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#269, 4 October 1999
Internal Politics in Bangladesh: An Insight
Saswati Chanda
Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University

The recent three-day total nation-wide strike in mid September was called by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) due to the government decision on July 28,1999, to permit transshipment of goods to north-eastern Indian states. The opposition’s decision can be cited as a pretext to resort to oppositional tactics of destructive agitational politics to wrest power from the ruling Awami League. The ruling party though a trifle unnerved, described it as a ‘failed coup’. The staggering blow it dealt to the country’s economy generated severe criticism from varied multi-lateral and bi-lateral donor agencies whose aid to the tune of US $2,000mn every year serves as the base for an otherwise unstable economy mired by recurrent natural disasters.

The internal political scenario in Bangladesh, ever since its liberation in 1971after a bloody and bitter struggle for independence has been marked by extreme volatility, violent changes of government, military coups and agitational politics both constructive and destructive. These have caused grave damages further undermining its already dismal economic performance that has put her almost at the bottom of Asian developing countries. 

The three important tasks the nation has faced since its inception can be categorised as under: 

·                     To fulfill the democratic aspirations of the people through a participatory system of government which had not been possible in United Pakistan.

·                     To evolve an economic structure that could not only promote growth but also remove exploitation and injustice from the society.

·                     To establish a national identity based on history, language and cultural heritage. 

However, the past decades create an impression of an era of missed opportunities and misdirected efforts.

The nation inherited a dual tradition of governance-extreme populism on the one hand and authoritarian personal rule on the other. The country after its birth had a populist government headed by the charismatic leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Within a span of three years, however he had to resort to authoritarian rule to deal with growing political opposition and economic crises. The subsequent rule in Bangladesh after him could be categorised into four modes of governance:

·                     Direct military rule or martial law regime;

·                     Multi-party democracy with a strong executive;

·                     Authoritarian rule with a democratic facade; and

·                     Parliamentary democracy with a titular executive.

The years of military rule since Mujib’s death witnessed strong institution destroying proclivities of the ruling elites to consolidate power. The military rule failed to fulfill its promises to the people, of order and discipline in society alongside a resurgent economy. On the other hand transition from military rule to civilian regime led to many distortions in the political process of the country.

The multi-party system of Zia-ur-Rehman and authoritarian rule of H.M.Ershad produced strong executives, ‘rubber stamp’ parliaments, subservient bureaucracy, weak judiciary and ruptured political institutions. The authoritarian regime of General Ershad particularly witnessed serious erosion in norms and values of major institutions of government.

The dual tradition of governance also produced a major distortion in political participation. While democracy has been the most favourite political ideology to Bangladeshi people, authoritarianism and military rule negated the realization of that idea. Desperate efforts to replace military-authoritarian regimes led to a dominant perception among Bangladeshi politicians and political parties that agitation, hartals and strikes have become the main instruments for change of government. Politicians could, therefore, hardly see or spell out democratic governance in terms linked to effective public order and authority. Democracy has been presented to the mass of people as an abstract ideal---a struggle to change or overthrow a government.

As a result, the present Awami League government ever since its return to power in mid 1996 has faced severe criticism from the opposition for its supposed proximity to India, the most recent of them being the transshipment issue. Another issue that has alarmed the opposition is the Awami League’s effort to bring to justice those responsible for the assassination of Sheikh Hassina’s father Shiekh Mujibur Rahaman, following the death sentence awarded to 15 out of the 19 accused, by a lower court and awaiting Supreme Court’s approval. 

The opposition BNP led by Khaleda Zia which had come to power following mass upsurges and joint oppositional resistance in 1991 was forced out of office by early 1996, by the then opposition Awami League (AL), whose policy of ‘non-cooperation’ entailing street protests and disruptive strikes made the country totally ungovernable. In the present political scenario the opposition has adopted a similar stance against the ruling AL in its bid to regain power in alliance with the former President General H.M.Ershad and the fundamentalist parties like the Jammat-E-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote.

While Bangladesh is considerably fortunate to enjoy considerable homogeneity as a nation, its political elites often espoused seemingly irreconcilable beliefs, symbols and values creating stress and instability. Oppositional forces have thus lived upto the fear of them becoming increasingly dysfunctional and violent due to their constant pursuance of destructive agitational politics. The party in power is thus being increasingly driven towards adoption of intolerant and repressive attitude---resulting in a political crisis and hence ‘crisis of governance’. 

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