Tolerate, respect and honour each other – have dialogue

Mostafa Kamal Majumder
All in Bangladesh have remained in a state of despair with the warring sides the AL-led alliance in the government and the Bnp-led alliance waging movement in the form of blockade not buzzing an inch from their respective positions. The 19 days of non-stop blockade has brought miseries to the life of the common man, affected economic activities whose impacts would start to be felt soon. But almost all people interviewed in media have said that they don’t see a solution to the impasse.
The suggestions that have been offered from the members of the civil society groups can be divided under three categories – 1) dialogue is a must and the initiative should come from the government, 2) both sides should stop violence and engage in talks, 3) the government should use the force under its command and restore order and discipline and 4) the Bnp-led alliance should continue its movement till it is crowned with success. The views expressed in the last two categories also agree with those of the government and the opposition respectively.For a fair assessment of the situation one should look at the roots of the divergence of opinion in the political arena instead of convergence at least on the fundamentals. These are the political parties which had succeeded to have a consensus to adopt the Constitution 12th Amendment Act in 1991 and reintroduce Parliamentary form of government, which was dropped under the 4th Amendment passed in January 1975. There were constitutional crises also soon afterwards when the Awami League, Jamaat and Jatiya Party boycotted the 15 February 1996 elections because a provision for caretaker government, as they demanded, was not introduced by the then Bnp government. These parties took part in the 12 June 1996 elections only after this provision for election under caretaker government was introduced by the Bnp government that had a required number of seats after the one-sided election to modify the fundamental law of the land.
The present impasse owes its origin to the undoing of the provision for elections under caretaker government unilaterally by the incumbents – a constitutional shift not endorsed by any other political party worthy of mention in Bangladesh. Bnp which remains the main contender for power has made it a point that free and fair elections cannot be held except under a non-partisan government. Thus the January 05, 2015 elections were boycotted by a majority of the parties. The Bnp-led alliance had also called countrywide blockade compelling the incumbents to have candidates from as many as 154 out of 300 seats elected unopposed. The arrangement and the sharing of seats was such the incumbents cut jokes that the main polls-boycotting party – the Bnp – lost even its share of easy seats in the process. In the election for 146 seats voter turn-out was very low – the opposition said less than 5 percent, the government claimed 40 percent. In the count it was found that no vote was cast in as many as 53 polling centres.
After the elections however the Bnp-led alliance withdrew the blockade pinning hope that fresh election would be called soon after. This did not materialise. Instead the incumbents rejected call for dialogue and said future elections will be held under the incumbent government that too after the present Parliament completes its term in 2019. It is to be noted that doing away with the caretaker system was not a set political aim, nor included in the 29 December 2008 election manifesto of the Awami League. The AL government found this as a windfall as the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Khairul Huq, set aside a HC decision that had rejected a petition for doing away with the 13th Amendment that introduced the caretaker system, and declared the said amendment null and void. The Appellate Division had however suggested that the caretaker system may be continued for two more terms under a modified formula of choice of Chief Adviser (election-time chief executive) not from among former Chief Justices. The 15th Amendment that was passed in the 9th Parliament ignored even this suggestion of the highest court. Taking cognizance of the opposition views and suggestions remained a distant cry.
The Bnp-led opposition had questions about the December 2008 elections held under the extended tenure of the military-backed caretaker government which, it has been alleged, favoured one of the major parties in the election on word to give them indemnity for a safe exit from power.  This caretaker government had come to power under emergency provisions that the then President Iajuddin Ahmed was forced to proclaim a day after the AL-led grant alliance boycotted the January 22 elections of 2007 that was later postponed.
