Politics is hard work — are we willing?
by Jyoti Rahman, adapted from earlier version posted at Mukti
Will future historians think of 2013 as a pivotal year for Bangladesh? If they were to do so, it will not be because of anything that happened in the first half of this eventful year. The Shahbag Awakening, violence following the verdict in Delwar Hossain Sayedee’s war crimes case, peaceful and violent rallies by Hefazot-e-Islam, the Rana Plaza tragedy — none of these will rate alongside even 1975 or 1990, let alone 1947 or 1971.
All those events, and yet, as the year draws to a close, we are seeing replays of a drama we witnessed in Decembers past, where a government wants to hold an election come what may, citing the Holy Constitution, while the opposition wants to resist it at any cost, citing the fear of rigging. The political gridlock leads to violent images like the one above.
That image is from 28 October 2006. The December of that year was much like this December, and the one from 1995, and that of 1987. And as in every such December, our opinionmaking, chattering, urban bhadralok class is up in arms about how our politicians are yet again failing us, how Bangladeshis are held hostage to the two feuding leaders, how the people are victims who don’t care about either parties and vote for them because there is no choice.
Are the people really victims who lack any alternative, hostages to the whims of the two sides? Nearly a quarter century, four national elections and dozens of local ones —how long does it take for an alternative to emerge? And it’s not like no one has tried to break through —leftists, Islamists, NGOwallahs, army officers, barristers, doctors, businessmen, Kamal Hossain, Mohammad Yunus, HM Ershad, Kader Siddiqui, Badruddoza Chowdhury, Oli Ahmed, Salman F Rahman, Moeen U Ahmed, Mannan Bhuiyan, there haven’t been any shortage of third force aspirants.
Chances are that when, rather than if, an election is held, four out of five voters will vote for the same parties and candidates who won the last four elections. Even if there is a military coup, and the generals successfully send the two ladies packing, they will still rely on the same individuals who make up the two largest parties.
Perhaps it’s time the chattering bhadraloks finally accept that politics is hard work, and the politicians actually do cater, albeit in a haphazard and less-than-satisfactory ways, to the people.
Politics is hard work. Not just in Bangladesh, but everywhere. It’s tedious, unglamorous. Quite boring really. In fact, the exciting stuff, the kind that gets you in the cover of the Time magazine, that stuff is usually all tip, and little iceberg.
The cover of the Time Magazine? Let’s go back a few years, to 2011. That year, the Time Magazine named ‘the protester’ the person of the year. That year begun with popular uprisings that toppled long standing regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, the uprising turned into an insurgency that, with the help of NATO airpower, brought down the Qaddafi regime. Massive protests rocked depression affected economies of southern Europe. Closer to home, India saw large rallies against corruption. In America, the Occupy movement captured a lot of media attention.
It would be quite unfair to say that the protests achieved nothing. Arguably, Tunisia is a better place today for the protests. Arguably, President Obama would not be talking about inequality had it not been for the Occupy movement. But the contemporaneous commentaries about the protests seem quite hyperbolic with the benefit of hindsight. These were not quite earth shattering, world changing events. President Obama can have a dozen speeches about inequality, but it’s unlikely to change a single thing in the Capitol Hill.
And whatever gains have been made in Tunis is clearly off set by the setbacks in Cairo. In the largest Arab country, secular liberal urbanites —at the risk of oversimplifying, the kind of people who flocked to Shahbag —could not organise themselves into a credible political party, lost terribly to the Islamists at the polling booth, went back to the street again to bring down a democratically elected president, and handed the country back to the generals who rule by decree, much like Hosni Mobarak did for three decades.
Politics is hard work. Protesting this, demanding that, marching in the street, singing rousing anthems —that’s not politics.
Even if they get you in the cover of the Time Magazine, that stuff, without any organisation, will matter naught.
Did the Shahbag revelers really believe that they were changing the course of history? Their naivete might be forgiven, but what excuse did their elder cheerleaders have? How could those who lived through the 1968-69 uprising that brought down the Ayub regime —across the political aisle this includes everyone from Motia Chowdhury, Nurul Islam Nahid, Rashed Khan Menon to Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Tariqul Islam —ever believe that nonsense? Did they forget that despite taking a leading role in that uprising, the leftists lost the political advantage to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League?
Did the leftist cheerleaders of Shahbag learn nothing from their lived experience, never mind the histories of other uprisings in Tehran and St Petersburg and Paris?
Did they forget that politics is hard work, that one needed an organisation, a clear manifesto, and some strategies to attain power?
Those pundits who are now braying for some messiah to deliver us from the two battling begums — do they understand politics is hard work?
Faham Abdus Salam writes about the bhadralok mentality here:
বাংলাদেশের এক নাম করা ইংরেজি কলামিস্টের সাথে আলোচনায় টিপিকাল সুশীল মানসিকতার পরিচয় পেলাম – এটাআলোচনা করা দরকার।
বিএনপি ও আওয়ামী লীগ প্রসঙ্গে তার মত হোলো Why doesn’t the two hire a place and fight it out and leave us alone. …. তোমারা লীগ, বিএনপি মারপিট করো – আমাদেরকে দু দণ্ড শান্তি দাও।
I agree with Faham’s thesis:
এই দেশটা শেখ হাসিনা কিংবা খালেদা জিয়ার কোনো সম্পত্তি না – এই কথাটা সবাই বিশ্বাস করে
কিন্তু যা বিশ্বাস করে না তাহলো – এই দেশটা আমার, আমি ওন করি এবং আমার দায় আছে পরবর্তী প্রজন্মকে একটা বাসযোগ্য দেশ উপহার দেয়ার।
তাই আমাদের সবার দায় আছে এটা নিশ্চিত করার যে কোনো মানুষই যেন এই দেশটাকে তার ইচ্ছার পুতুল বানিয়ে না ফেলে।
বিএনপি, আওয়ামী লীগ বাংলাদেশের রিয়ালিটি – আপনার কাজ শুধু ভোট দেয়া না, এই দুটো দলে যেন কখনোই কোনো হাসিনা কেউ হয়ে উঠতে না পারে, সেদিকে নিশ্চিত না করলে নিশ্চিত থাকুন: আপনি আপনার নিজের শান্তিটুকু খোয়াবেন।
He ends by asking:
আপনি জিজ্ঞেস করুন নিজেকে সততার সাথে – আপনার সন্তান যদি কখনো প্রশ্ন করে, সে উত্তর দিতে যতোটুকু সততা লাগেততোটুকু সততার সাথে, দেশটাকে যখন হাসিনা ক্ষমতা টিকিয়ে রাখার জন্য তার খেলনা ঘর বানিয়ে ফেলছিলেন আপনি কিআপনার সাধ্যমতো চেষ্টা করেছিলেন তাকে থামাতে?
The thing is, I am not sure any amount of trying by any bhadralok pundit would have mattered. For one thing, on a number of issues, Awami-leaning elders such as ABM Musa or Rehman Sobhan did caution the Prime Minister. And she snubbed them.
Why wouldn’t she? Try seeing things from her perspective. Politics in Bangladesh is winner-takes-all. The rules of the game —unitary state, unicameral legislature, first-past-the-post voting, the Article 70 —were not set by Hasina Wajed. She is not the first one to try to win at any cost. She has merely taken things further than her predecessor. We don’t know if the BNP chief would have been quite as ruthless —I personally doubt that she would have—but what the Prime Minister is doing is hardly madness, there is in fact a lot of method in it.
The Prime Minister is playing a high stake game, one that has been entirely predictable, and was indeed predicted:
The prime minister knows she can count on the millions of AL voters, in every moholla and para of every city, town and village. If BNP leadership can be neutralised, that will be sufficient for a re-election. If not, in the lead up to the election, in 30,000 centres around the country, many anti-AL voters could be disenfranchised through targeted violence and intimidation. Essentially, what many Hindu voters in southern Bangladesh experienced in previous elections could happen to the anti-AL voters across the country.
And all these could happen days and weeks before the actual election day, with the state machinery playing an active role in it. Indeed, the election day could well be very peaceful, even festive.
Even if they tried, what difference could a Zafar Sobhan or an Anisul Haque have made to the Prime Minister’s high stake gambit?
Politics is had. Hasina Wajed knows it, even if the bhadraloks don’t.
Perhaps these bhadraloks had a better shot trying to shape BNP’s thinking? I personally think so. But I doubt most of the chattering class feels that way.
Here is how Shayan S Khan has put things recently in his facebook wall:
খালেদা জিয়া বলেন, “একদিকে বিরোধী দলের নেতাদের বিরুদ্ধে সন্ত্রাসের মিথ্যা অভিযোগে মামলা হচ্ছে, অন্যদিকে এক মন্ত্রীবলেছেন যে, সরকারের সঙ্গে সমঝোতা করে ফেললে তাদের ছেড়ে দেয়া হবে। এসব থেকে পরিষ্কার হয় যে, বিরোধী দলেরনেতাদের বিরুদ্ধে মিথ্যা অভিযোগে মামলা করে তাদের গ্রেফতার করা হচ্ছে।”
When Khaleda Zia makes a point like the one above, instead of holding on to the offer as a political card, it signals an essential difference between herself and Sheikh Hasina, whose every pronouncement seems aimed at scraping whatever political advantage she can for herself out of any situation.
Thanks to a media and cultural environment historically more saddled in its disposition towards Awami League politics, for a very long time now, an impression has been cemented in the collective psyche of a certain segment of the population (largely confined to the chattering classes of the capital) that Bangabandhu’s daughter, riding the good ship Joy Bangla that her father built, was obviously more preferable to Zia’s widow. I know within my social and familial setting it was as if axiomatic. It was hard to realise this “truth” seemed erected on a strange, untouchable pedestal bereft of any objective analysis, or evidence emerging to support it. To be fair, one didn’t really come across much overwhelming evidence to the contrary either.
But it lasted only until I learned to think for myself, and became open to the idea that supposed “truths” we’d been fed before developing a way to think could be overturned. And if more of us could affect the same, and carry out a fair assessment of the two women’s words and deeds over the last 12 years in particular, the least we would realise is this: at no point did Khaleda Zia take any prerogative to assume this country’s fate was subservient to her own will to power, or that the essence of its 140-50-60 million people, its raison d’être, hers to fashion.
Sad but true.
So, instead of trying to shape the mainstream politics, our chattering class —with one important exception —is either willing or unwitting accomplice to possible dictatorship.
The exception is, of course, Mahmudur Rahman.
He might not consider himself a bhadralok. And others of his class might not want to treat him as one of their own. But make no mistake, a graduate of the country’s two best educational institutions, a successful executive in both private and public sector, Mahmudur Rahman is every bit bhadralok as Mahfuz Anam or Abed Khan. And more than any other bhadralok of our time, Mr Rahman has thrown himself whole heartedly into politics, embracing lengthy prison terms for his cause.
Politics is hard work, and hard work is not something Mahmudur Rahman shies away from. He is willing.
And yet, he has failed.
He single handedly took on the mighty Shahbag, broke it, and then, then nothing.
Politics is hard work, and merely willing is not enough.
Again, let’s go back to Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood won decisively at the ballot box. They had been waiting for eight decades. Here was an organisation with a clear manifesto that finally attained power, and lost it before they could implement anything.
A different example perhaps, from an established democracy. The American Tea Party movement has gained control of one of their two mainstream parties. This faction controls the agenda in the American Congress. In October, they tried to break the Obama presidency, risking US sovereign default and a possible global economic meltdown in the process. And they lost.
Politics is hard work. It’s more than just protest. Even grabbing power is not enough. One needs to exercise that power to achieve one’s ends.
Mahmudur Rahman, of course, did not even attain power. But one must ask, what would he have done had the government fallen in the first week of May?
And if toppling the government was not the main point of Hefazot, then what was it he was trying to achieve? Of course, there was brutality on 5 May. Of course, AL’s hands are bloody. But Mahmudur Rahman’s aren’t clean either.
And that brings us to today’s crisis. One way or other, the current gridlock will be resolved before long. Something will give. In fact, we can with some confidence predict how things will end. There are really three options.
It is quite possible that there will be some compromise — perhaps the prime minister will step down, or BNP will agree to join even with the PM at the end — followed by an election, which if the polls are any guide, BNP wins comfortably. That’s the optimistic scenario.
More pessimistically, there will not be any compromise, and we will be looking at either a neo-Bakshal regime or a good old fashioned military coup.
Many of our pundit classes are already braying for the last outcome. Let me put it to these folks as bluntly as possible: stop think of the army as the deus ex machina; the situation currently playing out was perfectly predictable years ago; your silence and passive acceptance at that time also implies acceptance of the current state of crisis.
We just can’t live like this, lurching from crisis to crisis every five years, and then acting all surprised and puzzled when things fall apart. Our political culture will never mature until we stop expecting army interventions anytime things go south. I always hear the common lament that democracy in this country is limited to voting every five years. Well, our bhadraloks need to start participating in the hard work of politics more frequently than once every five years.
(The title of this post is an echo of Naeem Mohaiemen’s March 2013 essay on Shahbag: History is hard work, but are we willing? I have benefited a lot from debating him, Rumi Ahmed, and EH).