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Why the world must learn to accept Bangladesh’s imperfect democracy

File photo of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurating the Dhaka Metro (Image courtesy: All India Radio News)

Politics is heating up in Bangladesh.

With a general election expected to take place in December this year or January next year, tensions have been building up regarding the modalities of voting. That of course refers to whether or not there will be a caretaker administration in place to supervise the election. The opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has all along been demanding that the Awami League government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina resign and hand over power to an interim or election-time administration that will be empowered to conduct the election.

The problem with this demand is that the constitutional provision for a caretaker government to take over three months before a general election was scrapped by the Awami League government in 2015. The move, given democratic political tradition, was nothing amiss as the government as well as large sections of the population have believed that Bangladesh’s parliamentary form of government should be in line with the Westminster mode of politics.

In effect, a general election does not entail the departure of an incumbent government but will have the government act in a caretaker capacity till the election takes place.

This is the argument on which the ruling Awami League maintains its position – that the government does not have to resign or transfer power to a caretaker administration before the election. Besides, it has been at pains to remind the opposition that there is no scope for the caretaker system to be reintroduced in the nation’s constitution. But while the ruling party’s point about elections taking place without the incumbent government having to resign is understandable, there is the fact that the existing parliament will remain in place without its members having to resign before the voting. That does not quite go with a parliamentary system. Predictably, it has had political analysts worrying about a level playing field being ensured for all.

On a bigger scale, though, politics in Bangladesh today is stymied by the fact that two clear forces are arrayed against each other. That would be natural if not for the fact that these two forces represent two deeply differing streams of belief regarding the nation’s political and historical ideology. On the one hand is the Awami League, which provided leadership to the War of Liberation in 1971 on the basis of Bengali nationalism, a concept which was underscored by the four principles of democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism. These four principles were formally enshrined in the constitution adopted in December 1972.

On the other hand, the BNP, with its right-wing allies, has for decades attempted to rewrite history by spinning its own narrative on the 1971 struggle. It has attempted to argue that its founder, Bangladesh’s first military ruler Zia-ur Rahman, declared the nation’s independence in March 1971 (though it carefully stays away from noting that Zia made the announcement on 27 March on behalf of ‘our great leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’. Besides, prior to his arrest by the Pakistani army, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman passed on his declaration of independence by wireless to a senior Awami League leader in the port city of Chittagong in the early minutes of 26 March 1971.

The BNP has sought to supplant Bengali nationalism with the spurious idea of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’, basing it on politics that has no place for secularism and socialism. In their heyday – and that is the long period of twenty-one years (1975-1996) and five years (2001-2006), the BNP and its fellow travellers practised what essentially was a denial of history. Since it went out of office in 2006, the BNP has not reviewed or revised its position on the issue, which raises troubling questions about its politics once more.

The upshot of it all is that despite its vast majority in parliament, the ruling Awami League has never taken any measures to have the constitution go back to its fundamentals, namely, the four original principles of the state; has made no move to decree ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ a violation of the constitution and a repudiation of history and has not made the point that no political parties in the country, despite their democracy-related political programmes, should deviate from the principles enunciated in 1971 and formalised in the 1972 constitution.

It is perhaps one of those rare moments in the history of global democratic politics that a nation, deeply divided between the forces of history and elements denying that history, are engaged in a struggle for power, with both speaking of their determination to promote democracy. That begs the question: How do political parties which have not only been formed by military rulers seizing power through coups d’etat but which have arbitrarily gone into brushing history aside intend to ensure democratic growth in a country?

Bangladesh’s dilemma is a whole lot more than organising free, fair and credible elections. It is one of checking the rise of or return to power of elements which have cheerfully given short shrift to history, have never condemned the assassinations of the country’s independence leaders, have indeed come in the way of the rule of law through indemnifying the murders of 1975 in the constitution.

And let it not be forgotten that the ruling Awami League, warts and all, is under pressure from overseas governments keen on having a good election take place. These governments have not had the time or the inclination to consider the battering Bangladesh’s history has received from those who today are campaigning to see the back of the Sheikh Hasina government.

Any return to the darkness of the past will imperil the future of Bangladesh. Let there be no doubt about it.