The senior statesman is determined to take one last glorious shot
“Politics is who gets what, when, how,” thus the definition went from the eminent American political scientist Harold Laswell.
It is possible that nobody gets anything from the newly created Jatiya Oikkya Front (National Unity Front). Indeed, instincts and the evidence I have seen lead me to believe in no uncertain terms that the tie up between the venerable Dr Kamal Hossain and the opposition BNP, along with the assorted non-entities each of them counts in their camp, is a case -- in the context of Bangladesh’s upcoming parliamentary elections -- of the old adage attributed to Suhrawardy of zero plus zero is zero.
This is not a reflection of the principles or policies or popular support of the ostensibly Kamal Hossain led National Unity Front which counts the BNP, a faction of the venerable JSD, and a whole lot of “signboard parties” and offshoot of offshoots in its roster.
Rather, my cynicism is driven by the ground reality that with the administration, police, police-protected BCL vigilantes, and lower judiciary all on the same side as the ruling party, the outcome of the elections is as foregone a conclusion as those in Bashar Assad’s Syria or Cold War era Hungary or Kim’s North Korea (each of those, by the way, has, officially, “multiparty democracy” and “free and fair elections run by independent election commissions”).
The only outside chance that there will be a relatively free and fair election -- in the sense that “relatively” can be defined in semi-authoritarian countries -- is if there is enough persuasion by Bangladesh’s key partners in development, trade, and international peace-keeping.
It is precisely in this area of an off chance that Kamal Hossain, with his sterling global reputation as a jurist and a far reaching Rolodex built over 40 years of international engagement at the highest levels, comes into focus.
With most key leaders in jail, on the run, or co-opted by the powers that be, BNP has little depth at its top right now; and in the absence of any exiled leader with the gravitas and charisma that such exiles require to have a meaningful effect in London, Paris, Ottawa, or Washington DC, the party is largely in the wilderness when it comes to pressing effectively for free elections.
A man like Kamal Hossain as a titular leader of a seemingly broad-based democracy restoration movement makes ample sense from a public relations perspective abroad and safety at home: Despite the usual calumnies thrown at him by men and women who only the other day called him “chacha” and “architect of our great 1972 constitution,” it is hard to see the regime’s police arresting him on the usual trumped up charges, or its judges locking him up and sending him to torture chambers to satisfy their bosses.
You simply don’t do that to the guy who was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s lawyer, foreign minister, and law minister, on top of being the key author of the 1972 constitution.
Put in blunt terms, Kamal Hossain’s gravitas, connections, and respectability may be the only tool left for the opposition to make a moral and realistic case for a free and fair parliamentary election on a playing field which is not totally tilted.
But what does the venerable key author of the 1972 constitution get in return?
I have no crystal ball to dissect the dynamics of the bargain in one of the country’s most brilliant constitutional minds. Yet, I would be lying if I did not observe the twilight working years of Dr Kamal Hossain and detect perhaps a desire to do one last thing to fulfill the utterly broken promise of the 1972 constitution that pledged a secular, pluralist, multi-party democracy with strong institutions.
Now that the very last foundation of that constitution -- free and fair elections -- is on the verge of collapsing under de facto one party rule, it is possible that the learned jurist wants to come off the sidelines one last time and fight for his legacy in the arena before it is too late.
Never a politician given to the hustle-bustle of South Asian retail electoral politics or comfortable with the role of partisan hack, Kamal Hossain would have found a perfect perch as a senior statesman in an appointed role in most of the matured, pluralist democracies which, in turn, would have benefited from his sagacity and wisdom.
Whether he finds that role in Bangladesh or not remains to be seen; but with this unity move, he looks determined to take one last glorious shot, a redemption of sorts, at restoring the promise of the constitution he so lovingly crafted almost half a century ago. Kamal Hossain is not riding quietly into the sunset but giving, proverbially, what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” to the cause of a republic of which he was one of the architects.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]