No lobbyist to speak for the people

Over the past two weeks, the issue of appointing lobbyists has been the talk of the town in Bangladesh. Almost every single day the leaders of Awami League and BNP clash verbally over who has appointed lobbyists, how much they paid, what has the outcome of the lobbying been, where did the funds come from to pay the lobbyists, and so on.

In the meantime there have been contradictory comments too over a statement by US Congressman and chairman of the house committee on foreign affairs Gregory W Meeks. BSS reported that while speaking at a fund raiser on Monday in Queens, New York, he had said they do not want to place any sanctions on Bangladesh. The daily Manabzamin however uploaded a video clip of his statement translated into Bangla. This revealed this Congressman gave no such assurance . On the contrary, he said he wanted to visit Bangladesh to see the actual situation. He will gather information from the new US ambassador going to Bangladesh and will listen to all quarters. He will then present his views on Bangladesh. Meeks also said they want to closely monitor the 2023 election.

The debate over appointing lobbyists, in all likelihood, will drag on till the 2023 election. The ministers contend that BNP hired lobbyists to conspire against the government and the government hire lobbyists to foil that conspiracy. BNP, in turn, says that they had brought to the attention of the development partners the manner in which the government has repressing people’s democratic rights, destroying the election system, killing and abducting opposition leaders and workers and so on.

The people feature nowhere in this debate over the appointment of lobbyists. It seems as if our political leaders are accountable to foreigners. Whichever party comes to power, they imagine that is the manifestation of their permanent popularity.

Awami League and other opposition parties had strongly opposed the ICT Act enacted during the BNP government. Then when Awami League came to power, it simply consolidated that law further

Article 7 (1) of the constitution states that ‘All powers in the Republic belong to the people, and their exercise on behalf of the people shall be effected only under, and by the authority of, this Constitution.” And Article 7 (2) continues, ‘This Constitution is, as the solemn expression of the will of the people, the supreme law of the Republic, and if any other law is inconsistent with this Constitution, that other law shall, to the extent of inconsistency, be void.’

An analysis of this article of the constitution brings to attention two factors. One, the republic belongs to the people, not to any political party or group. The country will be run by whom the people chose. The question is how the choice of the people will be determined. This is to be done through a free and fair election where the voters will be able to freely exercise their right of franchise, not in the style of the Nurul Huda commission voting. Therein lies the beginning and the end of our political problems.

Article 7 (2) then says that the constitution is the supreme law of the republic. There can be no moving away from this. Let those who were in power in the past and those who are in power now place their hands on over their hearts and swear that they have never come up with any law that curbed the constitutionally recognised fundamental rights of the people. What is a black law at one point of time, cannot become a good law at another point of time.

Awami League and other opposition parties had strongly opposed the ICT Act enacted during the BNP government. Then when Awami League came to power, it simply consolidated that law further. Then we watched in awe how the Digital Security Act of 2018 snatched away much more than given by the Right to Information Act.

The BNP government had come up with the indemnity act to indemnify the extrajudicial killings carried out under Operation Cleanheart. But over the past 13 years that Awami League has been in power, have those killings been halted? They have not and that is why the US has imposes the sanctions on seven former and current officials of RAB. That is why the retired army major Sinha Md Rashed Khan, the Teknaf pourashava councilor Ikramul Huq and so many others have had to give their lives in “gunfights”. The narrative of these “gunfights” are almost identical.

Now if anyone criticizes these extrajudicial killings or enforced disappearances, will that be a conspiracy against the country or justified criticism of the government? Under pressure from many quarters, former OC of the Teknaf police station Pradip Kumar Das and his associate Liaqat have been sentenced to hanging for the killing of Sinha. But what about the other 143 killings in “gunfights” in the name of the anti-narcotics drive when he was posted there?

Awami League’s leaders and workers are self-contradictory in their speech. On the one hand they say that BNP has been rejected by the people. It has links with fundamentalists and extremists and also has no friends on the international scene. On the other hand they claim that BNP’s propaganda has led to the sanctions against the seven senior RAB men, former and incumbent.

The government and the opposition both do politics in the name of the people, but have no lobbyists to speak for the people. They do not trust the people. They trust the foreigners

Anyone with a minimum understanding of the US administrative system, cannot make such claims. In an interview with Prothom Alo, professor of political science and researcher Dr Ali Riaz said, the US will not impose sanctions on anyone simply if any political party or persons makes a complaint, nor will it change its decision no matter how many millions of taka is spent on lobbyists.

No matter how different the statements and speeches of their leaders may be, there is not much of a difference between the governance of Awami League and that of BNP. No matter how much they castigate each other, they blatantly emulate each other when to come to their methods of governance. The BNP government relied on the administration and the law enforcement agencies in running the government, rather than on the views of the people. Things have not changed an iota since Awami League came to power. In fact, it is worse.

We claim to be a democratic state. In a democratic system, the government will go to the people with whatever they have to say. They will apprise the people of the progress made in implementing the pledges they had made. If the government struggles to take any programme ahead, they must inform the people of that too. And while the opposition will inform the people of the repression and oppression they face from the government, the cases and the harassment, they will also highlight their future plans of action. That is democratic practice. In developed democracies, those in power take into cognizance the criticism made by the civil society and the media and try to rectify themselves. But in our country the government cannot tolerate criticism at all. To them criticism means conspiracy.

When a distance is created with the people, it then that the government hires lobbyists to silence the “propaganda” of the opposition. It is this distance from the people that made the ruling coteries apprehensive about the elections from two years ago. The government and the opposition both do politics in the name of the people, but have no lobbyists to speak for the people. They do not trust the people. They trust the foreigners.

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