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Looking back on the 1/11 era

The reputation of the caretaker regime may precede itself, but it still has a legacy to hold on to

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The issue has never been one of why the army-backed caretaker government took charge of the country on January 11, 2007. The issue is one of overstaying its welcome. Along the way, many were the appreciable deeds done by the government, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, which the nation remembers, or ought to. Again, in the two years in which the caretaker regime held sway, there were the infractions it committed, the blunders it would have done well to stay away from.

There is little question that when the caretaker administration earlier formed, at the end of October 2006, by President Iajuddin Ahmed, was replaced by Fakhruddin Ahmed with the backing of the military, the move was, by and large, welcome. The reasons were obvious. President Iajuddin, an academic and BNP appointee to the office of head of state, had failed to go through the prescribed process of the formation of a caretaker government that would oversee general elections.

He installed himself as chief of the caretaker apparatus. And that led to more mistakes. His interaction with his council of advisors was poor at best, a reality that was soon to be demonstrated by the resignation of some eminent individuals who had joined the administration. That the president-cum-chief advisor was in a clandestine manner taking instructions from the son of Begum Khaleda Zia undermined the entire purpose of the caretaker regime being in office.

It was, therefore, a matter of relief when the Iajuddin caretaker regime was turfed out in rather dramatic and unceremonious fashion on January 11 and replaced by one which clearly was equipped to provide for a better pathway to the restoration of a popularly elected government. The achievements of the Fakhruddin-Moinuddin administration cannot be ignored. It went earnestly into the business of forcefully persuading, in a manner of speaking, the Election Commission then in office and which palpably was geared to producing results that would ignore popular expectations to quit office.

In its place came the ATM Shamsul Huda-led Election Commission, the reputation of which for presiding over a good, credible general election in December 2008 remains unsullied. Indeed, it will be fair to suggest that Huda and his colleagues in the EC continue to enjoy a reputation not matched by those who succeeded them at the Election Commission. As the nation awaits the formation of a new Election Commission, one wonders if the new individuals who take charge of the electoral process next month will inspire the degree of confidence in the electorate the 1/11 EC did.

A second move for which the Fakhruddin caretaker government remains noted is the purposeful manner in which it reconfigured the Anti-Corruption Commission. Under General Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, the ACC inspired confidence among citizens that malfeasance and indeed all manner of corruption indulged in by all classes of the population would be checked and that in post-caretaker times the organization would uphold the renewal of purpose it had been given by the 1/11 administration.

In effect, with President Iajuddin Ahmed as titular head of the administration but with General Moin U. Ahmed and Fakhruddin Ahmed running the show, which included paving the way to a credible general election and a restoration of popular government, Bangladesh was headed in the right direction. 

But then things began to fall apart. The centre could not hold and began to give way, owing to the weaknesses the caretaker regime began to demonstrate at a certain stage. Its zeal to push Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia out of politics was a blunder, the consequences of which it was never able to live down. The minus-two idea, as it came to be known, was sadly embraced by other actors on the socio-political scene, including some leading journalists, which provided impetus to the government in its onslaught on the two leading political figures of the country.

The problem was compounded when the Awami League chief and the BNP chairperson were both taken into custody. Worse was to follow. When Sheikh Hasina went abroad after her release, the caretaker regime suddenly and inexplicably decided that she would not be allowed to return home. And at home, it went into full-scale preparations to compel Begum Zia to leave the country. It was an odious plan. That the two leaders would likely be forced into exile was an early sign of the Moinuddin-Fakhruddin governing team deviating from its original goal of supervising a credible election.

All political activities were suspended in the country under emergency regulations, but that turned out to be no bar to individuals like Professor Muhammad Yunus and Ferdous Ahmed Qureshi engaging in political exercises. Yunus made it known that he would take part in the political process, while Qureshi formed his own political outfit.

The regime engaged in the unwelcome job of holding out carrots to those Awami Leaguers and BNP politicians willing to turn their backs on their leaders and take over their parties through the support of the caretaker regime. Reform of the political parties was the idea bandied about. It was an impolitic move by the caretakers to suppose that Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia could easily be dislodged from their pre-eminent political positions. The blunder could not have been more glaring.

There were other stumbles the caretaker regime ran into. The arrests of leading politicians of the AL and the BNP and subjecting them to the indignity of interrogation and releasing videotapes of the interrogation did not sit well with the country. Abdul Jalil was treated in crass fashion. Moudud Ahmed recorded the indignities he was subjected to in a new work he penned in the post-caretaker period.

Add to that the ugly episode at Dhaka University, where reputed academics were arrested and students were humiliated. It was the face of a government citizens did not wish to see.   The caretaker regime, rather than clearing the path to a good election, was seen to be getting busy trying to bring about a purge of the political system. That non-elected governments hold no authority to change political systems, that politics could not be reshaped through authoritarian fiat were lessons lost on the 1/11 caretaker administration.

To their credit, however, the caretakers were eventually able to take a decent way out of power through presiding over -- and credit here goes to ATM Shamsul Huda and his team at the Election Commission -- a free and fair election in December 2008.

All these years on, there is justified criticism of the caretaker regime. And yet the idea cannot be dismissed out of hand that the Moinuddin-Fakhruddin administration let us in on the thought that, in this country, it is possible to have an independent Election Commission, to have an Anti-Corruption Commission that will have the will, intention, and courage to function independently, in the larger interest of the nation. Why not build on that legacy? 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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