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A people’s republic

  • Published at 12:00 am December 30th, 2018
Kamal Hossain
The agents of change? RAJIB DHAR

History does not need to repeat

A few weeks ago, I asked why the promises of a few old men should be taken seriously. Harassed, threatened, beaten, bloodied, shot, arrested, family members arrested -- yet, Jatiya Oikya Front is still spreading its message.

Their grit alone deserves to be taken seriously. And Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir’s inspiring words are backed up by specific commitments that will return the republic to its people.

Ours is a political culture that puts the individuals above institutions. In the 1980s, opposition to the regime of HM Ershad focused on his individual persona -- hathao Ershad, bachao desh. When pressed on what would happen after Ershad, they came up with the idea of an election under a caretaker government. Not much thought was given about what would democracy actually mean in practice. 

With the resulting winner-takes-all duopoly, the focus again turned to individuals -- the two leaders, disparaged with a sexist undertone, the Begums. Subtract Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from politics and all will be well, wasn’t that the idea behind 1/11 and minus-2?

For the first time in our political history, the focus is not on the individual. Mr Alamgir or Dr Kamal Hossain aren’t claiming to be the messiah. Nor are they shouting hathao Hasina. They appreciate that simply changing the individual occupant of Ganabhaban won’t create a people’s republic in Bangladesh.

They are asking people to vote their conscience, and if the voters give them the chance to govern, they have concrete promises that will go a long way towards institutionalizing democracy.

The Oikya Front manifesto, underpinned by BNP’s Vision 2030, recognizes that it is the centralization of power that is at the root of Bangladesh’s political problem.

The unitary nature of the state with a Westminster system government using a first-past-the-post voting mechanism, Article 70 of the constitution barring floor-crossing, lack of meaningful local government -- all contribute to centralization. And once power is centralized, there is a vicious cycle of abuse, repression and systematic erosion of institutions. 

The opposition alliance makes categorical promises to change this. In the first instance, if it wins the election, the Front promises that opposition MPs will lead the key parliamentary committees tasked with holding the executive branch of the government accountable.

Awami League MPs played important roles in holding the administrations of Ziaur Rahman and HM Ershad to account in the 1980s. It will be good to see them perform that task again. It also promises that that deputy speaker will come from the rank of opposition.

Beyond these, the Front promises to shed light on manifold human rights abuses -- extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance -- without perpetuating the vicious cycle of vengeance and retribution through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They promise to seriously reform the law enforcement agencies. They promise to repeal various gag acts. These are concrete steps to strengthen democracy.

Most importantly, they promise to reform the constitution through an inclusive mechanism -- not in the manner of the Bakshal amendment of 1975, nor through controversial court verdicts like 2010-11, but through a consultative process. Their aim is to ensure that judiciary can deliver the rule of law, and devolve executive power to the local government.

There is a common refrain among the chattering classes in Bangladesh -- both sides are bad, we have a choice between frying pan and fire, why bother. Jatiya Oikya Front shows how the fire can be turned down. They understand James Madison’s insight that governing institutions should be set up assuming that the devil might come to power, for if angels would need no rules to govern well.

The Front’s aim is to create a new republic, a true people’s republic. It’s a revolutionary aim. And yet, their chosen method is constitutional. They are participating in an election to make their case, and they lay out a clear path for a better day.  

This is exactly what happened in December 1970. Of course, that December the Yahya regime allowed the people to express their choice. They refused to honour their choice, of course the rest is history. Here’s to wishing that history won’t need to repeat. 

Jyoti Rahman is a political blogger. This article was first published on jrahman.wordpress.com.