Rashed Khan Menon is a seasoned politician. Only a few years ago he had been in the Awami League government cabinet. He wouldn’t have much to protest against at the time. Now, however, he is vocal again in this criticism. He spoke out against various discrepancies in the recent Dhaka city corporation polls. He said that the elections have lost relevance and that if things continue this way, political parties will lose relevance too.
Menon’s apprehensions may seem extreme, but are not unfounded either. He questioned the relevance of the elections. The boycott of the elections by the general public gives weight to his words. In the city corporation elections, the opposition party had been given certain scope for campaigning, but even so the voter turnout was negligible. The election commission claims that the voter turnout was 27 per cent. The opposition maintains it was less that 10 per cent. A few recent local elections were even more pitiful.
Why did people not go to the polling centres? The answer lies in the question as to why they go. The last time we saw people thronging the voting centres was during the elections under the caretaker government. The people then believed that their votes mattered. They believed that they would be able to cast their votes, that their votes would be genuinely counted and the results of the election would be based on this. The first big crack in this belief appeared in the 2014 national parliamentary polls. Then the incidents of the 2018 election made it clear that elections in this country were no longer a reflection of the people’s right to vote. Prior to the elections, the opposition leaders and activists faced a volley of assaults and arrests and a sense of fear spread all around. The law enforcement agencies and activists of the ruling party were involved in all this, while the election commission and other state institutions remained inert. In many centres, votes of the 30 December election were cast the previous night.
The public was made the opponent in the election. The message of those in power to the public was more or less: a. Don’t go to vote, b. You will be assaulted if you go to vote, c. If you do enter the polling booth, you will have to vote for our candidate or your vote may have already been cast and you will have to accept this. On the 30 December 2018 election, the people were made to understand in no uncertain terms just how unwanted they were in the election.
And that is why the public from then on have responded by boycotting the elections. The voterless elections are now restricted to just a handful of powerful Awami League top leaders. The government machinery puts all its weight behind whichever selected leader has been nominated. The election is just about these chosen few, not about the public.
The election rally has lost all relevance in the country. Political parties too have lost relevance, even the ruling party. After all, politics are not required to usher in the selected candidates, all that is required is force. The ruling party no longer represents the people then, it represents force.
So when elections become irrelevant, so do political parties. But what Menon failed to say was that the political parties lost relevance not only through the elections, but also through repression and oppression. That is what is going on now in this country. In many instances this harassment goes to the extreme in the post-90’s context. When did we see such blatant refusal to permit rallies and public meetings, or the imposition of strict conditions by the police? When did we see such police violence at meetings and rallies of the left, right or centre political opposition or even non-political gatherings? And then there is the one-sided praise of the government by the ruling party in the media, on the streets, everywhere.
The impact of all this falls upon politics. The farmers in this country do not get fair prices, workers do not get fair wages, the banks and share market are looted while the public bears the brunt. The people are infuriated by India’s NRC and border killings, but the government does not care. The political opposition, silenced by the repression, also seems to have lost steam.
Politics has lost weight and relevance due to the weakness of the opposition too. Their lack of unity, weak leadership and lack of farsightedness have gone to the extreme in certain instances. For example, due to various restrictions on public rallies and gatherings, opposition politics have gone indoors, like in the days of military rule. In the past all, and I mean all, political parties would unite against such issues. In the past, Awami League, Jatiya Party, Jamaat, the left wing parties, all rallied against BNP just for vote rigging in one seat of Magura. Now the parties, not even the leftists, can unite over common issues of repression, vote rigging, national resources being looted and so on. The protests against Chhatra League’s rule of terror in the universities are staged from at least four separate platforms.
Over the past five years there have been three significant movements in the country – the anti-VAT movement, the movement for reforms in the quota system for public service, and the safe road movement. None of these movements were organised by political parties or their student bodies. The political parties lent their support to the movements but after the last two movements were cruelly and brutally quelled, the political opposition failed to stand its ground or unite in protest.
The DUCSU election is another glaring example of how irrelevant the political parties have become. Despite widespread irregularities and rigging in this election, the posts of vice president and social welfare secretary were bagged by candidates of the ‘council for the protection of the rights of the general students’. The council’s candidates won second place in all the other posts.
No matter how we criticise the political parties, political parties are vital to democracy. After political parties were born almost 250 years ago, the concepts of human rights, democracy and good governance were spread through these parties. From the 1948 language movement till the establishment of the caretaker government in 1996, political parties played a vital role.
When political parties lose relevance, various other non-political forces, criminal and corrupt groups, and spies of other countries gain strength. They have no responsibility towards the people. Their aims and objects are all in coterie interests, not in the interests of the people. They exploit and oppress the people to keep all wealth and opportunity in their own hands. They keep the people divided and confused.
People can protest without political parties too at times. We have seen the safe road movement. But such unorganised movements, based on an outburst of sudden emotion, cannot go far. Only political parties have the experience and ability to organise movements at the grassroots, provide iconic leadership, and uphold a sustainable movement.
It is imperative for politics and political parties to become relevant again. They must overcome narrow interests, disunity and fear. It is their responsibility to give Bangladesh a vision of the future.
* Asif Nazrul is a professor of law at Dhaka University. This column has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.