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Dhaka Tribune

The same side of different coins

Update : 15 May 2014, 06:34 PM

The Awami League’s (AL) orchestrated triumph over its rivals on the Bangladeshi political landscape may, on the surface, appear to be a win for secularism, but the machinations that put them there could have negative consequences far beyond the scope of what is immediately apparent.

As a party given to looking through lenses that are both retrofitted and narrow, it’s almost necessary that the AL will miss them, but an encroaching megalomania means they have also missed seeing how they have swung sharply away from liberalism and may be rapidly ceding what was once a comfortable moral high ground.

The AL’s second term was plagued by allegations of large-scale corruption, including stock market scams, the defrauding of state-owned banks and misappropriation of international development funding, all of which made them very unpopular with the voting public; in fact it may have cost them a third term had the elections been held under different circumstances.

Changing the circumstances therefore became particularly pressing for them, and the Ganajagaran Mancha provided them with a perfect opportunity to do so. Back in February 2013, when the demands for death to war criminals erupted over Shahbagh, the AL successfully turned an anti-establishment movement (against the government-sanctioned tribunal’s verdict) into a pro-government entity, manifest as the Ganajagaran Mancha, or platform for the people’s uprising.

Since then, the AL has undermined various institutions of the state, including the judiciary and the police force. They have also played divisive politics to the hilt, using the war crimes trials to alienate their opposition – accused of being either supporters or perpetrators of crimes against humanity in 1971. But their disregard for psychological, and indeed factual realities has produced results that are contrary to the ones they might have hoped to achieve.

While it’s true that members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party committed war crimes, the AL’s attempt to discredit and then disband the entire organisation as a party of war criminals has not gone down well with large sections of society that associate the party, not with war crimes at all, but with religion. The AL’s attrition against Jamaat has been perceived as an attack on Islam, and has caused it to lose its religion sanction – something that goes a long way towards legitimacy in South Asian political posturing.

Their attack on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been altogether more absurd. Terming it an anti-liberation party (even though it boasts a number of decorated war veterans among its ranks), the AL has proceeded to try and associate the BNP with treason because of its alliance with Jamaat, an alliance the AL itself entered into when the shoe was on the other foot.

The AL has resorted to manipulating and muzzling the media, amending the constitution, curtailing democratic rights and misusing the rule of law in its attempt to establish its own narrative – that they are a party of liberation and the only nationalistic platform on the scene. They have begun to appear more comfortable presiding over an authoritarian state in perpetual emergency, than an inclusive, plural democracy.

The AL’s more recent call to arms has been that they represent a counter-force to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, which, according to their interpretation of reality, is just around the corner. But just as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Yahya Khan inadvertently created Bangladesh by trying to deny Sheikh Mujibur Rahman his legitimate, democratic right in 1971, the AL may in fact be accelerating fundamentalism in Bangladesh, by denying Islam-oriented parties, like Jamaat, any space in the mainstream discourse.

Their heavy handedness against the likes of Hefazat-e-Islam, a collection of Qawmi madrassa students and teachers, and their patronage of the Ganajagaran Mancha, which has become an affront to the religious right for its call to ban religious parties, only deepens the fissures between these two camps. Attacks on minorities have increased and religious radicalism seems to be on the rise, but the AL’s habit of conveniently branding all political agitation and violence as terrorism, confounds the issue, since it becomes difficult to discern how much of the violence is inspired by religious sentiment, and how much of it is a reaction to democratic disenfranchisement.

It’s quite likely that most of it is the latter. A terrorist threat does not exist in Bangladesh the same way it exists in Pakistan, but manufacturing one has become politically expedient. Added to this, the AL’s own brand of “terrorism” in the form of student wings and party cadres who bully the public and operate above the law, makes searching for the political high ground a very difficult thing to do. 

What does any of this have to do with the Indian elections? To begin with, there are clear parallels between the party-political rhetoric in both countries, and while the mudslinging has not been as intense or aggressive in India, it certainly contains many of the same elements.

