The general elections held last year merely changed the seats of the belligerent parties and not the state of political war within Bangladesh. For the moment, the political tension in Dhaka is explained by the simple fact that Begum Khaleda Zia is mad at Sheikh Hasina Wajed for being the Prime Minister, a post she held once. Earlier, before the June 1996 elections brought her to power, Sheikh Hasina used to be similarly incensed towards Begum Zia for the same reason. It seems that violence and vegetables sprout aplenty in Bangladeshi winters. As the chill of winter sets in, the country´s political climate also begins to heat up. A rocket launcher is found hidden inside one of Dhaka´s overhead water tanks, and the word is spread that it was meant to finish a major leader of the Government party. Begum Zia, on a trip to her constituency in North Bengal, narrowly misses injury as a marauding truck sideswipes her vehicle – an assassination attempt, cries out her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Violence from both sides is promised and feared. Young men are being groomed for mayhem and hand-crafted bomb production is on the up. The BNP and Awami League (AL) have by now accused each other of everything possible under the sun, including treason, smuggling, cohabitation with anti-liberation forces, conspiracy with India, protecting thugs in forever-young “youth wings” and so on. The vitriol is poured out eagerly by both sides, and the mutual hate level is at an all-time high. One might even have enjoyed the drama if it did not hurt the people so.
What hurts the people most, but apparently does not bother the political parties as perpetrators, is the hartal, or bandh, as it is alternately called in other parts of South Asia. Hartal and its variants such as sit-ins, obstructions, mass picketing sessions, and all manner of street agitations, are the basic nutrients of Bangladeshi politics. The people have become exhausted by this process of coming to power, but as yet have found no way to articulate their disgust.
At one point in time, during Sheikh Hasina´s agitation to overthrow BNP, it is true that the body politic had begun to question the efficacy of hartals. But the stepping aside by Begum Zia under public pressure after a zero-credibility election gave hartals a new lease of life. And now, Begum Zia has begun using the hartal wand for similar effect.
When asked about hartals and all that they portend to the ordinary person, Dhaka politicians reply lamely, “What else can we do?” This is not only a declaration of despair but also a reflection of the poverty of the culture in which politics has flourished. The continued reliance on an agitation tool that is more than a century old shows nothing but bankruptcy of political imagination.
The arguments are always the same. The party that is out of power, and so the one to call a hartal, will explain that “if the government is reasonable and if demands are accepted, there would be no hartals”, while the one in power will maintain that the demands are impossible to accept without compromising national interests. When the roles are reversed, the parties merely change sides but the contentions remain the same. Hence, a party in power will say it represents the interests of the people, while once in power, it will lay claim to representing the interest of the state.
Bangladesh´s political parties are also driven by the sense of their own legitimacy as opposed to others. The BNP took to the streets against Hussain Mohammed Ershad and used hartals to build up a mass agitation. But hartals suddenly became anti-national when the Awami League took to calling hartals. The BNP claimed that its own hartal politics were legitimate because Gen Ershad had come to power by overthrowing a legitimate government. (It is of course another matter that the BNP had come to power through a coup and their rule subsequently made halal by a rigged election.) So, for the BNP, its own hartals represent genuine expressions of public resentment while hartals against it do not.
The Awami League, on the other hand, bases its legitimacy on the fact that it not only led the liberation war but also a two-year-long agitation to establish democratic rights that brought it to power in 1996. For the AL, the BNP can never be legitimate because its existence is grounded in the 1975 military takeover that followed the assassination of Awami League founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Further, says the League, it is a party of power-seekers without a political past, a party which defends the interest of the anti-liberation war groups of 1971, a party which hobnobs with Islamic fundamentalists, and so on. Says the AL, Begum Zia´s BNP lacks the legitimacy to call hartals. Hartal, a weapon of the people, should only be used by democratic parties.
Now in the opposition, the BNP has taken note that hartals do hurt the economy. So the garments sector, fully geared to export, has been exempted. Rickshaws also ply the streets although not officially allowed by the hartal committee. For its part, the Awami League has mobilised hundreds of musclemen to beat up the hartal makers to discourage them from doing exactly what they had been doing some time before.
Politics in Bangladesh is a strange classroom where one learns the same things again and again. Only the teachers alternate.