Bangladesh’s tenuous links with democracy

Despite economic progress and considerable success in the improvement of a range of social indicators, consolidation of democracy in Bangladesh has remained quite elusive.

This week, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) announced that it would not participate in the forthcoming national elections, thereby creating a potential political deadlock. This decision to boycott the polls has come in the wake of a series of violent clashes between the BNP and the Awami League (AL) supporters, strikes and violent demonstrations. Against this backdrop, it is difficult, at this stage, to tell if this announcement was mere political grandstanding or not. Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not this amounts to political theatre and little else, it exemplifies a fundamental problem with the country’s democracy.

Hasina-KhaledaParliamentary democracy was restored to Bangladesh in 1991 under Begum Khaleda Zia of the BNP. However, since then, despite economic progress and considerable success in the improvement of a range of social indicators (some of which now rival those of India), democratic consolidation has remained quite elusive. Instead, for all practical purposes, it has remained an electoral democracy lacking many of the other attributes that lead to the bolstering of democratic institutions. What explains the country’s failure to strengthen its political institutions and procedures? The answers are complex and are historically rooted.

At the outset, it needs to be recalled that until 1971, Bangladesh, the erstwhile East Pakistan, had no experience of democracy whatsoever. When the first free and fair election was ever held in Pakistan the civilian authorities in Islamabad colluded with the military, to ensure that the results of the elections were for all practical purposes annulled. This outcome, as is well known, became the catalyst for the near inevitable separation of East Pakistan and the sanguinary genesis of Bangladesh.

Sadly, despite his obvious charisma and his vast popular appeal, the father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, did not prove to be especially skilled in the art of building and sustaining institutions. Thanks to his increasingly idiosyncratic and authoritarian ways he met his tragic end in 1975 on India’s Independence Day, August 15. The military coups that followed obviously did little or nothing to promote democracy. Instead they undermined most institutions, showed scant regard for the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and consolidated presidential power.

Even after the restoration of democracy in 1991, many of the attributes of the earlier era remained in place. Ms Zia was not about to significantly curb the powers of the military, and she evinced no interest in protecting the rights of minorities and certainly did not seek to promote judicial independence and probity. Perhaps the only area which saw a steady opening was the press though some parts of it remained quite blatantly partisan.

More to the point, apart from Ms Zia’s obvious hostility toward India and her willingness to adopt a soft stance toward Pakistan, she also displayed an unremitting hostility toward her principal political opponent, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter of the assassinated Bangabandhu. Not surprisingly, Ms Wajed was unwilling to accept the role of a loyal Opposition leader. This failure to accept political defeat graciously and quietly opposing the regime in Parliament, one of the hallmarks of a functioning democracy, simply failed to take root in the country’s political culture. Instead, the AL resorted to all manner of extra-parliamentary tactics, including public demonstrations and strikes.

Of course, when the BNP regime lost power in 1996, the treatment that had been meted out to Ms Wajed became the principal source of grievance of her and her supporters against the defeated BNP. The obvious ideological differences between these parties notwithstanding, the principal source of political discord became increasingly personal. Of course, the AL’s obvious anger toward those who had shown any sympathy toward Pakistan in the 1971 crisis, some of whom happened to be closely allied to the BNP, only fed their sense of injustice. The BNP, which didn’t lack political muscle, in turn resorted to the usual array of extra-parliamentary tactics.

These practices sadly have hobbled the growth of democratic norms and procedures in the country. In the meanwhile, the quest for political vendettas seems to animate both the leadership and the rank and file of each party. Similarly, once in office, and knowing the tenuousness of its grasp on political authority, each party and its supporters seek to extract whatever spoils they can, not knowing when they may be ousted. Behaviour of this order has done little to instill greater faith in public institutions and has bred much political cynicism.

Perhaps one of the few redeeming graces of the Bangladeshi polity is that though the military has believed in keeping a watchful eye to protect its own prerogatives, it has shown little inclination to mount yet another coup. In part, their unwillingness to directly step into the political fray may stem from the realisation that a direct assault on the country’s fragile electoral democracy may lead to much international disapprobation. Such disapprobation, in fact, might even result in the termination of lucrative United Nations peacekeeping missions.

In the next few weeks perhaps key states in the international community might similarly urge the two leaders to set aside their seemingly irreconcilable differences just long enough to allow their nation to go to the polls peacefully and fairly. Any hope of democracy assuming a more meaningful role in the country demands that they do so.

 -By Sumit Ganguly, The writer holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations at Indiana University, Bloomington