Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Arab Spring Fever, India And Bangladesh

The contagion of Arab Spring fever that brought down longstanding authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt is airborne or more appropriately chips-borne in worldwide web. Bahrain suppressed it with Gulf Cooperation Council's muscle. In Yemen, Libya and Syria it gave rise to bloody civil war (military suppression campaign in the last case), with foreign meddling by heavy air-strike and/or sanctions to obtain regime change.

Of late it has led to the relapse of a Gandhian-style resistance to government acquiescence of corrupt practices in all walks of life in shining India. The entire political establishment has been caught off-balance. The ruling party, with its fake modesty hiding its 'arrogance of power' and coercive tactics, made a mess of the syndrome by the arrest on August 16 of the leading anti-corruption campaigner, Anna Hazare when he was proceeding to the designated site for his declared "fast unto death" in a Delhi park. The purpose of his Satyagraha is to morally win government commitment for placing in the parliament a draft People's Lokpal (Ombudsman) bill for constitutional empowerment of independent anti-corruption proceedings against graft committed at any level by government functionaries.

The ruling cabinet prepared its own draft Lokpal bill and placed it in the parliament. Both the parliamentary opposition and the anti-corruption campaigners led by Anna Hazare consider that draft inadequate, particularly, amongst other things, for keeping the Prime Minister exempt from the jurisdiction of the proposed Ombudsman. To discourage Anna Hazare's Satyagraha, the ruling party tried many tricks including a smear campaign and refusal to grant him police permission to stage fasting with his followers in any prominent public place in or around Delhi on the ground that it would disrupt traffic and might even lend a cover to anti-social acts of terror and sabotage. Delhi police also sought to limit his days of fasting, arguing that at Anna's age prolonged fasting might lead to his death, and as such his attempt to go for "fast unto death" would amount to attempt at suicide, which is a cognizable offence under Crpc. (Probably Delhi authorities were conscious of the self-immolation of a Tunisian educated youth whose underemployment as a street vendor was denied by arbitrary action of the corrupt police and whose "burning himself to death" aroused the intefada ushering the Arab Spring).

The news of arrest and 7 days' remand in prison of Anna Hazare by Delhi police and magistracy respectively sent a shockwave in the public mind throughout India, with activists and young people coming out in support of Anna in trickles in the beginning and snowballing day by day. The high-handed manner termed unconstitutional by some legal experts and ridiculed as knee-jerk action by political opposition of Anna's detention followed by his banishment, so to say, away from Delhi to a high-security prison in the Bihar State aggravated public indignation. Old Gandhians wondered about strange arguments put forward by the Mahatma's own party in post-modern India to undermine Gandhian methods and morality.

When the Manmohan Singh Government, taken aback by public reaction, sent instructions for Anna's immediate release from the high-security prison in Bihar, it made another mess by informing the media that this was being done at the behest of the ruling party Secretary General Rahul Gandhi who had just returned from United States from the bedside of ailing Sonia Gandhi, convalescent there after a major operation.

The public took this propaganda of "magnanimity" of the future boss of the ruling party as adding salt to injury, and Anna Hazare himself refused to come out of prison unless he was given official permission to undertake his programme to go on fast for an indefinite period to bring the government to terms. Fierce debate is going on inside and outside the parliament in political and civil society organs over the polemics of the Lokpal bill and the relevance of the Gandhian path in the sovereign parliamentary order of Indian power. Crowds on the street are simply expressing their loss of faith in the political establishment, and putting their faith on Anna Hazare.

It is noteworthy that a superpower dictate by way of commentary came from US President Obama in the wake of Arab Spring. He openly suggested that election by itself and control over the administration may not be sufficient to sustain legitimacy of any government. The ruling coterie in any nation-state in the global village must retain the confidence of the people. That message has been ringing all round the countries affected by the Arab Spring. Incidentally, a message from the US government was also passed on to the Government of India mildly suggesting that India should not be heavy-handed in containing peaceful protests.

Here in Bangladesh, all the causes are there for public disaffection, on account of total failure of proper governance by a government endowed with overwhelming majority, to burst into a flame. Sporadic protests are indeed taking place notwithstanding the restraints of Ramazan. Civic life and public administration have both been rendered defunct. Communication between the capital and the districts has been disrupted all over by disrepair of roads water-logging from blocked drainage system, and incessant rains, accompanied by severe flooding in some places. Price rise spiral is going on pauperising a bulk of our population. Continuing strains of frequent load-shedding is making urban life miserable, coupling with intolerable suffering of shortages in water-supply for fasting people in particular.

