We're Live Bangla Sunday, December 04, 2022

Bangladesh: 'National government', under whom and when?

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Activists of Bangladesh Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam, burn tires to block traffic on the Dhaka Chittagong high way as they enforce a daylong general strike in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, Sunday, March 28, 2021. The group having a strong network of Islamic schools had called for the strike to denounce the deaths of four people in clashes with police involving the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu)

Whenever there is a crisis in Bangladesh, 'national government' becomes the hot topic of discussions around town. The demand for a national government arises when the political government fails to bring the situation under control. For example, such a government was formed in Great Britain during the 1931-35 term of Ramsay MacDonald. The government formed by Nelson Mandela after the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, can be called a national government too. But the crisis in Bangladesh is that the political leadership has failed to reach any consensus concerning the matter of the election. Just forming a government with a few parties doesn't make it a national government. Those outside of the government are also stakeholders in the nation.

It was back in 1971 that the concept of a national government first arose in Bangladesh. At the time, all the parties outside of Awami League which had taken part in the liberation war, demanded that the government be formed with all parties. The Awami League government did not concede to such a demand and went ahead to form the government alone.

The president of National Awami Party (NAP) Professor Muzaffar Ahmed was the one who first raised the demand after independence for the formation of a national government. Awami League did not take the demand into consideration. The attitude of the Awami League leaders was, "We freed the country. We will rule the country. Why should anyone else interfere?" But when the state of the country began to deteriorate steadily and it was not possible to bring the situation under control despite having 293 seats in parliament, it was then that Bangabandhu formed BKSAL. The one-party government was dubbed as a 'national government'.

After the change of scenario following 15 August 1975 when Bangabandhu and his family were assassinated, JSD leader Col. (retd) Abu Taher proposed the formation of a national government. However, Ziaur Rahman took over power before that could be implemented. Zia and then his successor Hussain Muhammad Ershad, in army uniform or civvies, formed government comprising elements lured in from all parties, giving it the semblance of a 'national' government. Even in the first term of Sheikh Hasina in 1996, two BNP members of parliament were drawn into the cabinet and thus a 'national coalition' government was formed.

In recent times BNP has brought forward another national government concept. According to this concept, after an election held under a neutral government, a national government will be formed comprising all parties which took part in the movement, whether winning or losing in the election (Source: 30 March BNP press conference). BNP leaders did not consult their allies and associates before coming up with this proposal. The proposal was made by the party's acting chairman in London.

For quite some time now BNP has been having talks with several parties outside of the 20-party alliance and the Jatiya Oikya Front. The objective was to mobilise a strong movement in demand of a free, fair and credible election. There are no differences over a free and fair election, but there are differing views over joining hands with BNP in a movement. These elements particularly object to any simultaneous movement with the anti-independence Jamaat-e-Islami.

Certain left-leaning parties feel there will be no change in the people's fate if Awami League is removed and replaced by BNP in power. What is needed is a change in the prevailing economic system which functions in the interests of a handful of wealthy persons. In response to BNP's moral support for the hartal (general strike) called by the left-leaning parties in protest of rising prices of essentials, a leader of the left camp said, "We didn't ask for BNP's support, we observed hartal on our own strength."

Earlier the debate had been over whether the next national election would be held under a political government or under a neutral or national government. Trustee of Gonoshasthaya Kendra Dr Zafrullah and JSD leader ASM Abdur Rab had been demanding elections under a national government. Again, there are three opinions concerning elections under a national government. One opinion is that a national government can be formed under the present prime minister Sheikh Hasina with the inclusion of representation from BNP and all other parties. This is akin to the proposal made by Sheikh Hasina in 2013. The proposal was given under pressure of BNP taking to the streets and threatening to boycott the polls. There is no such movement on the streets now, but even so Awami League can consider this proposal again in the interests of political understanding.

The second opinion is, the present government will be removed by means of a movement and a national government formed in its stead. The government will remain in power for at least two terms and rebuild the broken down state institutions. This concept bears similarity to the 2007-2008 military-backed government.

The third opinion is in favour of removing the present government through a movement and forming a neutral government which will hold an election within 90 days.

Political analysts feel that BNP's national government proposal is like putting the cart before the horse, or as in the Bangla idiom, oiling one's moustache before jackfruit ripens. Forming a national government is still a far cry. First of all a free and fair election acceptable to all must be held. There is no sight of the election, no programmes for any movement, and BNP leaders are talking about a national government. There is nothing new in BNP's statement. The 14 party alliance formed by Awami League in 2004 also talked about a united movement, contesting in the election together and forming a government together too. They launched a movement which was successful and so the election of 22 January 2007 was cancelled.

In 2006, it was not just the anti-government political parties that stood up against BNP, but they were joined by all forces and organisations of the state. BNP had lost international support at the time too. Does any such situation prevail in the country now? There is little less than two years for the national election. Rather than worrying about the post-election scenario, focus now should be on how to ensure that the election is free, fair and peaceful. There is no use in BNP declaring a post-election national government before even crossing the steps beforehand. This may drum up enthusiasm among the smaller parties outside of the government, but the general people are highly unlikely to be reassured by such configurations.