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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A peaceful revolution in Bangladesh

The just concluded elections in Bangladesh can turn out to be the most significant in its history and carry the potential to have a significant impact well beyond its borders on the entire subcontinent. These were the freest and fairest elections ever held in the country and have been declared so by a host of domestic and foreign observers. The turnout was a massive 70 per cent-plus, a majority of voters being women. And the verdict was as dramatic as it was decisive. Two clearly identified and ideologically opposed groups led by the two dominant parties contested, removing any chance of vote-splitting rendering an unclear verdict.

And what a verdict! In an age when the whole world, not the least the subcontinent, is reeling under the impact of Islamic fundamentalism, a Muslim majority country has of its own volition firmly rejected the religious option — the Bangladesh National Party-led group which had among its members the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami — by not one seat or two but giving it only 30 out of 299 seats and handing down a chance to the winning Awami League-led group to amend the constitution if it wishes to. The latter fought the elections on two demands — roti, kapda, makaan etc and bringing to book the criminals who had opposed the 1971 war or liberation.

At another level it is a vote against misrule, the lawlessness and corruption that had marked BNP’s five years in power. The rise of Islamic militancy, under official patronage, and the violence it perpetrated were seen as part of the lawlessness that has so clearly been condemned. First BNP and then de facto military rule have created a groundswell of opinion for a return to democracy.

What makes the verdict so important and elevates it to the status of signalling a social revolution in the making is the role women have played in it. Poor village women, who were so visible in the long queues that formed before polling stations, no longer remain socially submissive, accepting things like child marriage and divorce the way they used to. NGOs are seen to have played a key role in this. What is more, women today have a voice because they have some financial standing, courtesy micro-finance which now touches 80-90 per cent of the poor. Thus Bangladesh’s NGOs have wrought the beginning of a social revolution which has produced a dramatic electoral verdict virtually the first time the people have been free to vote according to their will.

It naturally follows that the new government of Sheikh Hasina will have to face enormous expectations which, if the past is any indication, it will be hard put to fulfil. The Awami League’s ability to deliver an efficient administration is severely limited and though the leader and her immediate family do not face any serious charges of corruption, as do the two sons of Begum Zia, the League’s machinery down the line is hardly lily white. The mood of expectation in Bangladesh today can be likened to that which prevailed in India in 1977 when the Janata government came to power raising an enormous wave of expectations.

It is natural for the Indian government also to have very high expectations from the government and relations between the two start off on both a positive note and a handicap. An unambiguously friendly government has come to power but its ability to address Indian concerns will be limited by the perception among a section of Bangladeshis that it will be willing to make concessions too readily. One way in which India can earn goodwill in Bangladesh will be to address the persistent grouse Bangladesh businessmen have that their produce faces a higher tariff in India than does India’s in Bangladesh. India can make further concessions to Bangladesh exports under the South Asia free trade agreement.

Any goodwill so earned can be used as a springboard to launch work on a transit treaty which can change the face of India’s northeast. Both costs in the region and its emotional integration with the rest of the country are impeded by its landlocked nature and virtual geographical separation from the rest of India. If goods to and from the northeast can transit through Bangladesh freely and if trade along the long border is allowed more freely, the economy of the northeast will be enormously benefited.

As much as it is necessary to pursue these possibilities, there is one other paramount issue which will perhaps be too sensitive for anyone to address right away, without extensive and extended preparation. It is the issue of river waters. Bangladesh feels that India denies it more of the Ganga waters that it needs. On the other hand, the excess waters of other rivers like the Brahmaputra that cause massive floods in Bangladesh can and need to be put to proper use. A resolution of this, in which Nepal will also have a role, will be historic if it were to happen, requiring a degree of statesmanship all round which is not present today.

What India can do meanwhile is learn from Bangladesh how to fight poverty and take forward human development at very low cost with the help of NGOs. An active civil society and strong partnership between NGOs and government in Bangladesh have enabled it to take rapid strides on human development to the extent that on some parameters it has now equalled or bettered India. Microfinance is the most visible example of this role of civil society via NGOs to fight poverty. There is today a Bangladesh model of development which India can emulate.

By Subir Roy


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

1 comment:

kmahesh said...

its great............
ngos are there but politics is also there............!

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