January 20, 2007

Some thoughts on our political crisis and the Emergency

Not mentioning the State of Emergency in the first few posts of this blog would be as absurd as having a physical adda in the drawing room over cha and toast biscoot without mentioning , well, the State of Emergency.

Financial Times had an interesting item a few days ago, which many readers will surely have read already. Money quote, I thought:

“I don’t discount the possibility that the generals ask the two ladies to
take a holiday,” one Awami League leader said. “Pakistan is certainly a
model that could be followed here, even if they have far deeper grass-roots
support than Benazir and Nawaz.”

[Hat tip to Drishtipat Group Blog for the pointer. Check them out. There's been some interesting discussion there the last few days...]

There's of course been a fair amount of speculation from all over the place about what really happened. The FT article reports on what may be the emerging consensus view:

"Five days after Bangladesh’s president, at the insistence of the army,
declared a state of emergency, resigned his post as head of the caretaker
government and cancelled the elections that were due to be held next Monday, the
full implications of the latest twist in Bangladesh’s political drama are only
just becoming clear. Few now have any doubt that the country is set for a
lengthy period of military-backed technocratic rule."

My writing about the situation on the ground from 7879 miles (12679 kilometers) away would be nothing more than crass speculation. I am going to refrain from the temptation - hard though it is to do so. (I am hoping that some of our other bloggers who are on the ground shall have something to say about the situation). However, there are a few thoughts - long-term in nature - that might be worth sharing...

There's a troubling tendency to personalize the crisis in our political system, I think. In one view, the problem is about (or with) the two netris - their clash of personalities, their mutual suspicion, their pathologies, insecurities, particular qualifications or limitations... Get the netris to meet at some prominent personage's daughter's wedding and smile at each other, or at least acknowledge each other's presence, and we're well on the way to solving our (political, at least) problems! Or may be, send them away into early retirement - and things will all be fixed!

In another view, our problem is about politicians and the fact that they are (or have become) corrupt. Prevent them from standing in the elections, excise them from the political process, or alternatively, elect honest candidates to office - and things will be fixed! Our crisis, in such views, is about the absence of able staffing and leadership. Change the leadership, reshuffle the staffing - and the nation shall change, for the better!

A corollary that one often finds attached with such viewpoints is the dream of a leader-hero who shall emerge and clean our Augean stables of instability, corruption and injustice.

It may happen that a change of personnel will lead to a transformation of our lot. But I would not count on it. In fact - it's unlikely that it will do much, and we have enough data-points from our own historical experience to claim this with a fair amount of certainty .

For the underlying issues are institutional. It was almost inevitable - given a government of Men, not Angels - that we should end up where we have. In brief (I hope to flesh this out in a later post - and of course, this observation is not by any means original), the very combination of a first-past-the-post system and the ban on floor crossing in Article 70 leads us to the features of our political system that make it dysfunctional:

- the absence of internal party democracy

- the viciousness of the interactions between the two parties, and their propensity towards the use of violence

- the inability of credible third-parties to emerge

- and almost paradoxically, the unusual influence of fringe parties (and alliances with them) upon the stances taken by the major two parties

Zafar Sobhan was right when he wrote the extremely thoughtful and insightful obituary of the Fourth Republic a few weeks ago, before the emergence of the Emergency government. The Emergency government simply makes official the passing of our experiment since 1991.

The Five Point Program that seems to have been taken up by the Emergency government - of electoral reform, judicial and administrative depoliticization, fixing the power sector, good governance and jumpstarting an anti-corruption drive - is all well and good, and certainly very necessary. But it does not seem to be much of a move away from a view of our crisis as one of staffing and leadership. The underlying institutional issues still remain unaddressed. If we are at at a Constitutional Moment, should they be looking beyond mere administrative procedure? These are, of course, still early days - and not too much is known about the intentions and aims of the Emergency government. We wait.

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