Saturday, September 8, 2007

About time

About time
Zafar Sobhan
Daily Star Editorial
September 8, 2007

Ever since the arrest of Sheikh Hasina in July, the entire country has been waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. On one hand, the arrest of Sheikh Hasina but not Khaleda Zia seemed inexplicable considering the fact that the latter had been the head of the most corrupt government that Bangladesh had ever witnessed and that had been most recently in power, during which time she had presided over the country turning into a virtual kleptocracy, to say nothing of its steady transformation into a nasty police state, complete with extra-judicial executions and a plethora of other ills.

Certainly there were allegations of corruption and wrong-doing on the part of the last government headed by Sheikh Hasina, but these paled into comparison with the sins of the most recent BNP-Jamaat government.

The arrest of Hasina but not Khaleda perhaps made some kind of sense if looked at from the point of view of cold, pragmatic political calculation, in that the current government has always been more apprehensive about the threat posed to it by Hasina because of her party's strength.

In addition to this, the fact that Tarique Rahman was behind bars and that charges had been leveled against her other son obviously has acted and would continue to act as leverage over Khaleda and ensure that her opposition to and criticism of the current dispensation would remain relatively muted.

Nevertheless, the disparate treatment of the two ex-prime ministers had been doing serious damage to the credibility of the government, and certainly in the wake of the recent unrest around the country, the government must have realized that affirmative steps to maintain public confidence and to keep the populace on its side were of the utmost importance.

Even the appearance of leniency towards the BNP was beginning to present real problems for the government. Thus it seems that the arrest of Khaleda together with the recent meeting of the chief adviser with leaders of the business community to address their concerns and assuage their fears is an acknowledgement on the part of the government that it needs to be more responsive to the people of the nation and that steps in this direction are being taken.

This is a welcome recognition, and perhaps the recent unrest has had something to do with the government coming to such a realization. Regardless of the proximate cause of such a development, a more responsive administration, closer attuned to public opinion and sentiment is certainly a good thing for the country as a whole.

The perception that the government is being soft on Khaleda and the BNP is one that is important to dispel. After all, the bulk of the problems that the nation has faced over the past five years and that need to be fixed now have been created by the BNP under Khaleda's leadership, and the public instinctively understands how to apportion the blame.

The last thing that anyone wants is a return to the days of corruption and partisanshinp of the last government, and any genuine political reform or anti-corruption drive would by definition focus more strongly on the leadership of the immediate past government than anywhere else, otherwise the credibility of the current government would be called into question.

This brings me back to a subject I have harped on incessantly for the past eight months, but that I think deserves more attention: the apparent immunity of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Now, it has been suggested by one of the advisers that the Jamaat is less corrupt than the other major political parties, and certainly there does not appear to be an issue of dynastic leadership in the party stifling reform from within.

Nevertheless, if the existing top leadership of the AL and BNP is being targeted, then to give the top leadership of the Jamaat a pass leaves the party in an unfair position of advantage. The senior leadership of the JI is no less a part of the generation of leadership that has brought Bangladesh to where we are today, and if the AL and BNP must make way for a new generation of leadership, then the Jamaat, too, must do so.

Second, as I have mentioned before in this space, it is not as though actionable charges cannot be brought against the senior Jamaat leadership. I am by no means persuaded that the allegations of corruption and sponsorship of political violence that exist against them cannot be substantiated if the government wishes to pursue them, and, in any event, some crimes are worse than corruption and do not have any statute of limitations on them, either. Let a new generation of Jamaat leadership, not tainted with the crimes of its past and present, rise up.

Finally, there is the perceptual issue. If there was discontent in the country over the unequal treatment of Khaleda and Hasina, this is nothing to the storm of discontent that would continue to brew if it is perceived that the current administration is soft on the Jamaat.

The most important thing for the current government is public acceptance and acquiescence. In fact, for a non-elected administration, this is the only thing. Its credibility has been enhanced by the arrest of Khaleda, albeit belatedly.

It seems as though this message has got through. If you are cleaning up the political landscape and hoping to fix a dysfunctional system, it is vital that there not remain pockets of dirt and dysfunction that escape your attention. Even a hint that this is happening, even the perception, will be enough to cause public confidence to plummet and to create an unsustainable situation. And surely that is the last thing that anyone wants.
Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.

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