Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summersaults, Contradiction And Confused Populace

The bottom line is that the government is confusing ordinary people with not just what they are saying but also with what they are doing. The government seems busy trying to make everybody happy at the same time, writes Mubin S Khan   WHILE speaking to the press on June 25 , Suranjit Sen Gupta, co- chairman of the special parliamentary committee on amendment to the constitution, observed that a constitutional void was unhealthy for a country— apparently as a justification for moving the bill for constitutional amendment in parliament. A rather amusing observation because, if I remember correctly, just the other day, the leader of the opposition in parliament, Khaleda Zia stirred a storm by saying the country was running devoid of a constitution to which members of the government and the party in power reacted with all their rhetorical wrath. Politics is often dominated by rhetoric and, in our country especially, the rhetoric can over a very short time completely switch sides, without changing so much of an ‘adjective’ in its content. Take the example of the caretaker government issue. In 1996 the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, and its allies Jatiya Party and Jamaat-e-Islami claimed that ‘ for a free and fair election a neutral caretaker government was necessary to save democracy, people’s voting right and national economy.’ Khaleda Zia, then the prime minister, ‘rejected the opposition guideline for caretaker government terming it undemocratic, unconstitutional and insulting to people’s verdict.’ Khaleda kept asking the opposition to sit for talks, offered to strengthen the Election Commission by reforming relevant laws, and asked the opposition, repeatedly, to come to parliament and make their observations heard. Hasina refused to go to parliament ‘until and unless the government makes an announcement of its readiness to move a bill on an acceptable caretaker government’. In the most amusing of political rhetoric, according to The Bangladesh Times in 1996 , Khaleda Zia said ‘since her government came to power there had been a number of elections including 16 by-elections.’ ‘These elections were free and fair, even the ruling party candidates were defeated in Dhaka and Chittagong city corporation elections. This highlights the fact that our government believes in free and fair election,’ she had said. Déjà vu indeed! In a world with an eroding value of idealism and fleeting public memory, it is quite understandable that politicians will resort to just about anything to retain, or regain, power. Often, it provides fodder for the round-the-clock media, and healthy amusement to a lot of people otherwise strained for entertainment in a country whose entertainment industry provides very little—in fact, rather ironically, is riddled in politics. In a conservative society where the young are raised to never question the virtues and wisdom of the elderly, I am sure, it is more amusing for the younger generation to watch middle-aged men and women, of the generation of their parents and grandparents, take centre stage and utter gibberish, discard opinions and positions like they discard dirty laundry and quibble like children in a football match gone awry. Ever since the AL-led government came to power two and half years back, political rhetoric has been at one of its finest best in terms of doing summersaults and providing contradictions. To be fair to them, the expansion of the mainstream media may also have increased the attention of such utterances and brought more of them into public domain. With the 30- odd seats in parliament, the opposition seems to find it more airy to stay on the streets, while the parties-in-power- run parliament has been a feast in the exercise of ‘democracy’, with heads of the parliamentary affairs committee and many of the potential minister-rejects more often assuming the roles of pseudo-opposition. One is almost tempted to wonder if the unfulfilled dream of BKSAL would have looked something like this. From the very beginning of this government we have enjoyed many a battle—Suranjit vs. HT Imam (the prime minister’s adviser), Suranjit vs. Shafique Ahmed (the law minister), Tofail Ahmed (a former commerce minister) vs. Abul Hossain (the communications minister), Syed Ashraful Islam (the LGRD minister and AL general secretary) vs. Abdul Jalil (former AL general secretary), the list goes on and on. There have been further battles—AL MPs Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir and Abdul Jalil’s crusade to see the Moeen Uddin-Fakhruddin government brought to book, Alamgir’s crusade against the Anti-Corruption Commission, or the entire government’s crusade against former Grameen Bank managing director Dr Yunus. In all the battles, the divisions that gaped in the beginning and merged at the end provided ample entertainment to news followers. Suranjit no longer boasts the supremacy of the legislative over the judiciary; there are no longer battles between the victims and beneficiaries of the Moeen Uddin-Fakhruddin government, Muhith no longer stands up for Yunus’s innocence while the Rapid Action Battalion, once referred to in parliament by the prime minister ‘as an institution which has tasted blood’ receives an unprecedented level of political and rhetorical support from all quarters of the government. But the lines between amusement and troubling can often get blurry. Take the instance of the amendment to the constitution. The Supreme Court has declared the fifth amendment, the seventh amendment and the thirteenth amendment to the constitution illegal. We have been informed through the media that the constitution is being reprinted at government-owned BG Press and yet, the parliamentary committee for amendment to the constitution went around discussing with various groups amendments to the constitution. The committee members in the midst of their discussions voiced their support for election-time caretaker governments in the future, and yet went completely silent when the prime minister discarded their long list of possible forms of caretaker government, taking refuge in a single portion of a Supreme Court judgement. Amidst all this, Ziaur Rahman retains his signature in the constitution through ‘ Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem’ and HM Ershad through ‘Islam as the state religion’ while the constitution apparently also retains secularism as one of its pillars. At the present moment, it is safe to say that nobody knows exactly what social contract binds together the people of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Contradictions and summersaults have not just remained in the world of rhetoric and polemics, but have also stepped into policies of this government as well, and that is where it gets dangerous. During the much-hailed National Education Policy of 2009 , the committee first gave the impression that the government would finally remove the constitutional anomaly of various streams of education in the country but in the end settled for a more uniform curriculum, also omitting the word ‘secular’ from the policy. In the Women Development Policy 2011 , the government made a long list of proposals for the emancipation of women in the country and then conveniently refrained from guaranteeing equal inheritance to women, the issue that had made the policy imminent in the first place. The bottom line is that the government is confusing ordinary people with not just what they are saying but also with what they are doing. The government seems busy trying to make everybody happy at the same time. A look at the proposed budget for the fiscal 2011-2012 aptly illustrates this point, where there appears to be huge allocations for almost every citizen and every sector—from social safety nets to provisions for turning black money white— without hurting anyone’s sensitivity. In the end we have a humongous deficit of Tk 45 ,204 crore. Reaching the two-and-a-half year mark in tenure is an important landmark for any elected government in Bangladesh. It is often when people decide, and begin to voice their impressions of the government in power. Sitting on such an important juncture, the AL-led government should better decide whose government it exactly is, rather than try to win over everyone. It should finally try and answer questions which they have so far either left ambiguous or bombed confusion, with contradictory statements. Does the prime minister think ‘Moeen Uddin- Fakhruddin’ government was a ‘ crocodile’—if we infer from her most recent comments—or does she think, like her telecommunications minister Raziuddin Ahmed Razu, that Moeen U Ahmed is one of the finest Bangladeshi generals of the last forty years? Does she intend to ever rein in the Rapid Action Battalion as she promised in parliament or does she now believe that it has never committed extrajudicial killings like a host of her cabinet members? Will the finance minister please tell us whether we are pursuing free-market economic policies or socialist economic policies? And most importantly, will the prime minister and the government please tell us whether we live in a secular country or an Islamic one? If the government fails to answer these questions, they will not only ever win over the ones that did not vote for them but may also lose the ones who voted them to power.