“[Saki’s postion] dislodge[s] current fixed notions of “left versus religion”, “left as irrelevant to modern political and economic formations”, etc in a way that we may be reminded of earlier historical moments when Maulanas could be “RED” and when calls for redistributive justice galvanized movements for democratic rights.”
Zonayed Saki: What could a leftist leader offer Bangladesh today?
by Dr Samia Huq for AlalODulal.org
After months of doom and gloom in the country, there is finally spring in the air- literally and metaphorically. As city dwellers witness the wonders of Boishakh, they are also soaking in the festive spirit abound in politics- ushered through the upcoming mayor elections in Dhaka and Chittagong and the hoopla that accompanies it. While concerns about the mechanics of election day- whether polling can be conducted in a fair manner, whether all candidates will get a level playing field from which to campaign and rally people around them- remain, city dwellers feel that the upcoming elections will allow them to see real politics at play for the first time in a long time. Disgruntled by the events of this year in particular, and that of the past several years, the mayor elections promise a resuscitation of politics from the domain of blockades, lock-ups, arson and other tactics of force and intimidation.
One hopes that a re-energizing of real politics, played out through and for the welfare of the people will reflect promises of democracy. It is an opportunity for the ruling Awami League to reclaim its lost credibility by proving that even after January 5th, full participatory polls are possible, and that it is sincere in its promises of development. While it’s still early days for a conclusion on the participatory aspect of the upcoming elections, in fielding candidates in Dhaka, AL signals its grassroots strength in Dhaka South and its potential for progress and efficiency through a new face in Dhaka North. There is less clarity around BNP’s candidacies given the Election commission’s injunctions of and the subsequent court rulings that have taken the more established candidates out of the race. Political commentators don’t seem too worried, as they predict that sheer anti-incumbent sentiments will see the BNP through.
And so, the mayor election will function as a battle ground reflecting national politics and aspirations of the people. It will encompass more than concerns about the city, its roads, the fate of street shops, hawkers and garbage disposal, but will mirror larger political concerns around democracy and governance. Given this, predictions are that, true to established norms of how candidates are voted into office, wealth and organizational strength will have the most bearing on success. Such being the rules of the game, the big fight will be between AL and BNP. But if national politics is to be mirrored and also molded, is it not important to also look beyond the “big fight”, especially if money and muscle remain its principle constituting elements? What would looking at smaller fights allow us to gauge? And do the smaller fights engaging candidates outside the AL and BNP add currency to politics in a way that we should not even look upon them as small fights?
Let us look take the candidacy of Zonayed Saki. Brought to politics through the movement against General Ershad’s autocratic rule, Saki honed himself in the left. He became president of the Bangladesh Student Federation in 1998, is a key organizer and leader of the National Committee to protect oil, gas, mineral resources, power and ports and is joint convener of People’s Solidarity movement (Gonoshonghoti andolon). His “left” platform is a concern to many. The credibility of a leftist leader is questioned on various grounds such as their alleged inability to speak to capitalist demands and necessities, to religious sensibilities that are so important to a vast majority of Bangladeshis, to garner adequate resources for popular mobilization and to build organizational strength. Many leftist leaders themselves have bemoaned that a lack of resources is their major impediment to coming to power. Critics of the left argue that it the “irrelevance” of their ideological positions that renders the left passé. Communism /socialism has seen its days, and has been proven an ineffective mode of political and societal structuring.
But the leftist ideology that Saki brings to the fore is anything but irrelevant to the current context. He does not see businesses and the private sector as enemies, but as engines of growth for our economy that must be nurtured towards inclusive and sustainable growth and redistributive justice. He does not see religion as false, but as a matter of faith that holds the power to infuse the public space with the ethos of social justice and tolerance. Saki’s erudition equips him with theory and ideas. But his involvement with real people and real issues for over two decades also allows him the insight to know how ideas must play out on the ground. Thus, Saki’s left platform involves many revisions.
Remaining true to social and redistributive justice that lie at the heart of leftist beliefs, Saki’s position also reflects a pragmatism that contends with today’s world through negotiation and mutual accommodation. I find these mutations exciting for several reasons. First, they dislodge current fixed notions of “left versus religion”, “left as irrelevant to modern political and economic formations”, etc in a way that we may be reminded of earlier historical moments when Maulanas could be “RED” and when calls for redistributive justice galvanized movements for democratic rights. Second, these mutations represent a certain elasticity that stretches the limits of a paradigm’s imagination and applicability without losing its core principles, in this case redistributive justice that will ensure economic and social and political rights. Third, in doing so, they make change organic, honest, possible and very relevant. Currently, it is these markers of change that the larger political sphere seems to be bereft of.
Saki’s entry into electoral politics is thus important and exciting on many levels. I do not know enough to comment on whether his resources will allow him to partake in the big fight. But what he offers by way of ideas, practices and the promise of change that his own political trajectory bears witness to signal that his presence in the upcoming polls represents anything but a small fight. If democracy is to be meaningful in the coming years, we must welcome credible, rooted and honest politicians such as Saki. For democracy to bear fruit, we must give space to voices that can not only carve out their own niche, but do so in a manner where they can impress upon more entrenched voices to sing a different tune. For democracy to deliver, the public space has to be one of not only electing (by whatever means) and winning (also by any means), but also a place where deliberation is allowed to thrive and effect outcomes. I hope the upcoming elections will signal a better, efficient, deliberative political future for Bangladesh.
Dr. Samia Huq is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Department of Economics and Social Sciences, BRAC University.