There is a lot you hear about politics these days. And on all days. And you begin to wonder what it all means. Politics, after all, is just that -- politics. It is either there or it isn’t.
Wherever there is democracy, there is politics, at once transparent and unfettered. It is just that in our own context we are sometimes constrained to deal with something called indoor politics. And that happens under martial law or, as we have lately seen, in the time of an extraordinary caretaker regime.
Think of all the politics-related entries that have come into the lexicon. Martial law is of course an old term, one that we spot in early 20th century Latin America. But when General Ayub Khan commandeered the state of Pakistan in October 1958, he gave a new dimension to the term.
We were all left intrigued, sometimes even impressed, by what it meant. Come 1962 and Ayub replaced martial law with his own version of democracy (which again was called Basic Democracy and which really was antithetical to democracy).
We thought martial law was gone from our lives. But, lo and behold! It came roaring back in March 1969. In the years after that, it reared its head at fairly regular intervals in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Today, as we turn the pages of the lexicon, we spot the term scattered all over them. Perhaps there will come a time when the phrase “martial law” will be history, in the way that “revolutionary command councils” (in places like Iraq and Syria) have become history.
And then comes the matter of an extreme measure called the state of emergency. Indira Gandhi used it to extend her rule by a couple of years in India. When she lifted it, in 1977, and called fresh elections, the electorate threw her out.
General Pervez Musharraf, raring to go for an emergency, saw his hand stayed by a simple call from Condoleezza Rice. He certainly did not relish his discomfiture.
You can really count on your fingers the meagre number of years when politicians have governed this nation
Politics, as many of us will have noted, has taken a regular battering in Bangladesh. You can really count on your fingers the meagre number of years when politicians have governed this nation. And then you recapitulate all the old stories of coups and counter-coups that have often come in the way of democracy.
More importantly, it is the sheer hold that such a word as “coup” has on the popular psyche that you cannot ignore. There are individuals who may not understand English or French (and they inhabit the villages of this country), but they know full well what a coup signifies.
And that is how “coup d’etat” has carved a particular niche for itself in our political dictionary. It is something that people in the world’s democracies are not really aware of. They have, after all, not lived through the kind of exciting times we have.
Back in the old Ayub era there was a curious law called the Elective Bodies Disqualification Ordinance, or EBDO. It was a bad law, as it was aimed at keeping politicians out of politics while allowing Ayub Khan and his fellow soldiers to run riot all over the place. EBDO was one sure way of curbing dissent.
EBDO is no more out there, but it does have its place in the dictionary of archaic political terms. There are other phrases, closer to our times, that are not exactly archaic and indeed once were regarded, before the term was invented, as being politically correct.
Think here of the Legal Framework Order decreed by Yahya Khan as a prelude to Pakistan’s first-ever general elections in December 1970. The LFO was meant to serve as a set of guidelines for the country’s politicians. In real terms, all politicians ignored it; and what happened subsequently is a story we are all too familiar with.
It is likely that you will recall the Defense of Pakistan Rules. In its time, the DPR was a ubiquity because of the random way in which it was applied to bring politicians to heel.
In Bangladesh, there is the bitter legacy of the Special Powers Act. Every government post-1975 condemned the first Awami League administration for enacting this bad law and yet all of them made convenient use of it, especially when it came to harassing political opponents. Be that as it may, the SPA was for years a term we were repeatedly made familiar with. Today, every time someone talks about it, we know that it has eventually made its way into our political vocabulary.
There are interesting, perhaps even intriguing occurrences that we cannot quite possibly ignore. Take this matter of the “minus two” formula that some nefarious quarters once tried to inject into the nation’s political system. Basically aimed at Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, there were good reasons to think that minus two could one day lead to minus three or minus four or even higher.
Move on, and keep moving, until you stumble on something we have been told is the “nomination business” indulged in by the major political parties. It is really something quite simple: You give a party a hefty amount of money and in return the party will give you a nomination for a parliamentary constituency of your choice. And once you are elected to parliament, you can recover all that money and add loads more to it, through contracts and tenders and the like.
And so it goes on, all this enrichment of the political vocabulary. General Ershad once called himself pollibondhu. If there could be Bangabandhu, so the reasoning must have gone, there might as well be a friend of the villages.
Sheikh Hasina’s followers cheerfully refer to her as jononetri, which is when the fans of Begum Zia are not quite willing to be left behind. They honour their leader with the honorific of deshonetri. And, by the way, we remain aware of at least two men who are both known as Bangabir, General Osmany, and Kader Siddiqui.
It all began, as the cynic will tell you, back in the British colonial era. Think of the potency that has come into such a term as “partition.” You think of India and Pakistan and your mind conjures up images of a division that left lives ruined and futures lost for good.
We have had Grexit. Now we have Brexit.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.