Democracy, Awami League-style

Awami League leaders in recent times have taken to strongly declaring that Bangladesh's democracy will not be like that of other countries. It will be of Bangladesh. Their words remind one of a narrative touted back in the seventies. When the left parties at the time were calling for Marxist-Leninist socialism, Awami League contended that foreign ideology would not do here. Bangladesh's socialism would be of Bangladesh. Though socialism is recorded as one of the main pillars in our constitution, in reality Awami League took no effective measures to establish socialism.

Most of the industries here belonged to Pakistanis. After they left the ownership of these, including Asia's largest jute mill Adamjee, all the industries went to the state. Those in power passed this off as socialism. Initially there was looting in the name of socialism. The next phase of looting came in the name of denationalisation. The losses of these industries mounted into millions and billions of taka, but no government succeeded in running these properly.

In Malaysia and South Korea, on the other hand, heavy industries were kept in the hands of the state without any socialist economy rhetoric, and these flourished. The economy was placed on firm footing. This is the pitiful predicament of socialism, Bangladesh-style.

There really is no fundamental difference in the economic policies and political character of the three major parties. All of them have the objective of going to power and remaining in power

As for the Bangladesh model of democracy, we have been seeing that for the past 51 years. Awami League leaders often say that they were not able to establish the fundamental pillars of the state -- democracy, socialism, secularism and Bengali nationalism -- because for the majority of the time in post-independence Bangladesh, 'anti-independence' forces had been in power.

If we look back we will see that over the past 51 years, BNP had been in power three times for a total of 16 years 9 months. Hussain Muhammad Ershad had been at the helm for 8 years 8 months. Awami League had been in power for the remaining time and still is. After independence, Bangabandhu's government had been in power for nearly three years nine months. Sheikh Hasina's government, in four terms, has been in power for 19 years. So there is not much difference in time at the helm for what they call 'anti-independence' and 'pro-independence' forces.

Again, Awami League has run the government for three terms along with political forces they deem to be opposed to the spirit of independence and they contested in the elections as an alliance with them thrice. They did not even hesitate to join hands with the party of war criminals, Jamaat-e-Islami, in the movement against BNP for a caretaker government.

No matter what may be written in the party constitution and the constitution of the country, there really is no fundamental difference in the economic policies and political character of the three major parties. All of them have the objective of going to power and remaining in power. Some purportedly uphold Bengali nationalism but compromise when it comes to state religion and take Hefazat on board as their allies. Some claim to be the party of the liberation war, but forge alliances with anti-liberation war forces.

Democracy has many models and faces. But there is no scope to deviate from the fundamental principle on which democracy is founded, that is, the reflection of people's will in running the state. Democracy can be in the Westminster system, where the national parliament takes the final decision on all matters. Then there can be a presidential form of democracy where the president holds all power. This system was in place here till the parliamentary system was introduced. The parliament at that time was termed a 'rubber stamp'.

The 27-point proposal for state repairs put forward recently by BNP speaks of a balance between the power of the president and the prime minister. But when the party had been in power, it had put its trust in the 'sovereignty' of the prime minister. Just as the president is all powerful in a presidential system, in our parliamentary system, all power lies in the hands of the prime minister. Former president Justice Shahabuddin once said regretfully that he had nothing to do but to conduct the official rituals of 'milads' (prayer gatherings) and prayers at graves.

Like other developing countries, Bangladesh has also been impacted by the Russia-Ukraine war. The manner in which the prices of essential commodities, particularly food, are shooting up, survival has become a struggle for the poor and low income people. According to a CAB survey, over the past year the price of rice has gone up by 17.22 per cent, flour by 27.46 per cent, lentils by 16.21 per cent, small fish 17.07 per cent, green chillies 38.64 per cent and fruit 30.45 per cent. The queues of men and women in front of the TCB vehicles and the dealers' shops are growing longer. Recently Prothom Alo reported how people had been waiting for up till 26 hours in front of the dealers' shops in the bitter December cold. That is the picture of people lives in our Bangladesh, the land of development.

Unfortunately, the renowned leaders of the popular parties have no headache about such matters. They hardly mention the poor and the destitute in their speeches and statements. They are busy flinging mud at each other, spewing out vitriol at their opponents. They catch the attention of the party top leaders with their fiery speeches.

When BNP held mass rallies in 10 divisional towns, Awami League followed suit with similar programmes. They have held rallies in Chattogram and Jashore so far. On 29 January Awami League is to hold a rally in Rajshahi. It is the democratic right of any party to hold rallies and gatherings. But what explanation is there for the negative experiences of the people regarding these rallies. Leaders in Rajshahi have held a series of meetings to render the rally there a success. They are saying they must have more people at their rally that BNP had. They can easily arrange that. We have already heard that a special train is being hired to bring in leaders, workers and supporters from Natore to join the rally. On the other hand, when BNP was to hold their rally, local transport leaders called a strike, people were harassed, stopped and searched at every intersection, even their mobile phones were searched. Yet a special train is being hired for Awami League's rally. How will the general people view this? They will see that the government's words do not match its deeds. It has broken its promise not to be biased or discriminatory against anyone.

After Awami League went all out to ensure that the former BNP leader Ukil Abdus Sattar won in the Brahmanbaria-2 by-election, I had written in Prothom Alo online about Awami League's 'Ukil-style' by-election. Seeing the completely antipodal attitude towards the ruling party and the opposition party rallies, one can only dub this as ' Democracy, Awami League-style.'

* Sohrab Hassan is Prothom Alo's joint editor and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]

*This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir