Politics is about choosing sides
Asif Saleh

The culture of dismissing valid viewpoints as ‘partisan’ has contributed to an entire generation feeling shy about engaging with the political process

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    Photo- Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

A friend told me the other day that in Bangladesh the worst label for any public figure was “atheist,” and for an intellectual – “partisan.” This reminded me that three years ago I was going to a conference with a current talk show celebrity.  He quite proudly said that being anti-establishment sells and as a result, he will remain forever “neutral” and anti-establishment.

This is not the case in most mature democracies. In America alone, one can name a rich tradition of liberals from John Kenneth Galbraith to Samantha Powers, who made their name in academics and then served for Democratic presidents. Columnists on opposite poles – from Krauthammer to Krugman – also wear their political colours on their sleeves without compromising their credibility.

In Bangladesh, one has become trained to reflexively regard non-partisan as a pre-condition for anything that is objective. What’s worse is that positions that may be objectively defensible can also be used to label a person as partisan, if it is seen to benefit or inconvenience one party more than another.

People are more anxious to maintain their putative “neutrality” than to argue for beliefs or ideas. This culture of dismissing valid viewpoints as “partisan” has contributed to an entire generation feeling shy about engaging with the political process.

As Bangladesh erupts into unprecedented violence, ignoring that there are vital differences between the two parties is no longer either innocent or harmless.

Politicians, incredibly enough, too play a role in development

The categorical denial of any contributions by politicians or either party serves to de-legitimise the entire political process. The formula goes that they are both corrupt, both incompetent.

The two parties are indeed similar in certain key respects. They are both ruled by two families. The leaders enjoy absolute power within their respective parties – which is not the case in healthy democracies. They both depend on cadres who are notorious for running extortion and tender rackets when their side is in power. Both have ministers or MPs who have been known – if not always caught or proven – to be corrupt.

All that may be true, but it is during the alternating tenure of these very politicians that Bangladesh has gone on to overtake both India and Pakistan in a dozen critical social and human development markers. Since the advent of democracy in the country, income has nearly quadrupled in PPP terms. Life expectancy has increased by 10 years and infant mortality dropped by 60%. Maternal deaths have dropped to one-fourth the levels. To achieve all this in an incredibly populous, small and resource constrained country is no mean task.

Macro-economic policies set by them, and sustained even when it came from the other party, has been critical in enabling this development along with the work of the NGOs. Compared to many countries with which Bangladesh once kept company, these leaders did a better job of committing public spending for key areas.

At the grassroots level, if one spent a day with a upazila or union chairman, they would never need to take a conflict resolution training in future. It is easy to dismiss the entire lot as “thugs” but the reality is that they too fulfil a crucial role that us, the elites, will not and more importantly cannot.  If it were not for the daily work of these “conflict negotiators” the country would be a lot less peaceful and development thwarted.

Media everywhere focuses on negatives, political and otherwise. When a road or bridge or fly-over is completed, it’s headline for a day. But scandals make the headline for weeks and months. That is the nature of media everywhere and stokes anti-incumbency in a way that’s built into coverage styles. But there must be a balancing, evidence driven view somewhere that gives citizens reason to stay engaged with politics and policies. And information with which to do so.

The information, the way its presented in major dailies most times, paints a rather grim picture of our public officials and representatives which is somewhat of a partial picture. So, let’s talk politics.

 The two are not the ‘same’ – and differences matter

The kind of democratic debate I would like to see renewed and legitimised will have to wait till we can get to an all-party polls again. Meantime, we have a crisis of democracy. Yes, this too is a fault mainly of the two parties – and a serious one at that. But even a durable solution, right now, has to involve the two parties. We need to hold AL responsible for showing sincerity in its offer to compromise and similarly hold BNP responsible for reneging violence and engaging with a process of negotiation.

Currently, the blame is shifting towards AL for not holding an inclusive election. But is the government alone responsible for bringing us to a ludicrous poll like the one about to take place on January 5? Why did BNP refuse to engage in negotiations in an open and sensible manner for so long?

We must neither play the game of blaming only one side, as partisans will do, or blame both sides, as false neutrals like to do. Real political discourse is about apportioning of duties and blames in a precise and justified manner. The importance of such exact accounting has hit home for me after reading a recent commentary in a leading English daily, which contends: “If these deaths are to be laid at the door of the opposition, so must it be laid at the door of the government and the ruling party.”

We understand that both parties are to blame for the political impasse. But the specific wave of violence unleashed by Jamaat, and condoned by BNP, this too is AL’s fault?

AL lived out of power for 21 years from 1975-1996. I doubt if at any point did it subject law enforcers or ordinary citizens to such outlandish violence because it was not getting its way.

Laying the blame of the recent violence – with the even-handedness of self-proclaimed neutrals – is worse than wrong; it is a deliberate misdirection of the public.

One has to ask why BNP is talking now on premises today that it rejected outright just a few weeks ago? If they were going to engage on these very premises, why the delay that put the constitution in jeopardy and, worst of all, why this wanton violence in the intervening period?

In a parliamentary democracy, the opposition is as responsible as the governing party to uphold the constitution. In any society, a mainstream party is expected not to inflict violence on citizens. On both counts, BNP has been less than responsible and downright reckless.

And labelling such contentions as “partisan” is also the kind of intellectual cop-out or bullying that should be resisted. One should counter such arguments with counter facts and logic, but not with ad hominem attacks – least of all the partisan tag.

This time is different

This country has seen many political movements. Let’s take the two biggest movements of the post-democratic era – 1996 and 2006 – both led by AL, when positions were reversed. During those election years, political killing stayed at few dozen. What’s also important is when and how those lives were lost. Most of the deaths occurred during clashes with police or political rivals in pre-designated times and sites of action. Consequently, the dead were mostly political workers of different parties and police. Any civilians happened to be tragic by-standers – wrong place, wrong time.

No one wants even the kind of violence we have seen during past election years. But within the context of our political realities, one understands a political worker dying in the middle of severe clashes with rival activists or cops. It is not a death we want to accept, but it is one we can fathom.

What we cannot fathom this time is either the scale or, especially, the nature of the violence. Death toll this year has crossed into the hundreds. Only the number of innocent civilians burnt by petrol bombs or cocktails has crossed hundred.

These attacks are marked by two features wholly unprecedented in our long history of struggles: a) targeted attacks and killings of political leaders and workers, and law enforcers, and b) attacks on civilians. Never before in our history, there has been a political movement which has been so anti-poor and anti-democratic.

On winning the 2001 elections, BNP-Jamaat went on a rampage against the minority Hindus and opposition activists. In the years that followed, one saw the rise of terrorist groups like Bangla Bhai and JMB, Huji and a few others. One saw bomb attacks that left the former Finance Minister SAMS Kibria dead and the British high commissioner injured.

One saw an attempt on the life of the poet Shamsur Rahman, and also on progressive thinker Humayun Azad. A grenade attack in 2004 targeted the entire leadership of Awami League that left senior leaders dead. Sheikh Hasina survived narrowly.

The very political Islam BNP once used as a tool has gone out of its control. The curbing of terror began during the Emergency of 2007-08 and continued even more strongly during this past tenure of Awami League. Thus to impute that all this violence is mainly – and unavoidably – due to electoral impasse is plain wrong.

This is, however, exactly what the article from the English daily did. It asks if it wasn’t Sheikh Hasina who “re-opened the settled question of the caretaker government” and goes on to suggest that that is the prime cause of the recent violence.

Arguably, it is this sort of argument that has also led the international community to support, virtually and perhaps inadvertently, the defeated side of ’71, who again are killing our own people now. Those who are meddling too can be found guilty of a false even-handedness. The US cannot refuse to talk to Hamas but receive Jamaat leaders in Congressional or State department offices.

Terror cannot be a primary concern when it comes to the US and a side issue when it comes to Bangladesh. If the US and the international community want us to take international terror seriously, then they must take terror in our land seriously too and condemn it outright and support any government efforts that  fight it. Keeping silent for fear of offending one party is unseemly. Either don’t get involved, or if you do so, then do it in a manner that respects the safety and dignity of the people of this land.

What that line of thinking leaves out is that the only peaceful hand-over of power from an elected government that occurred in our history was in 2001. That happened because AL handed over power to a caretaker as it was supposed to. BNP rewarded that with a communal carnage and AL never received any credit from the civic crew that was so influential during the last Emergency for its relatively better attempts at playing by the rules of our democracy. It is not inconceivable to think why AL refused to maintain a system which has been abused by others and served it so badly?

Choosing sides: Is it necessary?

Both parties leave much, much to be desired. They are similar in certain respects. But they are different too in crucial aspects. And have become more so since 2001.

One cannot ignore this government’s serious failings. Its greatest failure has been in the financial sector. It should have reined in the bull-run of a patently over-heated market a lot sooner. It should have caught and curbed the bank scams sooner. Lack of control over its student wing has hurt it greatly and rightly so. The Bishwajit murder remains the ultimate symbol of their excess (though the verdict in that case marks a measure of self-correction on AL’s part whose equivalent can’t be found in the terror-filled last tenure of BNP).

Despite all its faults, AL is the only political force here who can and will – despite occasional mis-steps – stick to the founding principles of our country. It is inconceivable, especially after Khaleda Zia’s appalling silence over the Pakistani parliament’s gross audacity, that BNP will continue the war crimes trials. People who say that the trials are causing too much trouble are basically advocating that we  are held hostage to violence.

There is a lot of deliberate obfuscation that goes on in any political culture. In ours some of the critical ones take the form of equating non-partisan with neutral, and neutral with objective. More specifically blaming the scrapping of the caretaker system for the violence – not just the impasse – is another egregious misdirection.

To say that trials of a better standard may have obviated Jamaati violence is the most ludicrous of the specious new contentions. To lay the full blame of an admittedly empty election – that achieves nothing but the technical sanctity of the constitution – on the government alone too is a false judgment that’s easy to sell. And finally, to say that asking BNP to leave Jamaat and its violence is a “partisan” demand is absurd.

All of this we feel can be said objectively, even if it seems to favour one party over another. Besides, there are issues on which “neutrality” is not a viable or moral option. Razakars in 1971 were not necessarily malevolent people. They were scared to take sides, they wanted the safety of not having to choose. Making any kind of excuse for Jamaat’s violence is to fail a much smaller test.

There is a crisis in democracy today which is hurting the national interest and jeopardising the lives of the most average citizens. Rather than generically blaming “politics” and “democracy,” one must appropriate responsibility where it is due. We cannot but blame BNP for keeping company with Jamaat for so many years, not just because of its role in ’71 but especially after it has opened attacks on our country and people again.

We will hold AL responsible too for stating clear and convincing terms for an interim government – along with transfer of prime ministerial powers in election times to other ministries or to the EC to have level playing field for all parties. AL must offer terms that it would accept when it is in opposition someday. It must also assure the opposition and voters of new polls as soon as BNP calls off the violence and agrees to the terms of an interim government deemed reasonable by most citizens. These are all calls one can and should make without the fear of being labelled “partisan” or the false prestige of being “neutral.”

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Asif Saleh

Asif Saleh is a freelance contributor.