Thursday, 11 January 2007

Weapons of the Weak

Rahman Nasir Uddin

The world is watching a very unusual and attractive game being orchestrated in Bangladesh, with the national parliamentary election at the centre. The Awami League-led grand alliance (GA) has boycotted the 9th parliamentary election scheduled to be held on January 22. The BNP-led four-party alliance (FPA), on the contrary, is going to participate in this one-sided election. GA has not only boycotted this election, but has also vowed to resist this electoral game because of the president-cum-caretaker chief. I'm disturbed, thinking about the role, and the plight, of the people in this arranged game.

Undoubtedly, the present political catastrophe, which is turning into a constitutional crisis, will impact negatively on the constantly declining political culture of Bangladesh. It is very easy to postulate that the two alliances are doing all these things to get back to power. Rather, we need to look critically at the matter around the event. It is more sensible to look at the issue from the people's perspective. I intend to locate this event on an "integrated-premise" of dynamics of parliamentary politics, politics of vote-bank, and strategies of holding power in Bangladesh politics.

Dynamics of parliamentary politics is a process where three inter-related components -- the interim government, the regular administration including the EC, and the political parties -- function together towards establishing a legitimate body of the elite, now mostly businessmen, to run the state for the next five years. One always ignored section is the people, though the political parties always talk of them, reciting the popular myth: "The people are the source of all power." In practice, the people are always used in the process of establishing this legitimate body of the elite.

In the dynamics of parliamentary politics, two sections -- the interim government and the regular administration including the EC -- have already lost public confidence and acceptance of majority political parties, except for the four-party alliance, for their non-sensible deeds and apparent partisan affiliation. The third section -- the political parties -- are the key players in the dynamics of parliamentary politics. This section always thinks of, and acts for, regulating the dynamics of parliamentary politics, and components of this dynamism, to create favourable space for being included in the legitimate body at any cost. In this context, the FPA is much more advanced than the GA in many respects. The FPA, the immediate erstwhile ruling alliance, left a set of submissive personnel in every department of the state, including the caretaker government and EC. The FPA is, very likely, eager to have the election held as soon as possible as it is sure of coming back to power. The GA, from the very beginning, pressed a charter of demands before the interim government, regulated by FPA, with the intention of creating minimum space for themselves. The GA believe that they deserve the full space in the other two components of the "integrated premise" of parliamentary politics. Apparently, GA failed in creating adequate space in the dynamics of parliamentary politics, but because of strong belief of holding the other two components favourably -- politics of vote-bank and power of election -- they, at a certain moment in their movement, decided to take part in the parliamentary election.
Politics of vote-bank is another regulatory component for better understanding the recurrent political events of Bangladesh. The GA ensured the majority vote-bank by welcoming Ershad into the coalition, signing a pledge with Islamist parties, and adopting the LDP, the Adivasi Forum, and other smaller political groups. Besides, there is an established perception that all minority and all secular votes will be reserved for AL and its alliance. It is to be mentioned here that, after the signing of the pledge with the little-known Islamists, the intellectuals, civil society, entire media world, and secular sections of society started raising their voices proclaiming that the AL had damaged the image of its more than 50-year political history, glory, and heritage.

It is being frequently said by those sections that the AL has violated the foundation of secularism in the political and state history of Bangladesh. I don't find any sensible reason to blame the AL because such desire is not necessarily linked with the AL action only. However, signing the pledge was nothing but simply the politics of vote-bank. Whether AL will be benefited or not is a different question, but the AL wanted to ensure an Islamic vote-bank. It is often said that Bangladesh has a big Islamic vote-bank in rural and semi-urban areas. Nevertheless, the GA tried to ensure the whole space for themselves in the politics of vote-bank. On the contrary, FPA has minimum space in the politics of vote-bank. The only way for them to foil this calculation is to use the caretaker chief, EC, and administrative set up that is still allegedly devoted to four-party. That's why the BNP is so enthusiastic in "upholding the constitution."

The power in Bangladesh politics, especially in the politics of parliamentary election, is absolutely the people whom I'm thinking about. In fact, every five years, the people have the only chance to utilize their power to participate in state-management, engaging in the process towards establishing a legitimate body through parliamentary election. This power is an integral part of dynamism in the politics of parliamentary election. Truly speaking, this power is key to reshuffling the entire political arrangement for the country. However, it is always used, largely misused, by political parties. Despite this, the people play a vital role in changing the regime of political parties, though there has been no remarkable change in their lives. In contemporary Bangladesh, the people, the powerhouse, are totally fed-up and disappointed by the rule of FPA government for three notable reasons -- complete failure in power sector, uncontrolled price-hike, and rampant corruption and nepotism in every department of the state. This disappointment, GA actually think, will turn into the rejection of BNP and its alliance in the forthcoming election. The people, therefore, GA thinks, will support them in the 9th parliamentary election. Nevertheless, GA is out of this election. Now, what should the people do?
The demands of GA -- removal of caretaker chief, preparing updated voter list, neutralization of EC, de-politicization of administration, etc -- are no longer their political demand. It has turned into a public demand. However, BNP is impatiently moving towards being back in power, without considering any demand of the people.

It is clear that whatever the caretaker chief and EC are doing is just to bring FPA back to power. The power-seeking political culture of Bangladesh always ignores public-interest. If the election is held, it will, unfortunately, unveil the ugly face of political manipulation of the caretaker chief, EC, and the entire election mechanism of Bangladesh.

Finally, I would like to conclude by saying that either boycotting or participating in election is simply an elite-game. If the people are really the power in politics and election, why should they participate in this game? Rather, I propose, the people should resist the entire manipulation of electoral-dynamism by boycotting this election. Not necessarily to support GA, but to keep the spirit of upholding public interest.

Anthropologist James C Scott terms such action "weapons of the weak." The people have the weapon, and now it is high time to use it. Just don't vote. Now, this is a real weapon.

(Rahman Nasir Uddin is a PhD candidate, Kyoto University and Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Chittagong)
[The article first appeared titled "Don't Vote" in the Daily Star, January 11, 2007]

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