So where do they think the new leaders will come from?

Dhaka’s generals can’t cook up real politicians

One imperfect former prime minister is being dispatched to Saudi Arabia. The military regime in Bangladesh has announced that it will graciously bear the entire cost of air travel of Begum Khaleda Zia and her accompanying family members. Her elder son, Tarique, will not be on that plane. He’s being held back in Dhaka as a hostage (officially, he’s facing corruption charges).

Another imperfect former prime minister is being coerced to stay out of Bangladesh. In view of Shiekh Hasina’s rabble rousing past, the military regime “has taken some cautionary steps regarding her return”. Airlines and airports have been told not to allow her into the country. She still says she will return, but is taking her time. It is quite possible that she will extend her trip abroad for some more time.

The regime’s attempts to drive the leaders of two popular political parties is the most obvious manifestation of its general crackdown on politicians. That most of them are corrupt is not in question—regardless of some farcical attempts to ‘find’ evidence against them. The Bangladeshi people might even ignore the army’s own corruption and lack of accountability if it only means that the political space will be cleaned up for good. For Bangladeshis, being a generally youthful lot, might have forgotten how the army’s previous attempts to clean up politics fell flat.

What the Bangladeshi people need to ask themselves is how the generals can restore democracy if their current actions lead to a political vacuum. Politicians, leave alone popular leaders, don’t grow on trees. Hollowing out the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party is not going to produce the next generation of political leaders that Bangladesh will need. Even the ‘Musharraf model’, one that Dhaka’s generals are so fond of, suggests that it is impossible to construct a government without one of those corrupt, imperfect exiled leaders.

There are two possibilities: that the generals know this to be true, in which case all this business of ‘minus-one’ and ‘minus-two’ formulas is merely a facade to capture and stay in power for a long time. Since this requires a degree of foreign acquiescence, Dhaka’s generals will be inclined to listen to Western or Indian concerns to the extent that they are not pressed on domestic affairs. If on the other hand the generals think that they can construct a outcome of their choice by cleaning up the political slates, they are sadly mistaken. For Bangladeshis tired of the daily crises caused by the bitter rivalry between the two begums, it might be hard to imagine anything could be worse. Yet, attempting to govern a country like Bangladesh with the military’s creations and fragments of the old political parties with radical Islamists on the fringe might be just that. It won’t be any better for the rest of the world.

7 thoughts on “So where do they think the new leaders will come from?”

  1. Dhaka’s generals are speaking on India what India would like to hear. IMO India will be better off keeping quite for sometime and make the generals do what we always wanted the Bangladesh govt to do on trade, on ulfa, on transit route, on gas, etc.

  2. RS: disagree with “working with” the military. We’ve seen this movie before. The Indian establishment finds it hard – as any legitimate government would – to deal with the ad-hoc/arbitrary behavior of a military regime which has few checks and balances. China must smile contentedly at are predicament.

  3. I wouldn’t call the situation in Bangladesh as a military takeover. The caretaker government has set a deadline of 18 months, and India, and the international community, should keep Bangladesh to it, and punish Bangladesh with sanctions if it refuses to meet the deadline.

    That being said, I believe the dismantling of the two biggest political parties (cult of personalities, to be precise) to be a necessary step. Both had a corrosive effect on Bangladesh. Seeing their leaders in exile is a welcome step. I know it sounds un-democratic, but Bangladesh never really had democracy.

  4. Seeing their leaders in exile is a welcome step.

    Just like the happiness of 1999 when Mushy took over – bloodless too. Bangladesh is going to be our problem – just like Pakistan is our problem. On a related note, the biggest problem with Kashmir has been a partial political vacuum.

  5. Libertarian,
    I said make the generals do what we want.

    Pankaj,
    Wudnt China be more than happy to step in if rest of the world punish them with sanctions? Isn’t Bangladesh floating on gas?

    I have feeling we could get into a catch22 situation if the generals in Dhaka decide to stick around for long.

  6. RS,

    Yours is a realist argument that can’t be faulted for its, well, realism. By all means, India must use the opportunity to get the generals to do what it wants done. The trick is to do so without becoming or being perceived to becoming beholden to unpopular figures. This cheat sheet should help.

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