A video clip of a statement made by Nagorik Oikya leader Mahmudur Rahman Manna recently went viral on social media. He is quite well reputed for his rational manner of speaking. This statement had been about a report on the recent Bangladesh visit paid by the US state department counselor Derek Chollet.
The report was of the state-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS). After a delegation led by the US state department counselor Derek Chollet paid a courtesy call on the prime minister Sheikh Hasina on 15 February, the report appeared ad verbatim on 16 February in Prothom Alo. It stated that the prime minister Sheikh Hasina said that they would govern the country if the people voted for Awami League in the next general election. She said, "I never want to come to power through vote-rigging."
After the meeting of the US delegation with the prime minister, BSS quoted her speech writer Md Nazrul Islam as saying that Sheikh Hasina had said that the next national parliamentary election will be free and fair because the election commission (EC) is completely independent. She said, "The next election will be free and fair. I have struggled for democracy my entire life." She said the first-ever EC reconstitution law was passed in parliament and then a neutral election commission was constituted on the basis of the law.
Mahmudur Rahman Manna's statement is summarised here as there is hardly space to present it in entirety. He raised the question, why did the question of vote rigging arise at that level of talks? Did Derek Chollet want to know about vote rigging? If not, then why did it have to be conveyed that Awami League did not want to come to power through a rigged election? He even mentioned the remark that created a stir, made by the immediate-past Japanese ambassador about his hearing that votes were cast the night before the election in 2018. There was much more to Manna's statement, a lot of logical arguments which, being spoken on a political platform, need not be reiterated.
Actually, the question that Mahmudur Rahman Manna didn't pose in this political statement, is no less important. That question is, since the Awami League leaders and government ministers around the year arrogantly boast, "We don't need to be taught democracy, we will not listen to lectures of the foreigners," then why are they having to reassure these foreigners? When the European ambassadors, along with the US and UK, issue statements in favour of human rights, freedom of expression and democracy, this creates a furor in the foreign ministry at Segun Bagicha and instigates a volley of criticism from the Awami League office at Bangabandhu Avenue. So why does the bridges minister Obaidul Quader have to reassure the European ambassadors about a fair election? And it is not just an assurance. On 16 February he even went and placed complaints against BNP. He told the ambassadors, "BNP is taking up various tactics in fear of defeat. It was once again planning to topple the government by resorting to arson and militancy as it had tried in 2013-14."
No matter how peaceful BNP's programmes are at present, and no matter how much they tolerate just to avoid conflict, there is not abatement of Awami League's barrage of complaints
For many decades now, the US, UK, Canada, Japan and European countries have been carrying our various integrated programmes for democracy and human rights. These countries are participants of President Joe Biden's Summit for Democracy initiative and are committed to play a role in various degrees. These countries regard Bangladesh as a hybrid democracy, where democratic institutions have become ineffective and where authoritarian propensities are a cause of concern. Before the Dhaka visit of Derek Chollet, it had been learnt that Bangladesh has yet again been dropped from President Biden's second Summit for Democracy to be held on 29-30 March. Reacting sharply, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said, "To whom have you come to teach democracy?" Why then were assurances regarding the election, an indispensible element of democracy, being made to the representative of that country's state department? And there was no insignificant amount of lobbying in the US either over the past one year. Perhaps the root cause of this anger is that, despite spending huge amounts of money, they still were not invited to the summit.
If we go back 10 months, then another question sprouts to the mind. On 4 April last year, during bilateral talks between US secretary of state Antony Blinken and foreign minister AK Abdul Momen in Washington on the occasion of 50 years of Bangladesh-US diplomatic relations, foreign minister Momen asked for US help in getting BNP to come to the election. Momen himself revealed that. He also said there must be a conviction that all political parties take part in inclusive elections. That is why it was essential for BNP to also take part in the election.
There are all sorts of ruminations about various proposals being made to bring BNP to the election. On one hand, Awami League activists keep round-the-clock vigil so that BNP cannot take up any programme to bring the country to a standstill, and on the other hand there are indications that the government might take a softer stance regarding Khaleda Zia's medical treatment or her participation in politics. It is one thing to take a decision to put up dummy candidates in various seats in the election, but quite another matter if this is announced in advance. Fielding dummy candidates is nothing new for the big parties. It seems the 'carrot and stick' method is being applied here. But the publicising of these seems to be aimed at scaring BNP. So, in context of the assurances being made to the foreigners about the election preparations and how this will be credible and legitimate, the question can justifiably be asked, has the US then taken on a mediator's role? The signs are suggestive!
A common tendency in rural 'salish' or arbitration is bringing about as many complaints as possible against the opponent. Efforts are made to put all the blame on the opponent and to indicate how more disruptive they will be in the future. No matter how peaceful BNP's programmes are at present, and no matter how much they tolerate just to avoid conflict, there is not abatement of Awami League's barrage of complaints. In fact, they are going all out to highlight apprehensions of arson and violence. The problem is, the people cannot relate this to reality. As a result, empathy towards the opposition is on the rise. The 'peace vigil' being held to counter BNP's programmes is being viewed as an instigation. And the people are fed up with the excesses being committed by Chhatra League, Jubo League and party leaders and activists all over the country.
Whether it is mediation by foreign quarters or for the sake of an inclusive election, there is no doubt about the need for political understanding. So there can be no further delay in creating an environment for understanding and for a sincere initiative to this end. And that is the expectation.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist
* This column appeared in the print an online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir