Minus-two formula

Print edition : August 10, 2007

The caretaker governments decision to keep the Begums away may open a new chapter of confrontational politics in Bangladesh.


The police escorting Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina to a court in Dhaka, after arresting her on the morning of July 16.-PICTURES: ABU TAHER KHOKON/AP

FOR 16 years since General H.M. Ershad was ousted from power, the military in Bangladesh has stayed out of politics. But on January 11 this year, it backed a civilian caretaker government to replace a puppet administration headed by President Iajuddin Ahmed. (Ahmed took over from Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP, whose five-year term ended last October, to oversee the elections scheduled in January. He stepped down amid political crisis after the opposition Awami League pulled out of the elections.) A state of emergency was declared and a new caretaker government, led by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former Governor of the nations central bank, was sworn in.

Never before had a military-backed government in the country got as much popular support as the Fakhruddin government. Its task was to conduct credible parliamentary elections by creating a level playing field and hand over power to an elected government. But it fixed a higher agenda for itself: to flush out crime and corruption, which had bedevilled the countrys political culture.

The Army-led joint forces cracked down on corrupt politicians and their business and bureaucratic beneficiaries. Many who turned billionaires during the last five years of BNP-Jamaat rule, including Khaleda Zias son Tarique Rahman, were caught. The liberal political camp, known as pro-liberation, led by Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, was not just happy that the caretaker government had stalled the controversial election of January 22, but also that the semi-fundamentalist repressive regime of Khaleda Zia was at the receiving end.

The smile did not last long. Hasina, who was willing to ratify many actions of the interim government, spoke out against delaying the elections for 18 months until the preparation of a new electoral roll. She became vehement in her criticism of the government following a graft case filed against her by a businessman when she was on a tour of the United States in April. The government tried to prevent her homecoming. She returned to Dhaka to a tumultuous welcome, virtually forcing the government to withdraw its ban.

Why did the government want to stop her from entering the country, especially when she was willing to face the charges against her in a court of law at home? The media trace the reason to the minus-two formula, which seeks the expulsion of the two powerful women leaders from the country. An exile plan for Khaleda Zia had reportedly been finalised and the BNP leader was only bargaining to take her arrested son with her to Saudi Arabia. But, like the first move involving Sheikh Hasina, the second one, involving Khaleda Zia, too, failed.

Sheikh Hasinas arrest on July 16 comes against this background. Political observers see the arrest, a day after the Election Commission announced its much publicised road map for elections in December 2008, as yet another move to keep Hasina out of politics. The Awami League, which is now led by its acting president Zillur Rahman, is convinced that the arrest was the result of the minus-two formula.

Sheikh Hasina, also the leader of the 14-party secular combine, was arrested on a case filed Azam J. Chowdhury on June 12; he accused her and a cousin, Sheikh Selim, of extorting over 2.99 crore taka from him. The government said she was arrested on specific charges but could not substantiate them. A few other graft cases, filed by the former Khaleda Zia government against Sheikh Hasina, too, were revived.

Sheikh Hasina was virtually confined to her Sudha Sadan residence in Dhaka before the July 16 arrest. One of the two surviving daughters of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the architect of Bangladeshs independence, she was initially supportive of the caretaker governments anti-corruption drive, but she changed her stance following the abrupt restriction on her homecoming. Again, the government imposed restrictions on her going to the U.S. to visit her daughter and arrested a few key party leaders close to her.

The manner in which a 1,000-strong posse of police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) cordoned off her house to arrest her, produced her in court early in the morning and finally put her in a sub-jail has raised several questions about the governments motive. This military-driven government can call this a part of its anti-corruption drive if it wants, but it has become clear that this is nothing short of political harassment, wrote the New Age daily. Another newspaper, The Daily Star, remarked that the arrest of the Awami League chief only made the future of democratic governance murkier than it already was.

Indications are that Khaleda Zia, too, may meet with the same fate; a court has summoned her in an income tax return case. Both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who had been under virtual government restrictions for weeks, were given seven days to summit their wealth reports.

Supporters of the two Begums have alleged that the government is backing a few leaders directly or indirectly to lead its much touted reform process. Recently, Sheikh Hasina blasted the government for using intelligence agencies to torture detained political leaders and plotting to break up established political parties. It cannot be accepted that intelligence agents in a civilised society will run the show, detain political leaders and make them say what they like to hear, she said in reference to the ongoing political developments.

Most people are in favour of reforms, but they fear that dictatorial means used to bring them about will only do more harm than good. The arrest of Sheikh Hasina may therefore present new challenges to the governments reform plan.

