The just concluded parliamentary election in Bangladesh has produced a stunning reversal of fortunes. The Awami League (AL), which commanded a majority in the previous parliament, has been reduced to just 58 seats. The four-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNI’), the main opposition in the dissolved house, has secured 214 Of the seats garnered by the alliance the controversial Jammat-e-Islami, which elicits extreme reactions because of its support to the Pakistan army in 1971, got 17 seats. Of the smaller parties which fought the election independently, former president, General Mohammad Ershad’s Jatiyo Party, now just one among the three splinters that the parent party broke up into, has 14 legislators.
Whole numbers, real numbers
The political arithmetic that has yielded this parliamentary configuration is indeed striking. The most obvious anomaly of the result is that the single largest party in terms of the share of popular vote has been reduced to a pathetic minority in parliament. The Awami League garnered more than 40 per cent of the votes cast in the current election, which is a significant improvement on its performance in 1996, when it secured 37 per cent of the vote to form a government on its own steam. The BNP-led alliance has accounted for nearly 47 per cent of the votes. It is, of course, impossible to calculate from this combined figure the distributed share of the support that each individual constituent of the alliance got from the electorate, though it is a plausible that the BNI’ too has increased its share of the vote. But it is evident enough that under the existing rules of the political game, a difference of just 7 percent of the national vote has upset the apple-cart in as many as 156 constituencies.
The shibboleths of Subcontinental psephology are clearly inadequate to explain such a disproportionate relationship between the popular vote and its parliamentary outcome. After every election, it is customary for number-crunching think-tanks and the talking heads of television to focus solely on the seats won by parties and, on that basis, churn out cliches about the “national mandate”, the “popular will” and the “vote for change”. It is difficult to recognise any such grand and coherent pattern in the statistical break-up of the Bangladesh elections. If any meaning is to be found it must sought in the mechanics of party alliances at the constituency level. The analysis of this simple arithmetic is more instructive than any attempt to divine a national message from meaningless numbers.
This is clear enough from the fact that political analyst, Nazim Kamran Chowdhury had tallied constituency-level figures in April this year to predict the results of the election with a fair degree of accuracy. The BNI’ alliance won in most of the 80 seats where the BNP had come second in the 1996 elections, and in the 60 odd seats where the Awami League had won by a margin of less than 5000 votes the last time around. It is also likely that the split in the Jatiyo Parishad 01′) has affected the pattern of the vote. When the JP split into three, one of the factions joined the BNP combine, another under Ershad cobbled together a new alliance with a political pir (holy man) from the coastal area, while the third led by Anwar Hussain Manju, a cabinet minister in Hasina’s government and owner of the Ittefaq group of publications, was with the AL. The holy man obviously did not do much good for Ershad and the JP’s share of the vote went down by half, from 14 per cent to 7 per cent. It is not unlikely that these lost votes went to the AL and BNP. The redistribution of the residual vote and the pooling together of the electoral resources of the BNP’s combine obviously had a major impact on the final outcome.
The change in government was, therefore, effected by simple addition (BNP+Jammat-eislami) and subtraction (the Jatiyo Party) and not by a decisive shift in the ideological basis or inclination of the electorate. In the light of the figures cited and the fact that the AL polled more votes now than it did in 1996, Sheikh Hasina’s claim that the election was rigged in favour of the 13N1′ makes little sense. On the other hand Khaleda Zia’s triumphal statements about the absolute majority that her alliance commands may be premature.
It is difficult enough for four parties to get together, forge an electoral alliance and form a coalition government. It is far more difficult for the members of the coalition to establish such a harmony of views on policy and the sharing of governmental largesse that their respective social constituencies can co-exist in peace. The stresses that such coalitions are subject to could quite easily transmit downward to the cadres and so subtract from the ability of the alliance to deliver votes in the future. Besides, parliamentary stability does not quite add up to social stability. The AL has a larger electoral base than the BM’ does and, in the circumstances, Hasina’s instruction to her party workers to use “any means whatsoever” to resist attacks by the ruling party is both ominous and irresponsible. The spiral of violence that Bangladesh has experienced in the last few years may well continue if the nature of the election campaign and the events of its aftermath are anything to go by.
