Bangladesh needs new formula for national reconciliation

In ancient times, a woman stepped into a lake with a pitcher tied around her neck one quiet night. Suddenly a young man appeared and asked what she was doing. It’s nothing, she replied. Why was she in the water then, he asked. She said she had really nothing else to do after being stigmatised by society. Extending his hand, the youth offered her a life of dignity.

This analogy was found in a book titled Atmaghati Rabindranath (‘Suicidal Rabindranath’), in reference to the suicide committed by poet Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law (brother’s wife) Kadombori Devi. In this case, there was none to save her by offering shelter, observed the author, Nirod C Chaudhury, who also wrote ‘Atmaghati Bangalee’ (Suicidal Bangalees).

The pre-polls violent political scene in Bangladesh has been a simile of helplessness and self-destruction of the ancient pattern. The political impasse is recognised by almost all but no sign of resolution to it is there yet. People quietly lament at the frustration about public life and listen to quarrelsome arguments over the situation.

The current generation of the youth, whose predecessors made history in this country, remain largely absent from the scene. Instead, hundreds of thousands of jobseekers and students are desperately trying to pursue opportunities at home and abroad and many hate politics and say they can’t believe the problems of this country could be solved any more.
Maybe the existing political narratives are clichés to them or their perception of politics is the outcome of massive politicisation of all institutions and wholesale national depoliticisation process in the recent decades.

Currently, the state machinery and the opposition political forces are in a faceoff with opposite demand and standpoint. The demand that was raised in the 1990s and the previous decade remains the same – free and fair election to be overseen by a neutral caretaker government – and outright rejection by the powerful authorities. A major difference is: At least some people outside the realm of politics then had the conscience, competence and courage to take position in favour of the righteous causes. They had taken initiatives to resolve crises and mediated, if needed. Today, the thing called civil society has either been biased to a camp or become ineffective.

Thus, the political polarisation suggests, not only shall one side win, but also the other side would lose everything. Neither side wants to sacrifice their egos either. The ruling Awami League thinks, and says, too, that they would turn into victims of attacks if they are out of power. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which expressed no-confidence in the current Prime Minister, clearly states that it won’t be possible for them to get an atmosphere that is congenial for free and fair polls, without constitution of a polls-time caretaker government. The US call for unconditional dialogue, to come out of the deadlock, has in the meantime received no such positive response. Rather, the move to hold yet another one-sided election despite the opposition demonstration to realise their demand has been the stark reality of the day.

So, we don’t see any prospect of having a vibrant parliamentary democracy in the country soon. The questionable elections that were held in 2014 and 2018 failed to present the nation any functional parliament. In the context of the stronger demand for free, fair and inclusive elections at home and abroad, another one-sided ballot would mean deepening of the political crisis and continuation of ad hoc-ism. That situation would be coupled with the doldrums of the economy and apprehensions of further uncertainties leading up to the election and thereafter.

In such a situation, who would stop the political hara-kiri? Any local initiative for resolving the crisis peacefully – through dialogue, where the political parties can speak with open mind – has not been visible yet. Other than the active roles played by the respective political parties and actors and foreign diplomats, others concerned showed reluctance or indifference that indicates there is no relevance of political dialogue to them at the moment. Some hope the political cloud would be removed all of a sudden, the way opportunist groups within the rival camps imagine they would see in one fine morning their adversaries have disappeared from the scene.

Such unrealistic thinking within the particular section of the political ‘actors’ and ‘coward’ citizens leads to prolonging of the national crisis. However, the commoners want solution, complete solution, a long-lasting solution meant for their posterity. Such a solution, we need to understand, cannot be possible without the involvement of the current political forces. The fear of loss in the struggle for democracy or of losing election and shrinking of the party, haunts political leadership in this part of the world. Also, the ‘winner takes all’ formula of the majoritarian rule keeps democratic practice and culture weak. Even then, how are we resigned to the situation assuming that any breakthrough is impossible in the crossfire of electioneering vs protest?

It's urgent to talk about possible solution to the political crisis, no matter how the political actors initially react to it. Since the present constitutional framework has failed to ensure effective democracy, political and social harmony and bring about national reconciliation, we need to look for a new formula, which is acceptable and sustainable. The people, particularly different social groups, professionals, conscientious and vocal men and women, and the political stakeholders – all may join the dialogue aimed at restructuring democratic institutions.

We may have to start from ABC, in view of our socio-political conditions, however, the way visionary people in other parts of the world, especially Europe, had laid the foundation of modern democracy through social contract. That democracy is not a business of just a day needs to be proved by means of everyday practice, keeping awakened and active the guards to protect the rights of people.

Since power (involving the executive branch) tends to corrupt and abuse, parliament, judiciary, the mass media, constitutional bodies, pressure groups of society and opinion leaders act as guards to foil any move to foil democracy. Due to loss of checks and balances in the system in Bangladesh, any solution to the current crisis has not been found in the constitutional framework. It’s also true that constitutional constraints do not arise as any barriers, should there be a political consensus at critical junctures of national life.

We now need to think in a manner opposite the process in which the political forces present the people and social groups solutions. That is also because, the movement for restoration of citizens’ rights inclusive of voting is the agenda of not merely the political parties; neither is it the lone responsibility of the political authorities. Even if we assume the parties have failed to carry out their responsibility, do we as a nation not need any solution?

Yet, the 170 million people or 120 million voters would not appear in a city to submit their respective proposals. Those who are capable of creating new messages, crafting political narratives and preparing agenda for public welfare, should come out of their comfort zones and speak out. In this age of social networking, there are ways to measure public support to any issue, apart from the voting results. Also, whenever the country’s people got opportunity to give their verdict, they hardly made any mistake; they had proven serious interests in joining the democratic process time and again.

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Now, specialists of different subjects can propose ‘what will be the state structure’, ‘how will be constitutional and legal systems’, and ‘in which ways will the democratic institutions and people’s rights be restored’. Collectively we need to work out how corruption and abuse of power can be prevented and pro-people bureaucracy established. It’s time to focus on ways to raise the standards of education, healthcare and environmental protection.
As the one who plants a sapling cannot take fruit, the objective of our strives and sacrifice is to build a beautiful country, a promising republic or true democratic state for the posterity.

If democracy is based on one day’s electoral game, the winners will get the scope to be autocratic; on the other hand, the electorates or voters will remain deprived of the democratic rights. This country has a bright history of democratic movement and initiatives were taken as well to institutionalise democracy. Our lesson from the past is that there was deficiency in building effective democratic institutions and leadership and the citizenry had shown deviation from the democratic spirit. Those who honestly want to take responsibility for mistakes can contribute to compensating the nation in other ways or they may try to do their best as duty to do so, but with renewed spirit.

The new social contract may work as non-aggression agreement for the main contenders of power, to address the gulf of difference and hostilities between them. Anyone can join the process of reconciliation. Again, you may also be part of the parochial narratives of either side of rival camps, without considering the greater national interest; you may play the ‘holier than the pope’-like neutral role as well.

In that case, you will not be able to prove wisdom, magnanimity and courage. You are in a historic moment to play a special role. A third party has the relevance in creating congenial atmosphere for meaningful dialogue between parties, preparing the draft proposal and agenda for discussion, and offering a series of solutions to the crisis.
We all can be part of history if such a social contract is struck and signed for Bangladesh and our next generations. What’s wrong if we make collective efforts to build a better future?

*Khawaza Main Uddin is a journalist.

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