Take for example the Congress party’s attempt to appropriate secular Indian nationalism by discrediting the BJ Pasa party of extremists. Congress has used the offensive expression “Saffron terror” on a number of occasions, nearly always to demonise their political opponent, and as early as 2010, Rahul Gandhi is on record telling the then US Ambassador to India that “radicalised Hindu groups” create religious tensions and pose a bigger threat to India than the likes of Muslim radical outfit, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

While his reference to the BJP was oblique, the party took it upon themselves to respond, with at least one BJP leader terming it “crass communalism and [a] jaundiced world view.” The BJP has since denounced claims of Hindu terrorism as the “vilification of Hindu saints and army officers in the name of Hindu terrorism,” a statement very similar, incidentally, to the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islam’s preferred line of defence.

Congress and Rahul Gandhi have stepped up their offensive with Rahul’s recent statements against the RSS and the BJP in which he said: “The RSS shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi. Now they (BJP) are adopting their (RSS) principles and speaking about them.” In the same speech, he went on to say: “Wherever the opposition goes, they create a rift between Hindus and Muslims, between one region and another. We believe in taking everyone together to take the country forward.”

By referencing Mahatma Gandhi, Rahul has attempted to do just what the Awami League has done in Bangladesh, which is to try and portray the BJP as a party diametrically opposed to the very foundations of India. He has also tried to take their totems from them, reclaiming Vallabhbhai Patel as a Congress leader and not, as Narendra Modi is trying to project, a source of BJP’s authenticity. Rahul also made inflammatory statements against Modi on his home turf of Gujarat, likening his leadership style to that of Hitler’s and alleging that the BJP’s problem was anger. “They are filled with anger, hatred. Congress is all about love,” was his parting shot.

But this strategy could easily backfire; in fact it has already begun to. Rahul’s statements about Mahatma Gandhi drew sharp criticism from one of Gandhiji’s descendants, who wrote a strongly worded letter to Rahul asking him to stop using Gandhiji’s name for political gains. He even went as far as to say: “To keep harping that the RSS killed Gandhi is akin to saying the Tamils killed your father ... which would be such a petty falsehood isn’t it?”

Others have quoted Sardar Patel’s letter to Nehru in 1948 as proof that the RSS had nothing to do with the assassination. The Congress’s hold on Gandhiji’s legacy has also become increasingly tenuous since the arrival of the Aam Admi Party, which is ideologically “Gandhian” and has managed to lure grandsons of both Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri into its fold.

Its anti-corruption platform goes head-to-head against the allegations of rampant corruption in the Congress party. As the AAP rises, it will become increasingly difficult for Congress to monopolise the nationalistic narrative and it may find itself resembling not Gandhi’s India, but the British Raj.

The communal “divide and rule” strategy that Congress is subtly attempting to employ will also cost them allies. The Lok Janshakti Party, a decidedly secular party, has already chosen to back the BJP, citing frustrations with Congress’s attempts at making communalism an election platform. LJP President Ramvilas Paswan made his motives abundantly clear when he said: “More than a decade has passed since the 2002 riots in Gujarat ... It’s development and not (the riot) which is a subject of debate in the country today.”

Even more damaging has been Rahul Gandhi’s attempt at juxtaposing the 1984 riots with the 2002 riots, by saying that in 1984 the government attempted to stop the riots as opposed to what happened in Gujarat. The leader of the opposition in India’s upper house hit him with a barrage of statistics, saying: “Rahul Gandhi is ill-informed. In 1984, police hardly fired at the rioters ... it was in collusion with the government. In Gujarat, 300 rioters died in police firing. Around 65,000 rioters were arrested in Gujarat ... more than 4,000 cases have been charge sheeted and hundreds have been convicted.” Narendra Modi was also subsequently acquitted of all charges, a fact that Congress prefers to ignore.

The Indian National Congress and Rahul Gandhi are not really wrong about the BJP. There is a clear Hindutva streak in their politics, evident in Narendra Modi’s comments in Assam about Hindu Bangladeshis being welcome in India, while “other” Bangladeshis are not.

