Saturday, February 19, 2005

BANGLADESH: Analysis - Negative politics may give rise to backlash

+ All Islamist groups went underground after being banned in the early years of Bangladesh when AL was in power, but the major Islamic parties worked with the two larger secular parties and mostly followed the constitutional trail since 1991, though their fundamentalist rhetoric did not diminish. The majority of Bangladeshis discount alarmist correspondents like Eliza Griswold who want people to believe that a shadowy group like Bangla Bhai's can stage the next Islamic revolution in Bangladesh, in the face of a reasonably functioning democracy and the moderate civil society. Hasina's unending efforts to diplomatically isolate Khaleda may revive the old electoral drumbeat of India-bashing, which was significantly missing in the 2001 election, but worked quite well for BNP in 1996. Furthermore, all the smear campaigns and staged street fights might actually strengthen the BNP-Jamaat electoral bond for next year's election. +

Negative politics may give rise to backlash
M. Rashiduzzaman

Hartals, vandalism, intimidation, assault, arson and pitched battles between the police and protestors have swept Bangladesh since the former Awami League (AL) government's finance minister Shah A.M.S. Kibria, a reputed ex-civil servant-turned-politician, and 4 of his local political associates were brutally bombed to death in a public meeting in Habiganj. The BNP-led incumbent administration is being battered by two tactics ? hartal and negative campaigns that have been intensified since the Habiganj carnage. But hartal, on its own, is no longer the most powerful weapon in the opposition's arsenal, even though hartals and negative campaigns can work in tandem.

AL leader Sheikh Hasina and her cohort have amplified the diatribes, torrents of insults, sensational media stories, anti-government website postings and accusatory whispers against the BNP-dominated four-party alliance. Khaleda's coalition rule is troubled by Hasina's hostile blasts that appeal to segments of the international audience. She may be able to handle periodic salvos of hartal, already unpopular to the working men and women in Bangladesh, but she is yet to match Hasina?s shrill tirades and finger-pointing.

The BNP-headed government cannot absolve itself of its non-transferable duty to protect both friends and foes from such bloodbaths as we have seen recently. Unfortunately, the portents are that we might see even more in not so distant future. To be sure, Hasina has not yet been able to convince people of her own positives; nevertheless she has gone uncompromisingly negative against the BNP-led regime. In the following paragraphs, the dynamics of her negative campaigns are analysed.

The politics of failed governance

Failed governance may linger in the eyes of the beholder, and that perception can be played up for political dividends, sometimes at the cost of larger national interests. The latter indeed has been the outcome of Hasina's anti-BNP manoeuvres in the last couple of years. The shameful episode of Kibria's killing was not due to a sudden surge of violence although a bloody trail of unresolved assassinations, attempted political murders, bomb blasts and violent crimes enraged the polity. Not without its critics for ?cross-fire? killings, which are more or less a synonym for extra-judicial elimination in most cases, the RAB-strikes against the seemingly invincible criminals enjoy the support of most of the people.
Despite Hasina's barrage of allegations against the BNP-controlled government, the AL regime from 1996 to 2001 was far from an embodiment of peace and order. Indeed, the AL's closet of skeletons still contains at least 7 bomb attacks, and about 75 deaths, not to mention other strange assaults - most of them still unresolved. Generally Hasina blamed the BNP, the presumed Islamists and 'anti-liberation forces' for such horrible acts. Then again, the BNP failed to make a forceful case out of the disenchantment with the AL government until the party was thrown out of power in the 2001 election.

Hasina has been exploiting fear in politics fear of the assassins, lawlessness, terrorists, Islamic zealots and police brutality, to mention a few. There is a silver of truth in the dread that Khaleda's bandwagon towards the next election has slowed down in the last couple of weeks. Even though the BNP bigwigs would treat such a cognisance with contempt, the AL's repeated charges of bunglzed authority have kept the hot button questions on the fore ominously. The allegation of governance breakdown in Bangladesh has already been internationalised by the AL. Its general secretary announced earlier this month that all possible means would be brought into action to oust the coalition from power.

Adverse propaganda seems to be working

Yes, adverse publicity might work in Bangladesh, almost like the downbeat commercials flooding the US TV screens at election times that can incrementally erode the public support of the adversary you are fighting. Hasina's tactics have gained fresh traction with the frequent allegations that Bangladesh is on the verge of a Taliban-style revolution. Under the gloom of Kibria's assassination, the fright of violence and the hype that shadowy Islamic militants were poised to seize the country under the BNP-Jamaat rule (as Hasina prefers to call it), the much cherished SAARC meeting in Dhaka was cancelled, mostly because of New Delhi's refusal to attend, apparently for security fears in Bangladesh. It has given the current government of the country a diplomatic black eye that cannot be covered by official understatements. Needless to say, it has given credence to the opposition's ringing rhetoric that Bangladesh has a thriving ?bomb culture? under the present government leaders.

