Daya Varma


Notwithstanding compromises made by the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League in the past, its impressive victory against Zia Khaleda’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the December 29 elections in Bangladesh is a refreshing development and a decisive verdict against fundamentalism.


The Indian subcontinent is never short of springing surprises of optimism notwithstanding chronic poverty and interludes of violence and discord. The backward nation of Nepal rose like no one had ever imagined; a despotic monarch is gone and the Communist Party of Nepal is on a pragmatic rather than a reckless path. The ever powerful General Musharraf is finally gone; that is an achievement although no one is sure that the control of the Pakistan Army on civil life has ended. Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which allowed the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, had to lick its wounds in the 2004 parliamentary elections. Not only that – in the recent provincial elections too, BJP’s hold on some states and its influence in other provinces has declined.  The Mumbai terrorist attack has not materialized into a major India-Pakistan conflict – at least as yet. In the recent elections in Kashmir, far more people went to the polls than can be accounted for due to police and army coercion; an entirely new situation is ripe for a meaningful solution.


To top it all, the people of Bangladesh did something which surprised even the hardened skeptics.  First they forced an election against the wishes of the military-cum-bureaucracy. And when the elections were finally held on December 29, 2008, fundamentalists were not just edged out but rather trounced.   It is estimated that the voting percentage was nearly 70%; this in itself was a momentous warning to military-bureaucratic rule, which invariably thrives on promises to root out political and other forms of corruption.


Far too often some one who becomes famous for one reason or another thinks of using this repute to win a public office. The first I remember was years ago when the actor Amitabh Bachhan contested against Bahuguna from the Allahabad constituency. Bacchan lost, as did Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan much later. The World Bank hero Nobel Laureate Md. Yunus entered the fray in Bangladesh; he and his party dismally failed. And with this was buried his idea of the “controlled” democracy as was once the fate of all-famous India’s Election Commissioner TN Seshan.   People do not think that if you are good at one thing you will be good at every thing. May be that is why the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh does not contest elections.


Finally, the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Mujibur Rehman, who led the struggle to break away from Pakistan to create Bangladesh, won by a huge margin. Hasina, like the Indian National Congress, inherits the image of running a secular regime. Notwithstanding compromises on this score, as also done by the Indian Congress, the people of Bangladesh still felt that Hasina’s party is closer to the ideals of secularism than is the BNP led by her rival Khaleda Zia – widow of the military dictator Zia-ur Rahman.  So in the end it was a defeat of fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh as was witnessed in the last elections in India and in the last year’s elections in Pakistan.


Some statistics:


The former Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political alliance was swept back to power ending two years of military-backed emergency rule winning 263 seats (total 330); the breakdown is as follows: Awami League, 232;   Jatiya Party-Ershad,  27;  Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal,  2 and  Workers Party (2). BNP of Khaleda Zia got only 23 seats. The fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami won only 2 seats.


Bangladesh has had at least five military coups since the country’s creation in 1971 and “only Islamist forces stand to gain from another military government,” the Brussels-based group said in a report this month.


Total number of voters: approximately   81 million.


Approximately 200,000 local and 2,500 foreign observers monitored the elections.


Approximately 40,000 Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated from Bihar, when Bangladesh was East Pakistan from 1947-1971, were allowed to vote for the first time.


Also, 10,000 gypsies and more than 50,000 prisoners were given voting rights for the first time.

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