In all government and semi-government offices, bribery is the order of the day, and even with bribes files move at snail's pace. In markets and mahallas, ruling party extortionists and criminal gangs of muggers carry on a pincer drive to fleece the pedestrian, the commuter and the consumer. Armed robbers chase private cars and auto rickshaws for loot with impunity. Plain clothes policemen pick up people at random on feigned suspicion and grill the detainees for ransom. Kidnappings and killings by criminal gangs for ransom are reported to be going on with the collusion of security personnel. Raids and dacoities are rampant alike in private homes and apartments and in malls, shops and establishments. There is no security of life and property for the public, and infrastructural disruption has immobilised the entire population. The macro-economic management of the nation's productivity has also been subverted by share market scams and other policy failures.

There is of course some hue and cry in the national media. But typically passing the buck to her critics, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has, on the Day of National Mourning as enacted by her government, warned about the conspiracy a group of mischief-makers out to undermine people's trust in her government. She is completely blind to the evidences of total failure of her own governance, and has targeted foreign correspondents too who happen to report about the extent of public disillusion with her administration. Apart from the socio-economic debacles she created, one such targeted international weekly The Economist has noted in two articles in the August 13 issue how she is provoking a political crisis that might compound the explosive syndrome of public discontent. Excerpts as under from the two articles together paint a dismal picture.

"The election of December 2008 seemed to mark a watershed for Bangladesh. In the fairest poll in the country's four-decade history, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina (pictured), swept to power in a landslide, on a wave of national optimism. The hope was that she would use her party's popularity to strengthen democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, putting an end to a vicious cycle of winner-takes-all politics between the League and its rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The fear was that she would use its huge mandate for partisan advantage. The hope has been largely dashed, the fear almost fully borne out.

"Facing a general election in a couple of years, Sheikh Hasina might hope to embed democracy and persuade voters to re-elect her-a first for the country. Sadly, judging by her recent behaviour, she seems to seek instead to crush the opposition and provoke an election boycott, silencing pesky critics as she goes.

"The most scandalous is its railroading through in June of a constitutional amendment. Like Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, did last year, Sheikh Hasina has used the forms of parliamentary democracy to undermine the substance. Among other changes, the amendment does away with the caretaker administrations that oversaw elections in the hope of ensuring a modicum of fairness. It is hard to imagine the BNP taking part in elections under the new arrangements-the lack of trust between the parties that inspired the caretaker system persists.

"Public debate is also constrained by the growing personality cult that Sheikh Hasina is building around Sheikh Mujib, 'the greatest Bengali of the millennium'. His portrait is ubiquitous, including on new banknotes issued this week.

"One consequence of the cult surrounding their dynasty is that few institutions are trusted as independent. The courts, for example, have seen corruption cases against Awami League figures quashed. Those against BNP types proceed apace. Opposition leaders report violent ill-treatment. Mahmudur Rahman, a newspaper editor who served in the BNP government, describes being 'tortured, handcuffed, blindfolded, stripped naked, starved'. Harping on such matters is seen by Sheikh Hasina's defenders as a 'smear campaign'. Human-rights groups who point to dreadful practices, such as routine killings of criminals by police, are told how much worse things were before. Outspoken critics, such as Odhikar, a human-rights and election-monitoring group, say new government controls on the way they spend money may be a step towards being 'strangled'. Trade unions fret that their leaders are threatened and harassed. The government pooh-poohs them all. The kindest view of the government is that it is clumsy to the point of self-harm.

"Nor do Orwellian touches inspire confidence. The constitution, or at least most of it, shall not be amended in future. Anyone who dares criticise it may be prosecuted for sedition. Mrs Zia has already been warned for having complained about it. Merely to back such a complaint is now illegal. Thought-crime may be next. All this suggests Sheikh Hasina's dream for Bangladesh differs profoundly from that cherished by her countrymen.

Mild warnings about misfeasance has meanwhile been forthcoming from the sole superpower watch to the Government of Bangladesh also.