People saw a light at the end of the tunnel when Nagorik Samaj, a civil society platform, on February 13 urged the Awami League and the BNP -- the two parties involved in the street fight for political control -- to sit at the negotiating table to overcome the political impasse that just about brought the economy to its knees since January 6.
The civil society group, led by former election commissioner ATM Shamsul Huda, also asked the BNP-led alliance, the alliance largely blamed for carrying out country-wide petrol bomb attacks on the public that killed at least 80 innocents, to stop their violence so that an atmosphere appropriate for dialog can be cultivated.
Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed was the first to respond to Nagorik Samaj’s call for dialog with the agitating BNP-led “conglomerate.” The AL’s outright rejection of the dialog offer really frustrated the people who wanted to see an immediate end to our culture of violent politics.
People were horrified as the obstinate BNP-led opposition allegedly had been throwing petrol bombs to force the government to accept their demands of mid-term polls, while the equally stubborn AL leadership had been firm to crush the “terrorist acts” of the BNP-Jamaat.
“No talks with the terrorist,” said the prime minister, making it impossible for President Abdul Hamid to even think of using his good office to bring them to the negotiating table, given his constitutional limitations.
Be a bystander, and you will overhear the incredibly hackneyed question: “What is the loss if they [AL] listen to the civil society’s call for dialog, as nobody takes such initiatives?”
Yes, people are right in saying that political parties must engage in dialog in a democratic polity. “No dialog” leaves no space in democracy for which the Bangalis have paid immensely for decades.
The reason why the AL is so stubborn about not going for any dialog with BNP-Jamaat has an interesting implication on its politics. This is because a single statement hinting at the AL’s interest in any sort of dialog would spell disaster among its leaders, activists, supporters, and even people in the administration, police, and other organs of the state playing crucial roles in binding the government.
How? If the AL shows a little interest in dialog to end the violence, it will boost the morale of BNP-Jamaat, who would conclude that the petrol bomb attacks on buses, trains, and trucks and the indefinite blockades supplemented by stray hartals had worked to keep the government at bay.
It could be said: “They could force the AL to budge.” And it will establish in our polity that violence and petrol bombs, not elections, were the means through which power was handed over.
Owing to infighting in the ruling party over conflict of interests and personal gain, the AL’s organisational base is not quite strong across the country.
The party has virtually merged with the government that mainly depends on law enforcers and the administration to establish a firm grip.
On the other hand, already oppressed and exasperated, the BNP-Jamaat would continue their violent activities with increased vigour to kill AL leaders and activists. This will not be incorrect that, in that case, the police and administration would not carry out the AL’s orders fearing reprisal from BNP-Jamaat if they come to power by any means, or if any unconstitutional forces take over.
Now, let’s come to the civil society’s proposal: Accepting the civil society leaders’ mediating role is likely to prove counterproductive for the politicians and the political system. The politicians (including Sheikh Hasina) and the political system once accepted that civil society leaders were better human beings than politicians as they amended the constitution, inserting the provision of a non-party caretaker government to oversee the national elections.
The constitutional recognition of the civil society seriously undermined the politicians’ role on the one hand, making some of the civil society leaders politically ambitious. Nobel Laureate Dr Muhammad Yunus can be cited as an example. He declared floating a political party after the installation of the military-backed government in 2007.
His declaration was an eye-opener for the political system, a system which started spewing venom against the civil society in a wholesale manner. Character smearing of Dr Yunus and some former advisers to the caretaker government made the civil society leaders very careful about being involved in the political system.
If the AL agrees to the dialog proposal, people will see the civil society as the last resort for resolving the political crisis. That will undermine the political system again, and no politician -- be it Khaleda Zia or Sheikh Hasina -- will accept it.