Hope springs eternal

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With the election of Donald Trump as president in the US, the Brexit vote in Britain, and the rising tide of far-right political parties in much of Europe, the Western world has been grappling with the onset of political tribalism - which describes polities typified by divisiveness as  individuals withdraw into the comfort zones provided by people of their own ilk, into their ‘tribes’.   Especially since President Trump’s election, the term “tribalism” has become ubiquitous in political discourse. The media used the word to explain Trump’s upset victory. And reporters weren’t alone in their hypothesis that tribalism, and the mindset it implies, might help explain a swelling sentiment that contributed to his win.Tribalism is wreaking havoc on American policy, both foreign and domestic, argued the lawyer, academic and author Amy Chua in her 2017 book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, the kind of volume described as ‘timely’.

The most visible effect of tribalism on the political process is that institutions supposed to work on the basis of consensus - such as parliament - become dysfunctional, as partisan behaviour, often posturing, comes to rule the roost. Reaching ‘across the aisle’ to work with the opposing party or faction is liable to be taken as a sign of weakness. The steady decline of Congress  - the bicameral US parliament comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate - as an effective, consensual, representative body for performing the legislative function of government that has been witnessed over the last decade (despite what some haters may insist, this thing most certainly didn’t start with Trump) is a testament to the debilitating effects of tribalism. Witness the visceral atmosphere within which the confirmation hearing of the last appointee to their Supreme Court, now Justice Brett Kavanaugh, took place.

Countries like Bangladesh on the other hand, stand out almost for not having known any other mode of politics. This is after all the country where parliament is synonymous with wholesale opposition boycotts, except when the treasury and opposition benches happen to belong to the same alliance (as in the 10th Jatiya Sangsad that wrapped up this past week). Certainly in the period when it has most mattered, the post-1991 era of democracy, the concept of consensus has never managed to gain much ground in Bangladesh’s politics. One of the side effects of this failure to adopt consensus for representative government has been an eschewing of dialogue between different political factions. What is meant to be the bread-and-butter of democratic politics - dialogue - has long fallen by the wayside, and we’ve been forced to plough along with the quite galling situation whereby our two main parties, the Awami League and the BNP, cannot stand to even talk with each other. And even that is not the extent of it.

When in power, each faction has betrayed a predilection for making life as difficult as possible for the other. It is widely held for example that the state’s suppression of the opposition has peaked during the current regime, with all the thousands of cases and arrests and disappearances of BNP politicians and activists that have taken place. Yet the BNP’s complaints start to ring hollow, when AL supporters remind us of the quite horrific incidents dating back to their last term in power - the killing of ex-finance minister and AL stalwart S.A.M.S. Kibria, the grenade attack at an AL rally that almost killed Sheikh Hasina, and for which senior figures in the then-administration were recently found guilty by a special court. Americans at this point should take heart, or gear up - wherever they may be on the downward slope of tribalism or divisive politics, there is still some way to go yet before they hit rock-bottom.

Man with a plan

It was in the throes of this Orwellian reality, where dialogue between political factions had taken on the scent of anathema, reducing politics to a sickly, winner-take-all bloodsport, that an old hand’s intervention served to sprinkle a bit of hope on the proceedings this week. It had been in the works for a while. Noises were being made as far back as August, with a meeting here, a gathering there. To be sure, the wise guys looking on from the sidelines couldn’t help but dismiss him at first. It’s hard not to be a cynic as an observer of Bangladesh politics. But evidently the man had a plan.

Dr Kamal Hossain has long held on to a view of politics in Bangladesh as ‘unhealthy’. This was the root of the problem, that in his view all the other problems stemmed from. In a 2014 interview with Dhaka Courier, he elaborated: “Unhealthy politics is at the heart of most of our ills. It has lost all attachment to the real issues of the day, the real concerns of the people. Healthy politics can be a very positive force. It creates consensus, motivates people, it sets their objectives together, harnesses their energies. But unhealthy politics is exactly the opposite. It creates disunity, division, discord, on the most basic issues. Even where there is no scope for disunity -  there are certain issues where we must agree for the national interest - but even there it manages to divide us....I firmly believe among the people there is that basic sharing of views and values, but sick politics does not reflect that. It promotes the narrow, partisan, interests of the coterie which controls the party and wants to control the state.”

You couldn’t quite argue with that diagnosis. He returned to this theme later on in the interview, talking about the divisions wreaking havoc with society post-2013: “You see the attempt by those who practise sick politics is always to project division. It’s right that those who are in politics currently, the principal actors belonging to two highly centralised parties want to project this division because that is the basis on which they can say that one section belongs to them, while the other belongs to their opponents. For ulterior purposes, parties in their own interest are dividing people. It is only those who want to control the state in an undemocratic fashion that are out to divide the people.”

Apart from this clear diagnosis, another thing that Kamal Hossain has always insisted upon is the need for an active citizenry that is assertive regarding its rights in a democracy. “The essence of citizenship that everyone must get is that if you own something and you are not willing to exercise your right of ownership, you cannot then feel frustrated. Then you have only yourself to blame,” he told me in another interview in 2017. “Remember, power belongs to the people, and those who own power cannot just be hoping. You have to assert your power.”

