The key is in upholding our constitutional rights
No one needs a political genius to figure out that there is an anti-incumbency sentiment in Bangladesh as the country moves towards the next general election. Spontaneous mass support behind the quota reform movement, unprecedented participation of teenagers in the road safety movement, and mass participation in several low-budget opposition rallies -- when allowed by the authorities -- are just a few measures which enable us to quantify the magnitude of such negative sentiments brewing under the radar.
In such a backdrop, several known political parties along with a few popular public faces are working towards an opposition alliance, BNP at its centre.
The alliance has already made a few key demands, including the obvious “fair and free election” under a government different from the incumbent -- to the extent, such an arrangement is allowed within the constitution. There are no doubts that this core demand is popular, however, to force such a demand upon an over-confident government, the alliance needs more than just a united front of political heavyweights. The alliance need to offer some grand bargains, which would serve as compelling reasons for the public, particularly the politically disenchanted urban middle class, to move to action.
The grand bargain needs to be plain in its language, yet strong and credible in its objectives, so that the urban middle class -- a shy, timid, and lethargic elephant at the political epicentre of Bangladesh -- believes that such a bargain is necessary yet unattainable under the current circumstances without meaningful change.
The clarity and precision of such a grand bargain would be crucial because, since the independence of Bangladesh, grand political jargons surrounding patriotism, democracy, institutions, and the rule of law have come and gone.
BNP, in its last large-scale political rally, repeated several of these time-tested political offerings as part of its seven-points charter, using textbook language from the past -- none of which, as expected, stuck in the popular narrative beyond the ceremonial conclusion of the rally.
So, here is a laundry list of six basic grand bargains that the new alliance must offer.
The first grand bargain needs to be the promise of constitutional and complete independence for the judiciary. In plain language, the people need to believe that, if given a chance, the alliance will constitutionally bring back the most basic tenets of justice, the key to which is the presumption of innocence unless proven guilty.
The lower and upper branches of the judiciary need to be provided financial and operational independence from the executive branch, where recruitment, promotions, and administrative affairs of the judiciary will have the least interference by the government. For the layperson, this bargain must translate into their right to get bails in most civil cases, and protection from arbitrary arrests, torture, remand, and harassment by law enforcement.
Free speech needs to come next. The alliance must declare absolute, constitutional, and supreme legal protection for free speech in all forms, formats, media, and varieties. This must include social media, academic activities, journalism, newscasts, film, and any other avenues of free expressions of thought.
Such unbridled freedom of expression is the key to an effective feedback mechanism, which is crucial for a functioning state. There can be some obvious, specific, but very limited restrictions around “hate speech” using its universally accepted definitions, just for protecting the ethnic minorities, the weak, and the vulnerable.
Political speech -- particularly any speech criticizing the future alliance government, or its political leadership, or their family -- need to be constitutionally protected, and the alliance needs to make clear pledges that it will not harass, jail, or torture its future critics, if the alliance goes to power.
Constitutional and clearly laid-out legal procedures need to be pledged by the alliance, effectively banning all forms of warrantless searches, arrests, disappearances, and extra-judicial killing of any citizen of Bangladesh, irrespective of alleged criminality, association, allegiance, or offense.
Geo-political considerations are paramount in South Asia given the region’s vital geographical location and proximity to the theatre of the global power struggle. The alliance must pledge that it will not allow any element of the Bangladeshi society, religious or secular, to stage any attack, engage in any plotting, or any other activities subversive to the interests of Bangladesh’s neighbours, which must start with India. An open Bangladeshi market for labour, goods, and services; open access to the country’s waterways, ports, and highways in exchange for appropriate toll, tariffs, and profit-sharing mechanisms must be ensured.
Irrevocable and constitutional protection for fair elections at all levels of the government, with the provision for permanent mechanisms for the independence of the election commission, dissolution of parliament prior to an election, and election-time provision for national government must be pledged in clear language.
And finally, credible pledges for the protection of meritocracy at all layers of the government must be made by the alliance, ensuring merit-based recruitment, promotion, and nurturing of an effective bureaucracy and the executive branch. For the layperson, this should immediately mean transparent entrance examinations for government services at all levels.
The above grand bargains, if offered by the new alliance, will ensure that future Bangladesh will be governed by a fairly-elected government, which would establish a rules-based, meritocratic administration, under which people will have a freer society, stronger protection from the law, without fear of the powerful, living a life of economic openness and connectivity, in harmony with our neighbours. If implemented, the short list of grand bargains will have enough capacity to tackle all other issues which are vexing the nation.
The incumbent government may struggle to make a credible counter-offer, but these grand bargains need to come from the opposition alliance first.
The nation is still waiting.
Shafquat Rabbee writes on global finance and geopolitics. He is a finance professional and an adjunct business faculty at the University of Dallas, TX.