with the people. That is the beauty of democracy.
The election campaigns tell the people about the country’s economy, foreign policy, problems, the way forward. The people mull over the issues during their discussions at the local tea stalls. They will take everything into consideration and use their discernment to cast their vote.
However, in Bangali politics, the politicians feel no need for such campaigning. They do not need to go to the people. The well-fed leaders sit in the VIP lounge of the Press Club, or the Reporters’ Unity auditorium, or the Bangabandhu Convention Centre, or such comfortable conference halls. Those who cannot afford such costly venues, take up their megaphones along Topkhana Road.
But to pedestrians, the advent of the election is obvious. Posters and banners are anywhere and everywhere. A purportedly pro-democracy party has even nailed their posters to unfortunate trees on the roadsides. We have no right to harm the trees in such a manner. But then, these people are hammering away at the people’s hearts and brains every evening, so hammering nails into trees is no big deal for them.
The new generation needs to know the agendas of the old elections. It is not possible for newspaper columnists to detail the agenda of the coming election in their columns. It is for the politicians to do so. Some of their statements are complex and incomprehensible, others are oversimplified and facile. Some of their narratives have multi-interpretations, some are surreal, and some blabber on like inmates of a lunatic asylum. It is already too late. There is no time to waste on meaningless mantras. The people want the message in clear, precise and comprehendible terms.
* This column, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir