Tough Times, ‘Labor’ and Political ‘Midwifery’

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By Mijanur Rahman


In the morning of 28 November, I entered my classroom, to my utter surprise, only to see that no student was there. Minutes later, out of twenty five there came only two students whom I asked where the others were. I came to know that the other students did not come, fearing the hassles of traffic and potential clashes characteristic of a day of opposition rally in Bangladesh. The previous rally of BNP immediately came to my mind when the government stopped almost all the traffic routes towards and inside Dhaka in an attempt to prevent the opposition activists from attending the gathering in Paltan. That was, according to many, a rare hartal enforced by the government itself in the country’s history to incapacitate the opposition. The latest BNP-led 18-party alliance ended with a declaration to observe a road blockade program on December 09 across the country and many more programs later, demanding the restoration of the caretaker government system.

What makes this modus operandi of political activism in Bangladesh similar is the public sufferings it entails. In one way or the other, our political parties, in an effort to realize their political goals, have repeatedly found some courses of action that are painfully disruptive of public life. And these sufferings reach their heights in the interregnum between the old and the new: the transitional periods. Experiences show that the dissolution of the old government and the formation of a new one in Bangladesh have always cruelly subjected the whole nation to an unnecessarily painful birth-giving traumatic experience of an uncared for mother.

Don’t we have, then, any alternative to these painful transitional procedures? If we look at the political history of Bangladesh, we find that there are two options, both of which have been tried and failed, sometimes leading to disastrous consequences like bloodbath and imprisonment of the politicians in particular, and immense sufferings of the people in general. One is, in metaphorical terms, ‘birth control’ and the other is what I will say ‘political midwifery’.

The first option was tried in 1975 by abolishing the birth-giving process altogether in the formation of the Bangladesh-Krishok-Shromik-Awami League which apparently binned the concept of power transition forever. It was met with frustration and, quite expectedly, led to discontentment, suppression, rebellion and nasty bloodbaths involving the very figures who took the initiatives to midwife the very birth of Bangladesh. What followed were a relatively short period of multiparty democracy and a decade of autocracy – all done by military-turned-into-civilian administrators.  In the end, people just felt that some changes were long overdue and the second option came only as the necessary reflex action of this feeling.

In contrast to the first option, the second one was brought into being with a view to ensuring that the power transition in the form of the birth of a new government after each five years is always on and properly so. The multiparty parliamentary democracy was introduced and the institution of political midwifery, the interim transitional caretaker government system, came into being to facilitate the new birth of a different regime.

We all know that midwives take care of childbearing women during labor and prepare them for the delivery of new life. The role is unique, demanding and carries plenty of responsibilities. The caretaker government system is a similar practice just in a different level, in politics, transitional politics, to be more specific, the main objective being to create an environment in which an election can be held in a free and fair manner without any political influence of the outgoing government in a stipulated time period. The political midwife is a vital presence in a crucial national moment of the birth of a new government and carries plenty responsibilities too.

But the practice of political midwifery has never been popular with the outgoing regimes as it always resulted into a reversal of power. Ershad could not enjoy it in 1990-91. In 1996 Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) unwillingly gave in to it. In 2001, the Awami League resented it after the election results were out. In 2006 the worst thing happened. The nightmarish experiences of October still haunt the imagination of many. Fire in factories, killing people in broad day light in front of the cameras, road blockades, and stalemate in national life –all happened because of the polarized disagreement of the Awami League and BNP. Then the previously simple system of midwifery took complex and unpredictable turn, ultimately leading, to all politicians’ relief, to the much belated birth of an elected government. Normalcy in politics returned but the faith of the Awami League in the system, as in all previous cases, never did. This time they went another step ahead. Using the luxury of more than two-thirds majority in parliament, they scrapped it.

Now that the midwife is nowhere and that the delivery date, i.e. the election time is approaching, some very familiar scenes are in the offing. In the latest opposition rally, the announcement came of a series of road blockade and hartals if the political midwifery is not restored. The Awami League has so far turned a very deaf ear to the demand, raising the possibilities of still another transitional period of sufferings for the citizens. The Jamaat-Awami League episode has already started inundating the country with violence. Given the belligerent nature of the mighty political opposites, there does not seem to be any way out of these tough times ahead. Now that the signs of the labor have started to emerge, the common people are crouched in silence and awe to experience another birth giving process.

In recent days, some veteran citizens have proposed a third option. Ideas have come of formalin-free politics that, according to many, requires a political purgation and the emergence of a visionary leadership. But it is still improbable as is evidenced by the failure of minus-two formula in 1/11 period. A recent US presidential election might have guided our politicians but the absence of tolerance and mutual coexistence among the political parties make the possibilities very thin.

Not very long ago, one joint secretary of the ruling party was reported to have said that the Awami League still believes in the spirit of the first option. But that, as the history shows, is not going to solve the problem anymore. Despite the problems of multiparty politics, we cannot simply revert back to one party politics which will worsen the situation only.

In the end, caretaker government system has its problems, yet what our mother like land needs in the last resort at present is some sort of political midwifery again, in whatever form, not as a perfect solution to the problems we have, rather as a lesser evil out of two, to smoothen the ‘labor’ of our motherland and the ‘birth’ of the next government and thereby to ease people’s tough times ahead, at least until a better third option becomes feasible.

The writer is an Assistant Professor of English at Northern University Bangladesh.

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