The AL and its supporters in the media and the intellectual community have practically defined Khaleda's ruling coalition as the 'villain regime' sheltering Islamic fundamentalists. Such depictions cause instant misgiving in the post-9/11 world, and Hasina got a head start in exploiting that global 'Islamophobia' even before Khaleda fully realised the murky potentials for such a rendering. From Bertil Lintner's story in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 2002 to Eliza Griswold's unsettling feature in the New York Times magazine in January, 2005, there is a glut of mostly unproven charges against Bangladesh. Khaleda's government may survive repeated hartals, but Hasina's offensives have made Bangladesh the victim of international scepticism, to say the least under the circumstances.

Fear of the BNP-Islamist juggernaut!

The AL leader never forgave the Jamaat and the Islamic Oikya Jote (IOJ) for whatever contributions they made towards the massive victory of Khaleda's four-party alliance in 2001, although that election did not indicate any massive shift of public support towards the Islamists. The AL's internal fissures, widespread antipathy towards Indian domineering, allegations of AL's 'special relationship' with New Delhi, the assumed '12-15% Islamic vote bank' and the diffused but widespread Muslim identity worry the hardcore AL leaders. They really fear that the BNP's next electoral alliance with the Jamaat and one or two other lesser parties might turn into an unstoppable juggernaut in the next election.

A number of variables ' the violent street protests, unending Sangshad boycotts and even the creeping suspicion that she was grooming her son to be her heir apparent ' have rattled Hasina for some time. Now her tirade against unsolved assassinations and violence and, more importantly, her overblown tales of bigotry and Islamic militancy, are drawing domestic and international flak against the BNP-controlled government, which is not a negligible gain for the obdurate opposition leader. Hasina expects that her current strategy will finally fracture the BNP's expected coalition with the Islamists, and pave her path to power in next year?s election.

Hasina's roadmap and Delhi's ire against BNP

Hasina's quest for overthrowing the BNP-led government complements New Delhi's disenchantment with the alliance government. Observers in Dhaka and New Delhi complain that none of the thorny questions 'gas, land transit, suspected guerrilla hideouts, presumed illegal immigration and the alleged Pakistani ISI operations on Bangladeshi soil' has been clearly resolved since Khaleda's coalition came to power in 2001. Not long ago, Morshed Khan, the present Bangladesh Foreign Minister, irritated the Indian diplomats by a long list of grievances against the big neighbour, yet his complaints were close to the ground reality.

Anti-Indianism is by no means the monopoly of the Bangladeshi Islamists; however, the typical Indian political establishments blame the Islamic parties and militant religious groups for being the conduits to the Indian north-eastern separatists who are receiving external backing. There is also little refutation of the fact that mainstream Islamic parties strategic rationale includes India as Bangladesh's key security threat. Earlier this month, a number of groups and leaders who usually rally around Islamic causes demonstrated against New Delhi's refusal to attend the SAARC summit in Dhaka that latter much to the chagrin of those who are currently in authority in Bangladesh. The student front of the BNP flatly linked the Indian withdrawal from the SAARC conference with Hasina's crusade to disgrace the BNP-led regime.

Conclusion: danger of backlash!

Violent hartals have made Bangladesh volatile again, but they are having an adverse effect on the diplomats and donors and the general people of this country. The AL itself may face a backlash as the cacophony of blame-shifting is rising in decibel level. Indian interests in Bangladesh are at risk because of the suspicion that New Delhi probably colluded with the AL in its attempt to oust the ruling alliance.

All Islamist groups went underground after being banned in the early years of Bangladesh when AL was in power, but the major Islamic parties worked with the two larger secular parties and mostly followed the constitutional trail since 1991, though their fundamentalist rhetoric did not diminish. The majority of Bangladeshis discount alarmist correspondents like Eliza Griswold who want people to believe that a shadowy group like Bangla Bhai's can stage the next Islamic revolution in Bangladesh, in the face of a reasonably functioning democracy and the moderate civil society.

Hasina's unending efforts to diplomatically isolate Khaleda may revive the old electoral drumbeat of India-bashing, which was significantly missing in the 2001 election, but worked quite well for BNP in 1996. Furthermore, all the smear campaigns and staged street fights might actually strengthen the BNP-Jamaat electoral bond for next year's election. The sympathy that Hasina gets for alleged and actual threats on her life, or when any of her party leaders are killed or assaulted, is not enough to offset the numerous negatives and protracted hartals that ultimately harm national interests and blacken the country's image abroad. Negative bickering and violent hartals have already poisoned politics, and now they are pushing the nation to the brink of an uncertain terrain.