Meanwhile, many would probably agree that the BNP, a conglomeration of rightists, fundamentalists and disgruntled communists, could do with some reform within. In power from 2001 to 2006, it is said to have indulged in the worst cases of corruption and crime. Its secretary-general and former Minister Abdul Mannan Bhuyan leads a strong group called reformists in the party. With the powers of the BNP chairperson curtailed, the reformists can now work more effectively. But many eyebrows are raised when those who blindly endorsed Khaleda Zia and her sons dictates for years are seen as having turned reformists overnight.

Like these reformists, four senior leaders in the Awami League Amir Hussain Amu, Abdur Razzak, Tofael Ahmed and Suranjit Sen Gupta too want the arbitrary powers of their party chief curtailed, dynastic succession ended, inner-party democracy introduced and the corruption purged. They have expressed their concern over several issues, especially some controversial actions of Sheikh Hasina such as the signing of a deal with the fundamentalist Khilafat Majlish that risked the secular foundation of the party. Adding to her worries, the partys general secretary, Abdul Jalil, who was arrested by the joint forces, reportedly told investigators that Sheikh Hasina exercised absolute powers and black-money holders got the ticket to elections easily.

She told journalists the government actions appeared to be against politics, not against corruption. I have not done any wrong, nor my family truth will prevail, she said.

There are also unconfirmed reports in the media of confessional statements by arrested leaders on the corruption of the two women leaders. Political observers are of the opinion that while initially the challenge before Khaleda Zia was thought to be bigger, in the final analysis Sheikh Hasina too is in an unprecedented crisis. Though she lent support to the caretaker government, Sheikh Hasina was always vocal in demanding early elections. Without an elected government, there is no transparency and accountability. And without transparency and accountability, poverty and corruption, the twin enemies of the country, cannot be eradicated, she asserted.

In Dhaka, an Awami League protest against the arrest of Sheikh Hasina.-

The caretaker government apparently wants to impose a new kind of democracy that would be flawless. Flawless democracy remaining a myth, people fear that in the process multi-party democracy may suffer. A question being debated is if all major political parties are split who will fill the void? In March, the caretaker government hanged six militants of the Islamist Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh. However, the names of their political mentors or funding sources remain undisclosed. Secular quarters allege that the only party getting immunity from the ongoing reforms is the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, widely perceived as the mother of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh. It is not unlikely that Jamaat will emerge as the countrys biggest political force.

Also in the offing is a new political party, which many commentators brand as the Kings Party. Government leaders denied any hand in its formation, but welcomed a transformation for good. Earlier, the idea of a new political party was floated by the Nobel laureate, Mohammed Yunus, who supports reforms, but it died before it was born.

The Chief of the Army Staff, General Moeen U. Ahmed, has declared that the armed forces were only assisting the civilian government and would not take over power. In his first public statement since the proclamation of emergency, he said that Bangladesh needed efficient and honest politicians to take the country forward and that the current crop of politicians do not understand anything beyond their self-interest.

He said categorically: We do not want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption in society becomes all-pervasive, governance suffers in terms of insecurity and violation of rights, and where political criminalisation threatens the very survival and integrity of the state. Moeen is now more visible than before, addressing a civilian function at one place or lecturing at another.

There is hardly any debate required on whether democracy or unconditional rule is better. Despite rivalries and bitter confrontational politics, the country has seen accelerated economic growth under political leaderships from 1991 to 2006. Statistics indicate that the political period has surpassed the period of military rule, from 1975 through 1990, in all macroeconomic record of achievements.

The overall gross domestic product during democracy grew by 5.1 per cent annually on average, but during authoritarian rule the growth rate was 3.2 per cent. Democratic rule also helped a free press and private television channels to grow, and spurred a telecommunications revolution.

In the 36 years of independence, non-democratic governments ran the affairs of Bangladesh for about sixteen and a half consecutive years. It is during this time that institutions of governance were destroyed and corruption became rampant.

No doubt, the caretaker government has taken many commendable steps: it reconstituted the highly partisan Election Commission, initiated electoral reforms by correcting the manipulated voter list, and made moves to reform all national institutions that were made partisan by the Khaleda Zia regime. One of the convicted killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was brought back home as the U.S. extradited him on charge of staying there illegally.

It also declared a road map for elections, but did not lift the emergency or allow a democratic culture to develop. The reform plan will face its real test when political and fundamental rights are restored. In a significant political step, the Awami League, the largest grassroots organisation, has decided to suspend all its activities in support of the governments political reform until its party chief is unconditionally released.

Bangladesh is now in the midst of a crucial transition where free political culture will either be cemented or be demolished. As the military-backed government undertakes firm steps to ensure political reforms, the debate is on what the future holds clean multiparty politics or a guided democracy.

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