The opposition in Bangladesh has avoided the temptations of populism
A corrupt, selfish elite rules over you, an elite in cahoots with foreigners, to whom the nation’s assets and future is being sold; and the lying media and intellectuals stop you from seeing the truth; and yet, you sense the truth, that’s why you flock to the leader; even as the enemies of the people demonize him for not echoing their sophistry, you feel he tells it as it is -- that he will kick the elite out, drain the swamp, lock the corrupt up, kill the criminals, and fix what ails the country.
And make no mistake, it’s not hard to fix things, it’s just the knavery and perfidy of we corrupt elite that need to be rooted out, and the leader will do just that; and he has proved it, hasn’t he, in his remarkable career as (business tycoon or mayor or army officer or whatever); he will make the country great, because he is truly of the country, like you are, and unlike those footloose elite who will flee the land with their ill-gotten wealth if things get tough.
In recent years, variations of the above have reverberated from Washington DC to New Delhi, Warsaw to Brasilia, and Istanbul to Manila. And politics around the world has been shaken. There appears to be one exception -- there doesn’t appear to be a Bangladeshi strongman on the scene.
There might have been. After all, charges of corruption and “selling the country to foreigners” can be laid quite easily against the current regime in Dhaka. And historically, Bangladeshis have proved as susceptible to the cult of the leader as any other people. So there might well have been a would-be strongman leading the opposition.
Curiously, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, a strongman in Bangladeshi politics is a dog that didn’t bark.
Leaders of the Jatiya Oikya Front are, in fact, as unlike a strongman demagogue as one could imagine. Take Dr Kamal Hossain -- a scholarly lawyer who appears to be unfailingly polite with the prime minister during the dialogues last month. The same could be said about Moudud Ahmed -- another scholarly lawyer who served in various non-Awami League governments over the years. Of course, the two lawyers were allies in the 1960s in London, working towards the freedom of the then East Pakistan.
Four decades ago, the two young men -- both were barely in their 30s -- stood behind Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as that fire-breathing leader stared down the mighty Ayub regime. Now the two old men are allies again, standing in opposition to Sheikh Mujib’s daughter.
Scholarly, lawyerly types Kamal Hossain and Moudud Ahmed are. Fire-breathing populist demagogue they most definitely are not.
Nor is Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir a tub thumping, rabble rousing cult figure. He has the air of a high school or college teacher. Indeed, he did start his working life as a teacher, and might easily have gone on to earn a PhD and settle into a comfortable suburban life in the west. Of course, he chose politics. And he did it the hard way.
Scion of a political family, he could have entered parliament on his family name. Instead, leaving his family in Dhaka, he joined local politics in Thakurgaon, and worked his way up BNP’s organization. An indefatigable, eternal optimist, Alamgir is the antithesis of a Trump/Erdogan/Modi/Putin/Duterte.
Why is there no strongman demagogue figure in the opposition platform?
A friend noted ironically that perhaps three decades of matriarch rule has inculcated us Bangladeshis against the dangers of unleashing an alpha male. Perhaps. Perhaps there is some sociological study to be done here. After all, the cult of the mother has deep heritage in Bengal, and survives today in the form of the country’s national anthem to late Ayub Bacchu’s song hit.
Or perhaps we have been experiencing the cult of the populist leader for the past decade, and in a few old men we seek salvation precisely because they look to be what the current prime minister is not.
Also curiously absent from these old men’s promises is any red meat rhetoric about 1971, Islam, India, and the history wars. Instead, they promise tangible, practical stuff. And most importantly, they seek to bring politics back by stressing, by virtue of their action, two important aspect of the hard work that is politics: They want to govern, not just shout holier-than-thou slogans; and they want to build consensus, synthesis if you like.
Interestingly, not everyone welcomes these old men. No, I am not talking about the Awami Leaguers. Of course, they don’t like the Jatiya Oikya Front. That the regime is afraid of the opposition is evidenced by the blatantly partisan shenanigans of its hand-picked Election Commission. More curious are the likes of Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, Farhad Mazhar, and Sohrab Hossain -- whether they are naive or knave I leave it to the reader to judge.
It’s not easy to be optimistic about liberal values anywhere in the world these days. Bangladesh is an exception. Yes, the regime is likely to steal the election. Yes, the opposition might not be able to defy the might of the regime. Yes, these old men -- whose moderate approach gives the PM the safest passage to exit the scene gracefully -- might yet be replaced by a populist demagogue.
All of the above may well happen. But right now, men like Kamal Hossain and Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir give hope to the cause of liberty.
That is something.
Jyoti Rahman is a political blogger. This article first appeared on jrahman.wordpress.com.