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Thursday, December 2, 2021


Redeeming secular pride


Any analysis of the polls show that Bangladeshis have little appetite for radical Islam or the country harbouring terror
TSI | Issue Dated: January 18, 2009
Tags : radical Islam | Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League; Begum Khaleda Zia | Bangladesh National Party | Hossein Mohammed Ershad | Jatiya Party | Islamist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami | nationalist party | rightist political agenda | centrist economic posturing | Sheikh Mujibur Rehman | Major General Zia ur Rehman | secularist jargon | left-of-centre political leanings | military dictator | hobnobbing | deviant Bangladesh | Saudi Arabia | war criminals | anti-independence collaborators | grand alliance | absolute majority | inglorious comedown | torrid plight | Rapid Action Battalion | auxiliary forces | Chief Election Commissioner | ATM Shamsul Huda | Tarique Rahman | Anti-Corruption Commission | Hassan Mashhud Chowdhury | war criminals | microcosm | ASM Hannan Shah | fundamentalism | psephologist | Dhaka University | Rashed Khan Mennon | Worker's Party | Students Union | Habib un Nobi Khan Shoel | liberation movement | Pabna-1 | Mothiur Rahman Nizami | Shamsul Haque | Ain O Salish Kendra |
Redeeming secular pride Imagine being asked to judge a chess game wherein all the moves have been reversed. Imagine rooks moving diagonally and bishops doing two-and-a-half moves. Then imagine being asked to judge that game! Analysing the Bangladesh elections from the sidelines feels pretty much the same!

To start with, there are four key political players in Bangladesh today. The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League; Begum Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh National Party (BNP); former dictator Hossein Mohammed Ershad's Jatiya Party (JP); and the Islamist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI). Up to this point it is simple. The complexities emerge only when you try to fathom the ideological and political positions of these parties. Here is an example: Awami League (AL) – a nationalist party which played a central role in securing Bangladesh's independence – started out with a rightist political agenda and centrist economic posturing. Its strength lay in the villages and among rickshaw-pullers in the city. It was a party of the common man, and its demeanour, as also that of its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, reflected much the same. But the AL of today is a party of elites. Its major strength lies in the cities and posh colonies; and to a considerable extent among the minorities. While it has turned far-right on the economic front, it has tilted considerably leftward on the political front. Its relationship with rickshaw-pullers now is limited to its leaders taking a rickshaw ride in crowded Old Dhaka gullies.

The BNP had its roots in the army, whose ethos and style it initially mirrored. Its leader, Major General Zia ur Rehman, was a suave military man whose strength came from the army elite and posh areas of Dhaka and other cities, its leaders drawn from the upwardly mobile, including the minorities. Mouthing secularist jargon, it sought hard to emphasise its left-of-centre political leanings. But today it is the BNP that talks about rickshaw-pullers, though its ideology has veered dangerously towards the right and its present strength lies entirely in villages.

Ershad was a military dictator – hated and despised when he ruled. Upwardly mobile urban Bangladeshis felt embarrassed talking about him, which is precisely why his party took up the cause of farmers. He drifted so frequently from left to right and to left again that he gave a whole new meaning to the military drill: left-right-left. Before striking an alliance with AL in this election, he was hobnobbing with BNP for long. The man who talked about the cause of farmers ended up contesting from Dhaka-17, the most posh constituency in entire Bangladesh.

The fourth party, the Jamaat-e-Islami initially opposed Bangladesh's independence. Thought to be a party of morally upright people in a "deviant Bangladesh", its major financial support comes from protecting smugglers on the India-Bangladesh border, and aid from Saudi Arabia. In Bangladesh, it is snigerred at as the party of "war criminals" and "anti-independence collaborators". It stitched up an alliance with the BNP, whose founder was a war hero of the freedom struggle.

Now take another deep breath, do your math well, and you will discover how difficult it is to break this maze. I managed only because I am paid to do so. But the results of Bangladesh elections, thankfully, were not complex. It was a landslide victory for the Sheikh Hasina-led AL and her Mahajote (grand alliance). The AL won an absolute majority, with 231 seats in a 300-seat Parliament; it had secured only 62 seats in earlier elections. The BNP, by contrast, could manage just 27 seats – an inglorious comedown from its previous tally of 193. Helped along by its alliance, the Awami Leauge secured 263 seats, while the BNP's alliance secured a paltry 30 seats. Redeeming secular pride The verdict was thus an endorsement of the Awami League's vision and policies, and a massive rejection of the BNP's agenda. But both of the foremost candidates – former prime ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina – are facing graft charges, and many fear that the election will not alter the torrid plight of the impoverished nation of 150 million. The two have traded power back and forth for 15 years. Zia was elected premier in 1991, Hasina in 1996, and Zia again in 2001 – throwing up a familiar pattern: one party wins the election, and the other spends the term leading strikes and protests.

