I am one of those many who consider the so-called election of January 5 to be an utter farce, and the government legitimated by it to be little more than an autocracy whose absolutist tendencies get stronger by the passing day. Thus believing, however, does not make the said government non-existent. What makes the government even less likely to feel the pressure that it should have is the lack of an alternative.
With all due respect to the main opposition BNP, it simply has failed to make a case as to what it brings to the table. Sure, all those nice words and beautiful slogans in manifestoes differentiate in the rhetorical; in the practical, there is little to suggest that the BNP is a credible alternative to the ruling regime today.
This was not always the case and certainly need not be today, for the BNP does enjoy a level of support similar to the ruling party, or even exceeding it if independent polls are to be trusted, and has its own “base” of constituents.
In perhaps the only pithy and concise description of the different types of the Bangladeshi voter, the editor of this newspaper pointed out a couple of years ago that the BNP was the natural home of at least two types of people: The economic growth oriented entrepreneur types, and the cosmopolitan modernists.
As an observer, and former teacher and practitioner of politics, I could not agree more. The problem is that today’s BNP has little to offer either of these two core constituencies that the ruling party does not. Is that one of the many reasons that its continued and well-warranted anti-regime agitation since last winter has, to put it charitably, made a very limited impact?
That was not always the case. In fact, in BNP’s first term after the fall of the Ershad regime, several major policy initiatives catered directly to its base: The opening to the world via cable channels, reintroduction of English-medium instruction for national school leaving examinations, permission for nonpublic universities, normalization of agriculture subsidies, and modernizing the trade payments system come to mind immediately. Governments after that have adopted and built on these pioneering measures to a large extent. But that was then. What about now?
As countries slowly move up the economic reform ladder, it is only inevitable that their more educated populations turn their attention to social and political reform. Unfortunately, the main opposition party has simply been absent in this area and, thus, provided no alternative to the things that are. Criticizing the corruption and absolutism of the ruling regime is fine, but hardly more than a “we will be less corrupt and less tyrannical” plea which falls on the unreceptive ears of a people who are hankering for some political calm after a volatile winter.
Put it bluntly, the case of “We are not them” is not persuasive to people in Bangladesh or to friends abroad, and the failure of the former prime minister to make development partners lean more heavily on behalf of free elections perhaps illustrates the latter point quite well. Free elections are a sine qua non in a democracy; but the case for those elections could have been much more persuasive in real life had the public-local and foreign-been convinced that it was not simply an argument for the Chhatra Dal to be given the exclusive contract on tyranny in the university dormitories as opposed to the BCL.
It is a tragedy of monumental proportions for Bangladesh’s stunted democratic progress that months after the travesty of the January 5 elections, the main opposition has yet to articulate a case for itself to its own core constituency. Frankly, the historical rehash of the “who said what in 1971” impresses nobody except the ideological purists and personality cultists. Instead of whether Shaheed Ziaur Rahman was the first president or not, it would have made more sense to hear if his party would be the first one to openly pledge a detailed proposal, under public oath, to institute independent, non-partisan, constitutionally protected supervisory bodies for overseeing the police and electoral systems.
Far more credible would have been a benchmarked undertaking to get rid of party based affiliations in student bodies, professional associations, and labour unions. The BNP economic team could have been seen as the “other option” had it come up with an iron-clad proposal to privatize Biman, legalize PayPal, and remove tariffs in the tourism sector. These and many other policy alternatives would have established the BNP as the legitimate centre-right option in Bangladeshi politics. More importantly, they would have given its core supporters something to risk their freedom and lives for in a country where, increasingly, dissent is being met with the brute force of the police, judicial, and extra-judicial machinery of a one-party state.
As of this date, the BNP is yet to offer that crucial alternative agenda for Bangladesh that can make it something more than “we are not them” party. We know that the BNP is fighting against an absolutist regime that just pulled off several rounds of utterly rigged jokes of elections. The question is, what is it fighting for?
Esam Sohail is an educational research analyst and college lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune, a Bangladeshi publication.