Aggressive, anti-Bangladesh and anti Pakistan posturing is also evident, and in a Hindustan Times report from January 28 this year, BJP cadres and Sangh pracharaks admitted that Modi’s appeal was linked to the perception that he would “keep minorities in their place.” “In UP, the government behaves as if Muslims are the only citizens. We will take advantage of the resentment,” a Sangh functionary is quoted as saying.

And that is the point that Congress is totally missing. The Hindutva agenda appeals to many more Indians than urban, educated, middle class India seems to give it credit for.  In fact even middle and upper-middle class Indians are taken by it, as evidenced by some of the reactions to Modi’s refusal to wear a Muslim topi. “I like him because he refused the topi,” commented an upper-middle class professional quoted in the same Hindustan Times article. “Others wear the topi, and act only for that community. But Modiji showed he will not pander to them.”

Modi was also praised for this act by the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s oldest ally, and one that it (BJP) doesn’t seem to want to antagonise, as seen by the BJP’s reactions to their very public tiff over the Maharashtra alliance issue. The Sena also expressed discontent at Modi’s recent secular overtures, and reminded him that his power depends on the Hindu vote bank, which he should not disappoint with the “poison of secularism.” The topi incident occurred a few days after that reminder.

This then, is the crucial factor that both the Awami League and the Indian National Congress have failed to appreciate. By attacking the religious orientation of their opponents, they haven’t weakened them, they may have in fact strengthened them, since both the BJP and the Jamaat-e-Islami seek to empower sections of the population that feel, and have historically felt, disempowered.

They appeal to the conservative, economically disadvantaged majority in both countries, to whom faith is sacrosanct and often their only form of fortitude. In countries where recourse to justice is scant, and exploitative economies still dominate, it’s only natural for parties claiming to represent “higher” realities to have popular support. 

Another part of this equation is class dynamics. Narendra Modi represents possibility. He represents the aspiration of millions of ordinary Indians who believe that they too can one day become leaders of a country. In Bangladesh, Islamic organisations like both Jamaat-e-Islam and Hefazat-e-Islam, are invested in social welfare activities among the very poor, often running orphanages and providing them with employment. Both Jamaat and the BJP are more meritocratic than the Awami League and Congress, which derive their legitimacy from dynasty and cults of personality. This is by definition, exclusive.

Both the Awami League and Congress attempt to dispense a top-down worldview, cooked in a cauldron of enlightened idealism expecting it to trickle down into every home and heart until it becomes the established narrative. But they are contending with a bottom-up perspective that sees much of what they represent as vestiges of an imperial order, reinforced, in the case of the Awami League at least, by excessive policing and a force-fed “liberalism,” which appears anything but liberal at the best of times.

Their misappropriation of public funds and the use of public offices for private gain also takes a lot of shine off their glow. And finally, Modi’s promises of economic growth spell progress and forward thinking, while Congress appears to be hankering for bygone eras. In Bangladesh as well, the BNP and Jamaat are seen, by many, as right-of-centre economically inclined alternatives to a lumbering and regressive Awami League, still harping on about 1971. 

India’s next elections will be vitally important for Bangladesh. The past 5 years have been the closest the two countries have ever come to harmonising their policies. It is the first time since 1975 that the AL and Congress are in power at the same time, and therefore old alliances have managed to prevail. However, this has benefitted India far more than it has Bangladesh, with a number of crucial Bangladeshi demands - water sharing, border killings, transit for trade - remaining unresolved. There are issues of maritime boundaries as well, along with the exchange of enclaves.

India’s hegemonic role is viewed suspiciously in Bangladesh, as is their outright patronage of the AL. India’s was virtually the only government globally that supported the last general elections in Bangladesh. It’s also a well-known fact that Bangladesh has lost many friends internationally over the last two years, both in the Western and Islamic spheres, due to misgivings about the war crimes tribunal.

All of this has meant that India is seen mostly as a friend of the AL, more so than as a friend of Bangladesh. As the AL consolidates its power it may become a source of embarrassment for India, specifically for the Congress party, which will be seen to be supporting autocracy on its doorstep, and propping up a government that does not have a popular mandate. It also means that it shares in the AL’s domestic unpopularity and also contributes to it, something that will make it difficult for India to have a foothold in Bangladesh should the Awami League fall from grace in the near future. 

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