That this seemingly cosmetic change of government need have nothing to do with peace on the streets is evident from the recent harassment and intimidation of the Hindu minority. This development seems to be a continuation of the violence that marked the election campaign. Although the caretaker government had tried its best to ensure law and order, it failed to curb mass violence. Nearly 200 people died during the period leading up to the elections and many more were injured.
Hindus in the crossfire
Caught in the crossfire between the two parties is the Hindu community which has in general tended to vote for the AL. There have been attempts in the past to scare away Hindu voters from the polling booths to deplete AL votes. But the scale of such intimidation this time provokes deep unease. Poll observers expressed their concern over the matter and the Election Commission as well as other officials were given special instructions to ensure the safety of minority voters. The election itself was free of any incident, but as soon as results started pouring in the violence began.
Although initially these appeared to be stray incidents, media reports about continuing attacks against Hindus were too numerous, explicit and consistent to be ignored. The matter soon became something of an embarrassment for the BNP government because of the amateurish handling of this sensitive problem by the newly-appointed Home Minister, Altaf Hussain Chowdhury, a former Air Vice Marshall. His statement to BBC radio that reports of the attack were “part conspiracy, part exaggeration and part fact” elicited strong reactions from the media and the public. His next measure, presumably an attempt to make up for his earlier blunder, was to take a helicopter ride to the affected areas. On his return he announced that the situation was normal. He then attempted to get minority representative to deny that there was violence against Hindus. The ploy backfired when they, instead, publicly affirmed that such attacks had taken place. As a man who has three corruption charges filed against him by the last government—reportedly as punishment for joining the BNP—and an average of one faux pax a day to his credit, he was proving to be a major liability. The government has eventually begun to tackle the situation, but only after the President of Bangladesh, Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, asked the BNP government to take action to protect minorities.
Predictably, political hype has accompanied the attack on Hindus. The Awami League has lost no time in trying to make political capital of it by alleging that the BNP is an antiminority party, and citing the ruling party’s alliance with the Jammat-e-Islami as proof of this. But evidence trickling in suggests that the matter is not quite so simple as it is made out to be by the AL. Reports suggest that Hindus are being attacked as a retribution for past repression by the AL. In the areas where such violence has occurred, apparently the Awami League had, during its rule, refused to tolerate opposition activities and all other political parties were consistently victimised. As a result, once the AL lost power, its cadres, fearing the wrath of BNP activists, began fleeing from these areas. Failing to find their intended prey, the BNP workers vented their anger on those who they perceive to be traditional Awami League loyalists. Since the Awami League had systematically destroyed much of the democratic space during its period in office, the BNP on gaining power could very easily replicate those same tactics without any hindrance. As part of this, they have taken over all the illegal toll collection rackets and, other money spinning activities previously monopolised by Awami League supporters. The attacks on Hindus are a part of this national change-of-guard at all levels. In that sense, these attacks are not communal by design, they are so by happenstance.
But it really does not matter why what happened did happen. The fact is that it has become dangerous for Hindus to exercise their democratic rights in the open and to that extent their public space has been eroded. In the final analysis, it is just possible that this culture of political intolerance could transform itself into communalism as the natural corollary of a conflict process. Any sustained attack on one community by another can set off a chain of reactions that will affect the ways in which these communities interact with each other everyday. The consequences could be fatal for a country whose social fabric has already been under considerable strain for the last many decades. While the political elements, including AL supporters and activists, have been denouncing the BNP for its communalism, the Hindus themselves have protested the loss of their safety in a more subdued and down to earth way. As a gesture of mourning they have refrained from celebrating Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Bangali Hindus. But if the attacks continue, it is hardly to be expected that the reaction will always be muted and restrained.
Given such developments, there is little point in seeing the results of the elections as either a vote for change or a mandate against the reign of political terror in the public space. Certainly the political parties, despite all their rhetoric, do not seem to think so. And unless they seriously do, it is unlikely that the mutual violence that they indulge in, and in which innocent bystanders get killed, will abate.