Thus apart from a lack of tolerance of each other the major parties after the 15th amendment also lost the constitutional framework of unity to converge even on one fundamental point of governance like election. Fact remains that under the constitutional framework that was based on consensus all governments elected since 1991 served full 5-year terms. This stability had come although none of the governments since the liberation of Bangladesh till then did had this feat. One may argue that the government of president Hussain Muhammad Ershad lasted long nine years. But if one does have a close look at his rule one would find that Ershad ran a martial law government from 1982 to 1986 after which on 7 May 1986 he called parliamentary elections enlisting the participation the AL and the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh apart from some other small parties. But this Parliament lasted less than two years when Ershad dissolved it following resignation by Jamaat MPs. Another parliamentary election was held on 03 March 1988 without the participation of the AL, the BNP and the Jamaat. ASM Abdur Rob of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal was made the leader of the opposition.
All governments elected since 1991 survived assaults from the main opposition party(s) which seldom conceded defeats, because they did not get people’s response to movements to bring these government(s) down. An extreme example of lack of people’s support was the two-year-long movement for caretaker government in 1994 and 1995, that included little over year since the resignation of the major Parties -AL, JP and Jamaat – from Parliament in December 1994. These parties got winds to their sails only after the one-sided election of February 1996 that they did militantly boycott.
The average people are always for peace, order in public life and stability. They however are also conscious of their power to elect governments. The present stalemate has emanated from the dismantling of the framework for binding the stakeholders in our political system together. Thus on the one hand there has been the absence of constitutional unity, on the other none of the 3 organs of the government have succeeded to rise to the occasion to take care of this weakness and recreate the same or find some other ways of holding the system together. In the prevailing era of over-politicisation, unfortunately there is no individual or institution in the greater civilian society which has proven neutral credibility to both sides to call the warring parties to the negotiating table. In such a situation suggestions offered by most others come close to the points of view of either the incumbents or those who are in movement for fair elections. Ordinary people are being sandwiched as the warring sides are holding back to their guns.
Against this backdrop there can be only one big alternative suggestion to both the parties. Please try to understand that the people are not ready to sacrifice one party for the other. Both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Bangladesh Awami League are mass-based parties representing certain classes of people in capital Dhaka down to every village in Bangladesh.  Ignoring the existence of one by the other is not a feasible proposition. The AL is now a centrist party while the Bnp is a right of the centre party. Their political philosophies slightly differ in that one emphasise more the linguistic identity, and the other linguistic plus religious identity. Economic strategy-wise they hardly differ although the AL has moved from a left stance in the seventies to the position of a centrist while the Bnp has moved from the position of a centrist party to one being slightly right of the centre. The Major parties are known for these differences. One cannot change the other. The only democratic option is to accept each other gracefully and compete with each other in elections that are acceptable to both. The Awami League should come to terms with the fact that the Bnp would represent and fight for the classes of people it represents and the Bnp should likewise accept that AL would serve the interests of the social classes it represents. Both should also know for sure that just as they cannot eliminate different classes in the society they also cannot eliminate the parties that they represent. The prophets of magnifying the majesties of either the two parties to the extent of ignoring or annihilating the other, please stop. The people do not want internecine fights. Yours is not the right path. The people do not want annihilation of one by the other. They want all parties to operate freely side by side in a spirit of toleration, accommodation and respect. Parties in all democracies function with these values. Things can be no different in Bangladesh.
Would it not therefore be logical for the major parties to gracefully tolerate each other’s existence, respect each other’s dignity and honour? The people will decide who stands where in the scale of popularity. Not the parties themselves. Democracy is essentially a limited government with maximum citizen’s rights. All people are equal in a democracy without any discrimination. The organs of government should be in a balance of power to secure democratic rights of citizens. Power is neither absolute nor permanent. It changes hands. Those who are in power should accept people’s verdict and be in the opposition when the people would so desire, and vice versa. Only this way we can respect the people who ‘are the sources of all power,’ and fulfill their hopes and aspirations. Tolerate, respect and honour each other – start dialogue. Because one-time win will not last and a political system  should not be suffer just for achieving short term goals. If the system gets back to one based on consensus it would be sustainable or last. When sustainability of the system is achieved everyone wins. There will be no loser, the system shall guarantee a win-win situation for all stakeholders.
(The writer is editor, GreenWatch Dhaka)