The Economist article and New Age editorialby Omar Khasru
THE two articles on Bangladesh in the May 26-June 1 issue of the renowned British weekly, The Economist, has caused some stir. The dual pieces have generally hit the nail on the head and depicted the essence of the prevailing situation in this country. One paragraph in one article (‘Politics in Bangladesh; Banged about; The prime minister sets the country on a dangerous path’) describes the existing conditions succinctly and in a nutshell.
The paragraph states, ‘Some 18 months before a general election, Bangladesh suffers street protests. Opposition leaders are sent to jail, and disappearances and murders are widely blamed on an old rivalry for power. A confrontation over the next poll — who should oversee it, and whether it will be fair — is already so strident that some observers doubt a contested one will be held at all. Meanwhile, Bangladeshis fret over prices of food and fuel, chronic power cuts and broken promises of new roads.’ And, if I may add, the unfulfilled pledge of a new bridge over river Padma.
Both articles, (other one: ‘Bangladesh’s toxic politics; Hello, Delhi; It is up to India to try to stop Sheikh Hasina ruining Bangladesh’) squarely blames the intransigence and obduracy of the prime minister for the current predicament and the political crisis and conflict, traumatising and troubling this country.
Some may say that rather than blaming one individual, however dominant and powerful as she may be, perhaps the culpability may be shared by the policymakers, bigwigs, and high and mighty in the administration. That would include unelected yet overly influential advisers of the prime minister, big-shot ministers and top party officials. But then when something goes wrong in the Obama administration, Obama customarily is blamed.
The top honcho gets the blame for the mess along with the credit for any accomplishment. This is a lot truer for our country because the head of the government, who concurrently is the head of the ruling party, is pretty much a one person show when it comes to making pivotal official and party decisions.
This one-person show makes decision making based on the whim, wish and fancy of that one person even if some of these is rash, impulsive, perilous and detrimental, there is nobody to put a leash on the reckless decision making and nobody dares to point out the egregious nature of it and the damage that may ensue.
The task of the followers, party henchmen and government underlings seem mainly to emphatically, blindly and unconditionally support, justify, defend and equivocate for such decisions and actions however detrimental, devious and defective these may turn out to be.
The party chief, who is also the prime minister, gets loads of credit for puny little perceived, real and contrived achievements and boundless praise from party higher ups, functionaries and faithful and also members of civil society and intellectuals affiliated with the party. The case in point is the recent international court verdict on maritime settlement with Myanmar on sharing of the Bay of Bengal.
There is a huge appreciation/greeting committee made up of staunchly pro-Awami League intellectuals and professionals, including a few journalists, that has undertaken a series of celebrations with heaping accolades on the prime minister for her ‘victory at sea’. A number of such celebrations have already taken place and more are in the offing. The whole inconsequential, repetitive and pointless festivities will continue until the next general elections.
Real-life experience and everyday happenings confirm that the government and the ruling party function at the wish and command of the prime minister. Another recent glaring example of this is the abrupt cancellation of the caretaker regime, mentioning the higher court decision which had left a provision for two more elections under the system. The committee formed by the government under the chairmanship of Suranjit Sengupta after a string of hearing seemed to opt for the continuation of the same before a resounding no from the prime minister.
Another conspicuous pressing issue is the gruesome murder of the Sagar-Runi couple. The prime minister has been mentioned as personally monitoring it. Industrial trouble, one group or the other threatening work stoppage, the vice-chancellor imbroglio at Jahangirnagar University and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, exorbitant prices of commodities, all of these and more the prime minister deals with personally, and suggests ready remedies.
The Economist mentions some of the current burning matters: ‘In recent months Bangladesh has endured a spate of… mysterious killings — a Saudi diplomat shot dead; a trade-union activist tortured and murdered; a pair of journalists butchered after investigating corruption.’ The timing did not permit the recent police atrocities against photo journalists of the Bangla daily Prothom Alo and gruesome crime against media personalities of bdnews24.com mentioned.
