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A deeper look at the Bangladesh election

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Shafquat Rabbee

On December 30, Bangladesh finally held a much awaited parliamentary election. Close to 100 million Bangladeshis voted in 40,000 polling stations across the country.

But even before polling began, many observers concluded that the vote, conducted under the country’s increasingly authoritarian conditions, would be a managed affair. It was clear to many that the ruling Awami League party would tilt the election process in its favour utilising coercive mechanisms.

 

News coverage, reports from human rights organisations, confidential party documents leaked by journalists, and unusually candid public pronouncements by ruling party members, some of which went viral on social media ahead of the polls, revealed the government’s elaborate plans for voter suppression, aggressive policing, systemic arrests and detentions of opposition activists – all with the singular objective of managing the election in the ruling party’s favour.

Given that no credible independent political polling exists in Bangladesh, analysts were left with reviews of spontaneous public engagements in political processions, social media sentiment analysis, and online polling as the only tangible measures for gauging popular support towards any political party. However unscientific, they showed that there was underpinning momentum towards voting for the country’s major opposition alliance during this election cycle.

Even the most partisan of estimates coming from government-affiliated pollsters, some prepared by nebulous characters and organisations, allotted at least 49 parliamentary seats for the opposition out of the 298 contested. However, as the results came in, it seemed as though the government’s elaborate machinery ended up over-managing the election and lost its grip on its own script along the way.

The Awami League party and its alliance ended up bagging 288 seats, leaving just seven seats for the JatiyaOikko Front, the major opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. There were constituencies where the ruling party won 99.9 percent of the votes, and hardly any ruling party candidate lost their contests according to unofficial results.

During four prior elections held under neutral caretaker governments between 1991 and 2008, no winning party ever won more than 48 percent of the popular votes. In this election, the winners bagged more than 90 percent of the total votes cast, raising serious doubts over the fairness of the polls.

The December 30 election was relatively peaceful in comparison to Bangladesh’s previous election cycles. However, the relative peace was achieved through the systemic oppression the state machinery carried out against the opposition over the past ten years, leaving it effectively hobbled and neutered.

Last year opposition leader Khaleda Zia was sent to jail on “corruption” charges; her son, Tarique Rahman, the acting party chief, is currently in exile in the UK sentenced to life imprisonment in relation to a 2004 attack on Awami leader Sheikh Hasina; and the lucky among the remaining opposition leaders are either already in jail or have hundreds of pending charges against them.

The unlucky among the opposition have been executed or forcibly disappeared. The months leading up to the election saw the highest number of extrajudicial killings over the last six years.

When the opposition appeared to be still managing to foster an effective alliance, bringing together major leftist, centrist, and Islamic elements of Bangladeshi politics, thugs wielding machetes and sticks were sent to their rallies.

Few visible election activities by the opposition alliance were allowed to take place; opposition campaign posters were removed from the streets, and opposition volunteers were arrested with unusual precision across the country.

Owing to widespread intimidation and systemic oppression, the opposition parties failed to place polling agents in most polling centres to ensure proper counting and certification of ballots.

The ruling party managed to pull off this campaign of intimidation ahead of the polls thanks to the direct control it has managed to establish over key state organs since the early 2010s. How did it manage to do that?

For about a decade and a half, starting in the mid-1990s, Bangladesh witnessed four relatively fair elections. What guaranteed the relatively smooth electoral process was a legal provision that required the government to hand over power to a caretaker cabinet for 90 days prior to the election. This neutral unelected body organised and supervised the vote and ensured that there was no interference from any side.

But in 2011, an Awami-dominated parliament overturned the provision and the following election was marred by violence and irregularities. In parallel, the ruling party also launched a process of systematic politicisation of state institutions.

Over the past decade, judicial appointments from the lowest to the highest courts have been made along party lines. In 2017, Surendra Kumar Sinh, the sitting Chief Justice of Bangladesh was forced to resign and leave the country when he acted out of sync with the party line. Such subjugation of the judiciary allowed arbitrary arrests and political detentions in the lead-up to the latest election.

Police recruitment has also been done along party lines, rendering the police force an easy tool of political suppression.

Recruitment for the civil bureaucracy, including the election commission, are also going through a partisan process where about 30 percent of all government jobs are statutorily allocated to the children of “freedom fighters”, a loosely defined group of men who fought for Bangladesh’s independence some 47 years ago, under the leadership of Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Given that the government certifies an ever-expanding list of Awami party men as “freedom fighters”, such preferential recruitment has developed a clan-based civil bureaucracy which works in favour of the ruling elite. Key figures among the bureaucrats also receive perks that often go beyond the hefty salary raises they already receive.

Meanwhile, the army has been kept busy with lucrative construction deals and UN peacekeeping missions – a source of hard currency for the top officers – and away from the troubled political and electoral processes.

In a nutshell, the ruling party has created a politicised and dependent state apparatus in which state bureaucrats have to ensure the continuing rule of the incumbent in order to preserve their perks and privileges. Such a patron-client system emerged in Iraq, Syria, and Libya with disastrous consequences.

Bangladesh has been gradually sliding back into authoritarianism over the last decade, after experiencing a chaotic democratic moment for about two decades in the 1990s and 2000s, when the country’s two major political parties took turns in power. There were teething pains in that nascent democracy, but people still rejoiced over their ability to elect and change their political leadership.

What happened on December 30 clearly shows that Bangladesh has officially become a one-party state of an exotic variety, where elections take place, yet votes are not properly counted; where numerous opposition parties are allowed to exist, but are effectively rendered impotent and barred from ever reaching power; and where the raucous media are “free” but are only able to produce a self-censored cacophony of government-approved narratives.

Today in Bangladesh, a party has its own state which has one mission: to maintain the status quo. There are certainly at least two countries that are happy about that status quo remaining – China and India – both of which stand to benefit politically and economically with Hasina in power.

Some Western countries, which have been critical of the Bangladeshi government in the past, have so far refrained from congratulating the winner. However, the Trump administration expressed its willingness to continue working with the new government, which may not mean much for Washington, but in Bangladesh, it is seen as a stamp of approval, boosting Hasina’s legitimacy.

This does not bode well for voices of dissent. The already disabled opposition alliance will likely see more heavy-handed repression and more of its activists thrown in jail, especially as the winner of the elections is making public pronouncements that it is a badge of honour to be called “authoritarian”.

This new wave of oppression will likely keep Bangladesh’s streets quiet, at least in the short term. But the absence of violence should not trick us into thinking the country will settle into authoritarian stability.

A rigged election which effectively side-lined, neutered, and humiliated the political centrists in Bangladesh will ultimately swell the ranks of rejectionists of all varieties, including the ones who reject democracy, secularism, and political change through peaceful means. And that does not bode well for the future of the country.

(Courtesy: Aljazeera.com)


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Opinion

War or peace?

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Dr Akmal Hussain

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi on Sunday, April 7, in a press briefing in Multan, announced that the government had “reliable” information that India was planning another attack on Pakistan. He revealed that during a meeting of the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, the three service chiefs had indicated that they were ready with plans of multiple strikes against Pakistan across a wide front and were awaiting a “political nod”, which was duly given by PM Modi during the meeting.
After the political boomerang of the failed Balakot strike, simple statistical theory would suggest to the military mind that the larger the number of strikes next time the higher the probability of at least one succeeding. The chances of partial success would increase if the air attack is across a wide front: the defending air force would have to spread itself thin and so the number of intercepting aircraft that could be fielded against any one group of attackers would be reduced.
Such a military adventure by India would not simply be a repeat strike after Balakot. It would be a precipitous escalation, fraught with the risk of full-scale conventional war that could quickly lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. When India suffered a setback in the Balakot engagement, they reportedly readied themselves for a missile strike against three Pakistani cities on the night of February 27.
There is no technology in existence that can determine whether or not incoming missiles have a nuclear payload. So Pakistan’s declaration that they would launch triple the number of missiles in retaliation, as soon as Indian missiles left their launch pads, carried the grim possibility of a nuclear war in the Subcontinent. If we had come so close to Armageddon soon after even a single abortive strike, imagine how much greater would be the risk of escalation to the nuclear level during a full-scale conventional war.
At present, and in the foreseeable future, two aspects of the structure of the India-Pakistan relationship create a hair trigger that can quickly and repeatedly bring the two countries to flashpoint. First, a popular freedom movement in Kashmir that, despite their protracted coercion, Indian security forces have been unable to suppress. It has instead produced a pantheon of martyrs and a new generation of militant youths willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom. Under these circumstances the internal dynamics of the Kashmiri movement can generate acts of violent rebellion against Indian troops at any time.
Second, on the other side of the border for many years non-state groups of militant extremists who have off and on received patronage continue to exist. The toxic mix of these two elements creates an environment in which spectacular acts of violence by Kashmiri youth could be blamed on “Pakistan-based terrorists” by India. This could intensify tensions, precipitating another military conflict. The past cannot be taken as a guide to say how it will end, whether in peace or nuclear war.
Given the firepower of modern conventional weaponry, significant loss of territory can occur during the initial onslaught that could escalate to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Once nuclear weapons are used on enemy troops, all-out nuclear war would follow. The recent history of India-Pakistan military conflict however has shown that even before a full-scale conventional war, a limited, localised battle can bring the two sides to the nuclear precipice.
For example, during the Kargil conflict in 1999 when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington to ask the then US president Clinton to help end the conflict, he was shown satellite pictures of nuclear weapons being loaded onto F16s as evidence for a shocked PM of how close the two countries were to a nuclear war. Then again during the first two days of the February 2019 conflict involving limited Air Force engagements, nuclear missiles were reportedly readied on the night of February 27 for use by both sides.
So far these confrontations have induced timely intercession by the international community and peoples of the Subcontinent have survived by the skin of their teeth. But what a future confrontation will bring, whether we live or die in a nuclear war is inherently uncertain. Its probability cannot be estimated.
Some take comfort in the fact that seven confrontations in the past did not result in full-scale war as international pressure to defuse tensions worked. However, this 100 percent success in preventing war in the past cannot be used as a basis for saying it will not occur the next time around. This is because in society as much as in the relationship between states the averages of the past do not necessarily hold into the future. This is unlike natural phenomena where averages of the past as expressed in natural laws do hold into the future.
For example, take the law of gravity: if you had dropped an object and it fell to the ground yesterday, there is a high probability that it would fall again if you dropped it tomorrow. But in society, probability estimates which are essentially based on projecting the past into the future are not possible in principle. The pattern of social phenomena and human behaviour observed in the past can in the future be shattered by unique events or a combination of unique events.
As the preceding discussion argues, even a limited conventional conflict following a terrorist incident can quickly escalate to the nuclear threshold. It is vital, therefore, for the two countries supported by the world community to address the explosive structure of a situation that leads to repeated military confrontation.
Millions of citizens in both countries are mired in poverty, illiteracy and disease. Thousands of children are dying at birth every day; of those who survive birth, thousands die before they are five years old. Of the children who live beyond five years, millions are suffering from malnutrition, their bodies stunted, their brains dulled. Millions of children roam the streets and alleys, deprived of quality education, abandoned by society and state and living without hope. Instead of halting this massacre of innocents together, the two states are marching in lockstep to a nuclear catastrophe.
It is time for the leaderships of both India and Pakistan to reflect on the irrationality and inhumanity of using proxy wars or ‘surgical strikes’ as a means of achieving national security. The power of a nation lies not in following the course of mutual annihilation but pursuing the path of peace for the welfare of its citizens. The leaderships of the two countries should dip their cupped hands into their shared civilisational well-springs. Imbibe the sense of compassion and human solidarity to care for our children rather than killing them.

 
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Opinion

Rubbing salt on the wounds:

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Aleem Faizee

Another assault on the people of Malegaon – this is how a shopkeeper in Malegaon reacted to the news of the BJP fielding Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal against Congress’ Digvijaya Singh in this Lok Sabha election.
It’s like rubbing salt on our wounds, another Malegaon resident said.
For the people in Malegaon, the announcement of Pragya Thakur’s candidature has brought back the ghastly memories of 29 September 2008, when the city was rocked by a bomb blast. Thakur is facing trial in the case.
On the night of the blast, it was about 9.40 pm and people were about to finish Salaat-ut-Taraweeh – special night prayers offered during the month of Ramadan – when they heard a loud sound of explosion. At first, they thought it could be a cylinder blast accident. But it soon emerged that it was a bomb blast.
The blast spot was just metres away from the Ladies Fashion Market at Anjuman Chowk where a huge crowd of women and children were busy shopping for Eid al Fitr. There was chaos near Bhikku Chowk – the site of the blast. People carried the bleeding victims, more than a hundred, to hospitals using whatever means they could find.
The blast claimed six lives. One of them was 5-year-old Farheen Shaikh who was out to buy some snacks and was on her way back home to have Ramadan dinner with her grandmother.
Among the injured was Abdullah Jamaluddin Ansari of Shakeel Transport. The 75-year-old man, during initial investigation, had said he had noticed the LML Freedom motorcycle, which was later traced to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and led to her arrest, parked in front of his office since afternoon that day. He had also informed the police chowki, a stone’s throw away from the blast site, but claimed that no action was taken.
Javed Ansari, owner of a photocopier shop, was also injured in the Malegaon blast. It took him over three years to recover and resume work.
But for these blast victims, life has never been the same since that September night.
While Javed Ansari and the family of Farheen Shaikh left the locality after the blast, Shakeel Transport’s Abdullah Ansari died last year. Following the blast, Ansari often looked at the wall clock in his shop, which had stopped working at 9.37 pm – the time of the blast – and waited for justice.
One doesn’t know how he would have reacted to the news of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and contesting the Lok Sabha election.
By fielding Sadhvi Pragya, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants people to believe that she and other accused arrested in various blast cases were ‘framed in fabricated cases’ and that ‘saffron terror’ is a myth.
But while doing so the, BJP has undermined the fact that Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur still remains a key accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. As per court papers, the first evidence that led to her arrest was the LML Freedom motorcycle that was registered in her name and was used to plant the bomb. There are also some audio tapes and visuals too. Based on these evidences, the Bombay trial court judge had observed that there was enough ground to establish Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur’s role in the blast.
Ironically, while nominating Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur as the party candidate, the BJP did not think about the kind of message this would send to all the world leaders with whom Narendra Modi has often taken up the issue of terrorism.
The people of Malegaon, who had been hearing about the pressure on some officers and public prosecutor Rohini Salian ‘to go soft’ in the case, have almost lost all hope of getting justice. Wife of Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare – the officer who initially investigated the case – had turned down then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s monetary compensation after 26/11 attacks.
Therefore, the BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur in this election is neither shocking nor surprising for most people in Malegaon. But it is painful, especially for the blast victims and their families.

 
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Majboot Sarkars Overrated?

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By Amir

Prior to the 1990s, coalition governments in Indian politics were considered to be an aberration and not particularly desirable. The lack of coalitions in India was clearly tied to the one-party preponderance of the Congress. So, when the party sensed defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, it tried to remind voters of how shambolic the 1977 Janata government had been.
The VP Singh-led National Front government formed in 1989 was perhaps the strangest political entity that people had witnessed in Indian politics. Propped up by the Left parties on one side, and the right-wing BJP that provided support with its 86 seats on the other – the government proved to be short lived.
The grand old party then supported the Chandrashekhar Singh government for four months, after which it decided to withdraw support and elections in 1991 brought back a Congress-led coalition government in the country. With that, the era of coalition politics was well and truly upon us.
Coalition governments were the new normal in Indian politics and would continue to be so until 2014, when the Narendra Modi-led government became the first in three decades since 1984, to win a clear majority.
In 1996, there was a short-lived Vajpayee-led BJP government for 13 days, followed by the rather soporific one led by HD Deve Gowda that lasted until 1997. After that, IK Gujral led the United Front coalition government that lasted from April 1997 to March 1998.
By then, the political scenario of the country was beginning to look a bit like a game of musical chairs. However, things stabilised with Atal Bihari Vajpayee returning in 1998, hanging on for a year and then getting re-elected in 1999 to finally last a whole term.
After that, with a full decade of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance leading the way, Indian politics developed a version of the two party system, rather, a two coalition system. Numerous political parties have coalesced around BJP and the Congress in the form of the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively.
Congress governments in coalition have brought about some of the most momentous and far-reaching changes. It was the Narasimha Rao-led government that introduced the economic reforms, which for better or worse, changed the country tremendously.
One simple indicator of the worth of coalitions is the fact that many thought that the UPA-I government was too hobbled by the presence of the Left, as it was a hindrance to the economic reforms associated with Congress governments since 1991.
The withdrawal of Left support, followed by the more emphatic victory that led to UPA-II in 2009, was supposed to bring in a more decisive and unfettered government. Yet, it is the UPA-I government that is remembered for the succession of rights-based legislation it introduced, while UPA II has come to be associated with crony capitalism.
Similarly, the NDA-I government of Vajpayee, with all of its coalition pulls and pressures ensured two things. First, the core and often contentious BJP issues, which are Article 370, Babri Masjid and Uniform Civil Code, were relegated to the back-burner.
Second, the Vajpayee-led BJP government could well and truly be said to have a fringe and a centre, with the fringe remaining where any fringe should belong.
However, the ruling BJP government of the day has once again brought the core contentious issues to the forefront. It has also ensured that the fringe encompasses the party uniformly, leaving no hint of nuance or differentiation.
What this suggests is that weaker coalitions may actually perform better. More importantly, coalitions are able to more naturally weave in the vital regional parties that act as breakwaters in the path of potentially elective despotism.
Are majority governments over-rated?
What have supposedly strong and stable majority governments been able to do? Have they taken decisive measures or brought about ‘big-ticket economic reforms’, untroubled by the petty pulls of coalition partners?
Take the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi government with its mammoth majority of above 400 hundred seats. In less than two years, it started playing communally divisive politics around the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano issues.
The Congress thought it was being cleverly even handed by dealing out both majority and minority communal cards. The drift in the Rajiv Gandhi government could be sensed right in the middle of its term when it lost badly in the Haryana assembly elections of 1987. It lost the hugely symbolic Allahabad by-election in 1988 to V.P. Singh, and the rest we are prone to saying, is history.
The question then is this: Could the supposed strength and stability provided by majority governments be overrated? What has the Modi government achieved on the back of its huge mandate? Has it squandered that majority much like the Rajiv Gandhi led government of 1984-89? Can Modi return to power? This has been a bit of a see-saw question.
When Modi’s government came to power with a huge landslide, or ‘tsunami’ if you will, conventional wisdom was that he was here to stay for at least two terms. The UP assembly elections in 2017 seemed to confirm this. After that, it has been more of a will he/won’t he guessing game. The jury is well and truly out on this one.

 
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