Earlier, in the run-up to the polls, the authorities had deployed over 50,000 troops, 75,000 police and 6,000 members of its elite Rapid Action Battalion along with other auxiliary forces across the country to prevent violence and vote fraud. For in this country, with its history of military rule and political unrest, elections have invariably been scarred by fraud and violence, and party supporters have habitually taken to the streets before the elections. But this time, it was refreshingly different. Well over 200,000 local and 2,000 foreign observers were at the polling centres to check procedures. For the first time ever, anti-cheating measures like photo ID cards and voting lists with the picture of the voter (something that practically no western democracy has been able to do yet), for the 81 million voters were put in place. This clean-up kept almost 1.2 million bogus voters out of the booths. As Chief Election Commissioner ATM Shamsul Huda, who was among those voting in the capital's posh Gulshan II polling station, told TSI: "All these measures ensured that the elections were free and fair."

Muchof the credit goes to the caretaker government and the Election Commission, which left nothing to chance. And the first hint of this came when the government arrested Khaleda Zia's son, Tarique Rahman, who for many Bangladeshis embodies everything that is wrong with the winner-takes-all political culture.

Before the polls the government tried to drive both party leaders into exile; and when that failed, had them arrested on corruption charges, sending a clear message that none was above law. "We left no stone unturned to make these the country's most memorable polls," beamed the head of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Hassan Mashhud Chowdhury.

The massive voter turnout of 81 per cent showed that Bangladeshis were voting for complete change. Said Samsil Qadir, a rickshaw-puller at the Shantipura polling station: "I came here right in the morning, for I wanted to be the first to vote. This election will bring change. For me price rise is the issue." High prices of the essential goods was indeed one of the hot issues in the run up to the elections. However, the burning issue was trial of “war criminals”. People were incensed with the BNP for allying with the Jamaat, which well and truly did the party in. Srabanti Burman, a woman from the minority community, was vocal about her preference. "AL is the party I'll vote for. War criminals and collaborators should be brought to book," she demanded. Redeeming secular pride To understand why voters voted as they did, it is important to analyse three key constituencies, which, we can say, are the microcosm of Bangladesh: Dhaka-8, Dhaka-17 and Pabna-1. Dhaka-17 comprise the poshest colonies in Bangladesh, including Gulshan I, GulshanII and Baridhara. Most of the voters belong to upwardly mobile category and despise and hindrance to their day to day life, including elections. And though they hate military despots, it was the AL-led coalition's candidate, Ershad, an erstwhile military dictator and president of Jatiya Party, who trounced Brgd (Retd) ASM Hannan Shah of BNP. It surprised many that Ershad, who had promoted farmers' rights, won from an elite seat. It was almost impossible for BNP to loose this seat. Thus, these elections threw up a remarkable new trend: while AL's coalition partners heavily benefited from the pro-AL wave, the BNP's ally – Jamaat – was instrumental in pulling it down. Clearly, then, the twin threats from fundamentalism and terrorism helped AL in no small measure.

Yet another issue that helped AL was delimitation. In past elections, even when the BNP won, AL always had a larger share of votes. But this advantage used to be undone by the uneven distribution of those votes. But it actually consolidated AL's voters. "It helped AL in at least 50-55 seats, like wresting the BNP bastion, Dhaka," says psephologist S Ahamed.

The Dhaka-8 seat saw an interesting fight. This seat includes Dhaka University, with a large number of youngsters, voting for the first time. These notun (new) voters, as they are called, had two choices. That was between Rashed Khan Mennon, 65,of the left wing Worker's Party, an ally of AL; and BNP youth leader and erstwhile Dhaka University Students Union president Habib un Nobi Khan Shoel.

Both logic and logistics favoured the latter. Shoel was a young student leader. His rival was a communist old guard who had seldom won in the past. But here too the result was unexpected. Mennon stunned Shoel by more than 35,000 votes. The issue that worked here was trial of "war criminals", most of them from the Jamaat, BNP's ally.

First timers formed 31 per cent of the electorate this time. And the AL played its cards deftly. The polls, significantly, were held in December – the month Bangladesh won its independence in 1971. This is when television channels play videos celebrating the liberation movement and denouncing "war criminals"; and this practically sank Jammat, and by extension, BNP. The third important seat was Pabna-1. Typical of border districts of Bangladesh, it is a Jamaat bastion, but also has a large number of minority and upwardly mobile voters. The fight here saw Mothiur Rahman Nizami, Jamaat head, or Aamir, pitted against Shamsul Haque of AL. The Jamaat had tried hard to incite the people, claiming that an AL win would mean a sell-out to India and the Hindus. But its virulent campaign, built around the Islam-is-in-danger theme ("masjide ulu dhoni"), fell flat. As a result, Nizami lost by nearly 23,000 votes. The majority of Bangladeshis were unhappy that their country was being branded as a terrorist state – and all due to a few rabid fundamentalists. There was no surprise, therefore, that Jamaat got such a sound drubbing – winning just two seats. Says Naeem Mohaiemen, an expert on minorities at the Ain O Salish Kendra: "Bangladesh always had a reason to vote for secularism. In the 50s it was against imposition of a foreign language. In the 70s it was against Pak. This time, it was brand image correction." And the Awami League must take this to heart. One misstep – and all its present euphoria might well melt into nothing, plunging the country into crisis.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017