If there one thing that sets Dr Kamal Hossain apart from the other men and women of true brilliance our nation has produced, what lends him something more essential in our national narrative, it is his dogged insistence on the enduring worth of the struggle to establish the nation that was dreamt of. It is what informs his almost matter-of-fact account of what it means to be a citizen of this country, the expectations and obligations one may cultivate in that role, and above all, his abiding belief in Bangladesh.

Ultimately, it may be what drove him to intervene in the political process at a time when much of it seemed broken beyond repair. By then succeeding in convincing the Awami League to come to the table for talks ahead of the election with the Oikyafront (United Front) - the alliance for clean, credible polls formed under his leadership - he has also succeeded in breaking the cycle of negativity (‘unhealthy politics’ he would no doubt say) within which ‘dialogue’ had become almost a bad word in Bangladesh politics. And he has once again lived up to the worth of his struggle for the nation.

The ice breaks

The Oikyafront was formally formed on October 13, following a string of meetings, and discussions held between a clutch of senior leaders who all had been part of the political fabric of the nation at some point or another. Their formation was not without hiccups, as ex-president Dr Badruddoza Chowdhury and his party Bikalpa Dhara, having been an integral part of the earlier discussions, ultimately failed to reach agreement with the other components of the alliance, particularly the BNP, Dr Badruddoza’s old party.

At first it was difficult to make out what exactly the objectives of the alliance could be, or how they planned to go about achieving them. The usual problem under the present regime of opposing voices getting a platform soon surfaced, as they encountered problems getting the police permit required to hold a rally in Sylhet. They persisted however, and eventually got the permission. Subsequently two rallies, one in Sylhet and one in Chittagong, were held.

The AL initially was keen to feign indifference, but then statement after statement from various ruliung alliance leaders signalled all was not so hunky-dory. Oikyafront, meanwhile, and Kamal Hossain in particular, struggled not to come off as a mere anti-government platform. He kept insisting through it all that the main objective was to ensure a free and fair election, not to capture power. The presence of the BNP certainly made this difficult. Following the Chittagong rally, where Kamal Hossain called on the government to accept the alliance’s 7-point charter of demands (notably holding the election under a nonpartisan interim government, dissolution of parliament and deployment of the army before the polls, as well as Khaleda Zia’s release from jail) ‘or face trial’, early this week came the news that he had written a letter to the prime minister, once again articulating the alliance’s demands and calling on her to sit for dialogue.

In the letter, Dr Kamal greeted Hasina and also praised the leadership of Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Excerpts:

“We achieved the independence of the country because of our Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The first condition of a democracy is to organize a neutral election. Only those elected by the people will run the country and that is our constitutional right.

“You will agree with me that Bangladesh’s citizens see the national election as a big celebration. The ‘one person one vote’ was made sure by Bangabandhu and it is our constitutional responsibility to make it happen.

“Bangabandhu taught us how to do positive politics and it is not unknown to us how negative politics divided us in the past. To overcome the current challenge, we the Jatiya Oikya Front have announced a 7-point demand and an 11-point goal.

“We expect to sit for a meaningful dialogue with your party, Bangladesh Awami League, and want your cooperation to make it happen.”

Almost no-one gave it a chance. At the weekly cabinet meeting the next day, the prime minister herself brought it up.  A number of ministers around the table voiced their disapproval at the prospect of dialogue. Then the prime minister made clear, the dialogue would be with Oikyafront, not with BNP, saying “we should listen to what they say.” That was enough for the naysayers. Within a day, AL Office Secretary Abdus Sobhan Golap handed over a letter signed by Hasina replying to Kamal Hossain’s offer and breaking the permafrost in the political arena just like that.

“Thank you for your letter dated October 28, 2018. My door is always open for discussion on all constitutional issues for the continuation of the democratic trend earned through immense struggles and sacrifices. So, I invite you [Oikyafront leaders] to the Gono Bhaban at 7:00pm on November 1 as you have sought time for talks,” the PM wrote.

Things moved quickly. In a letter to AL General Secretary Obaidul Quader, Gonoforum General Secretary Mustafa Mohsin Montu sent the names of the 16-member delegation to be led by Dr Kamal at the talks. Of them, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, barrister Moudud Ahmed, Mirza Abbas and barrister Jamiruddin Sircar are from the BNP.

Other members are Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) President ASM Abdur Rab and its General Secretary Abdul Malek Ratan and Vice-president Tania Rab, Gonoforum General Secretary Mustafa Mohsin and its Executive President Subrata Chowdhury, Nagorik Oikya Convener Mahmudur Rahman Manna and its adviser SM Akram, Jatiya Oikya Prokriya Member Secretary ABM Mostafa Amin and its member Sultan Muhammed Mansur Ahmad, and Gonoshasthaya Kendra founder Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury.

Make no mistake though, the success or failure of this initiative depends almost wholly on just the two names at the head of their respective delegations. Let us hope for the best.

  • Hope springs eternal
  • Issue 17
  • Shayan S Khan
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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