The May 27 editorial in New Age described the contents of the two articles as ‘objective’. It states, ‘The articles… deal with the political and socio-economic situation in the country — the uncertainty over the next general elections, enforced disappearances, political harassment of opposition, high profile unsolved murder mysteries, Dr Yunus saga, corruption, etc. Both articles essentially deal with the… government’s mismanagement of the affairs of the state and the increasingly repressive attitude towards… dissent. The general outlook does not deviate from the glum picture carried out by national newspapers of Bangladesh and hence it is hard to disagree with the contents…’
No objective, enlightened and conscientious person would disagree with the gist of the articles and would genuinely feel that these represent the prevailing state of affairs and the collective predicament. The media, especially the news personalities, seem to have become targets of derision and denigration, condemnation and unfair criticism by influential ministers and high-level ruling party officials, perhaps culminating in several heinous brute attacks.
Even if the previous administrations were unfriendly and intermittently hostile to the media, this sort of media bashing and outright attacks on news people with impunity has been raised a few notches to an unacceptable, loutish and ruthless elevation. The latest such attacks in the last few days have been the brutal police beating of three photo journalists of the Prothom Alo and the night-time attack on the head office of online bdnews24.com.
From past experience, the perpetrators seemed unlikely to be apprehended and exemplary punishment unlikely to be meted out especially since the home minister, ala Sager and Runi, promised that assailants would be nabbed soon. The reporters are not only bulls eye targets, the bevy of media personalities are unable to exert significant pressure on the administration to take mitigating measures or effective punitive actions, other than uttering routine empty words, mainly because of the sharp division and polarisation among journalists.
As a rarity, three alleged culprits have been arrested. It would be even more of a rare exception if these and other goons are brought to justice, especially since reports point out that they may have ruling party youth wing connection.
Having agreed with the substance and contents of the two articles, the New Age editorial disparaged and condemned what it described as The Economist suggestion that India intervene to set matters straight. The editorial states, ‘… the observation made in one of the… articles that “It is up to India to try to stop Sheikh Hasina ruining Bangladesh”, which basically calls for Indian intervention in Bangladeshi local affairs, is simply atrocious and unacceptable.’
I meticulously read and reread the articles and did not find strong backing or suggestion for direct Indian intrusion. I mildly and in a measured tone disagree with the harsh and stern New Age editorial deduction that The Economist is advocating outright Indian intervention.
One Economist article mentions that the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, met harassed and embattled Professor Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank and assured him of US support. It brought no respite and seems to have backfired. Ministers, including the chief of a one-man party with barely three figure votes in election, deposit-forfeiting Dilip Barua, snipe at Yunus.
In a snub to Hillary Clinton, the government announced a review into ownership of Grameen, apparently a move to fully control the bank. The US pressure or that from European Union and others does not work and will be futile in influencing the government into course correction and moderating the undemocratic behaviour.
It is in this context that The Economist suggested that India should try to bring order, sense and civility to the current regime. It states: ‘The only country to have much influence in Dhaka is India. …India now seems to be hedging its bets between the two parties. But if it still wants to have a functioning democracy next door, it needs to speak out far louder in favour of it.’
What is terribly wrong with that? It mildly urges India to speak out to ensure democratic norms in Bangladesh. If you do not think that Bangladesh is firmly ensconced in the Indian sphere of influence particularly during the current Awami League led regime, you have either been in a Rip Van Winkle slumber or travelled to another planet. The Indian influence is here for all to see, feel, identify and recognise. It is in that framework that The Economist asked India to make things better here.
There are precedents for this. When the US and other countries try to get through to the isolated and enigmatic North Korean regime in an attempt to control its nuclear ambitions, it goes via media through China because China is the only country with a semblance of normal relation with the secretive neighbour and has some influence on it.
Similarly, when the western powers wanted to stop the Syrian regime’s wanton killing, carnage and tyranny against its own citizens, it approached Russia, which has considerable influence on the despotic and despicable Assad regime. And hence the ongoing visit of the British foreign minister to Russia.
You would not automatically conclude that the US and others are asking China and Russia to interfere in the internal affairs of North Korea and Syria. It is merely approaching countries that may be able to bring meaningful and beneficial outcome and changes. It is in the same spirit that one has to consider the Economist suggestion, even if outside advice and counsel are an anathema.
Acting in extreme nationalistic and impractical jingoistic manner or writing an editorial in the same tone is a waste of energy and emotions. One has to be realistic and recognise that, as much as we dislike it, mild Indian involvement may improve the situation and lessen the fascist behaviour of the ruling coterie. The Economist at worst suggested that. Foreign powers have done much worse in terms of putting frequent unfair pressures on this wretched country.
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