Shah Ali Farhad:
On December 19, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) announced its much hyped plans for “structural state reforms” in the form of 27 proposals they pledged to implement if voted back to power. While it is commendable that the BNP actually articulated its policy positions, the list itself left the voters underwhelmed and thoroughly unimpressed.
A closer look at each of the proposals revealed that apart from a few serious ones about structural changes to the state, which arguably merit further discussion, most are actually regurgitation of the past manifesto, academic discussion topics, and long-standing civil society talking points. Most are matters of government policy as opposed to state-structure, while some are inherently contradictory to the politics of the BNP and their key allies, including the Jamaat-E-Islami, making them seem disingenuous.
For ease of discussion, I have grouped the 27 points into six broad categories: serious, routine, ambiguous, confusing, contradictory, and problematic.
This includes the ones that merit further informed discussions. Unfortunately, only four points deserve such attention – the proposals for a constitutional reform commission, an election-time non-party caretaker government, an upper house of parliament, and strengthening local government. Here, too, the matters are not completely clear-cut.
For instance, what does the BNP mean by “undemocratic, unreasonable, and controversial” amendments that the constitutional commission would look into? Would this, for instance, include the fifth amendment to the constitution enacted in 1979 by General Ziaur Rahman? The same amendment which fundamentally changed the nature of the constitution by, among others, replacing Bengali nationalism with Bangladeshi nationalism, removing the ban on religious parties, giving constitutional protection to the killers of Bangabandhu and his family members, and removing secularism and adding “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah” to the preamble.
It is unclear how a non-party caretaker system can be introduced when the country’s Supreme Court has already authoritatively ruled on its legality. It is also debatable whether an upper house of parliament would be beneficial for a country like Bangladesh or simply add to the deeply ingrained system of patronage.
While the BNP aspires to make local government stronger, their assertion cannot be taken seriously without knowing what exactly the BNP plans to do differently from Bangladesh’s decades-long, largely unsuccessful, experiments with various formats of local government.
The proposals which political governments are expected to carry out anyway as general matters of governance and do not involve structural changes to the state are a part of this category. Additionally, some of these pledges seemed to have been made in ignorance of steps undertaken in the last 14 years in Bangladesh.
For instance, the reconstitution of the constitutional, statutory and public institutions happens anyway following the transition of power and/or expiry of tenure. By the same token, it is expected that governments should, as a matter of good governance, ensure fair wages for the working class. The wages of ready-made garment, or RMG, sector workers have been increased multiple times during the current government’s successive tenures since 2009. Additionally, the existing Labour Act of 2006 (amended in 2018) provides for a review of workers’ wages every five years.
When the BNP talks about developing the armed forces with the supreme spirit of patriotism, the question that naturally arises is: as opposed to what? I do not believe that the lack of patriotism has ever been an issue for our armed forces. The BNP is also stating the obvious when it is talking about formulating time-befitting youth policies. It should be noted that Bangladesh, as late as in 2017, formulated a very modern youth policy in consultation with the national and international stakeholders such as the Commonwealth Secretariat and the United Nations Population Fund – UNFPA. A national plan of action is now being implemented to realise the objectives of the said policy.
When the BNP vows to make education ‘need-based’ and ‘knowledge-based’, it is a reminder of their pledge before the 2018 election to introduce 3G mobile technology, when the country had already rolled out 4G nationwide.
Bangladesh is currently implementing the objectives of the Education Policy, 2011, ‘ICT in Education’ masterplan, and the UN sustainable development goals regarding quality education, which are much more extensive, time-befitting and adaptable than the aspirations outlined by the BNP.
It is noble that the BNP wants to ensure that farmers get fair prices for their produce. But this is a very complex issue for a market economy and simple aspirations will not do. The BNP must be able to make their case as to what mechanisms they are envisaging, over and above existing mechanisms such as agricultural credit, subsidies, or crop insurance, to achieve this aim.
The BNP has pledged to introduce a UK’s National Health Service (NHS)-like universal healthcare system. It appears that their self-exiled leader Tarique Rahman, currently in London, has been very impressed by the NHS. This subjectivity makes this suggestion whimsical and capricious. Would the BNP have suggested Singapore’s healthcare system for replication had Tarique taken shelter there instead of the UK?
The UK has one of the largest and most efficient income tax collection systems, which ensures that everyone with formal employment contributes to the state coffers through a national insurance (NI) system. This large revenue net forms the basis of their welfare state. Can the same be said for Bangladesh? Without any extensive research on this issue, it is dangerous to simply want to replicate another country’s system, especially one which is substantially different socio-economically.
While I agree with the principle of working towards universal health coverage (UHC) as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), it is difficult to take up this proposal for discussion.
This category includes those proposals which have provided for certain visions, as opposed to concrete proposals, lacking the requisite details to be taken seriously. For instance, the BNP says they want to balance the power of the President, Prime Minister, and Cabinet Ministers, but does not specify how. It is doubtful whether this is even possible while retaining the existing Westminster format of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system.
Although the BNP has expressed its intention to amend the 2022 law for the appointment of election commissioners, they have not identified why this is necessary, or what alternative system they are proposing. By the same token, no idea or plans have been given as to how they plan to make the judiciary “effectively” independent.
The BNP also intends to form a number of commissions for administrative reforms, media reforms, and the economy. However, no details are provided as to what such commissions are meant to achieve. One academic has jokingly commented on social media that perhaps these points are meant to entice the consultants of such subjects with the prospect of future consultancies!
The BNP has pledged to repeal all ‘black laws’, including indemnity for the power sector. It is fascinating to hear about ‘black laws’ from a party which gave constitutional protection to the indemnification of Bangabandhu’s killers under General Zia, and indemnification for rights abuses committed during the 2002 ‘Operation Clean Heart’ under Begum Zia.
This includes proposals for which the BNP itself has not been able to reach a position. The party said they will ‘examine’ Article 70 of the constitution. This is actually a pretty straightforward issue; either MPs are allowed to vote against their parties or they are not (subject to certain exceptions). Similarly, they talked about “considering” increasing the age for entering government service, but did not take any clear position. This issue, as far as I am aware, is being ‘considered’ by the current government as well.
This category includes proposals which do not seem compatible with the BNP’s or their allies’ long-standing political positions and/or their past performance records. They have pledged to fight corruption, ensure the rule of law, and better protect human rights.
While these are noble aspirations for a political party to possess, apart from the ambiguity as to their course of action, there is considerable doubt as to whether these are possible to be achieved by a party led by Tarique Rahman – a ‘symbol of kleptocratic government’ – who ran a parallel government from Hawa Bhaban, and orchestrated grenade attacks on his political opponents.
The BNP has also pledged not to tolerate any terrorist activity in Bangladesh. This is an admission of sorts, implying they did so before. This is a dubious proposition at best, given the level of state-sponsorship received by such terror groups as Haarkat-Ul-Jihad Bangladesh (HuJi-B) and Jamaatul Mujhaeedin Bangladesh (JMB) during the last BNP-Jamaat government, and the fact that no change in leadership happened in the meantime.
The BNP has pledged to work for religious freedom and women’s empowerment. This is doubtful coming from the BNP, given their Islamist allies’ position regarding religious minorities and women. People still remember the nationwide violence perpetrated against Hindus following the 2001 parliamentary elections and the regular pogroms against the Ahmadiyas between 2001 and 2006. As for women, in 2011, when the Awami League formulated one of the most progressive women’s policies in Bangladesh’s history, the BNP supported the opposition to the policy mounted by the extremist group Hefazat-E-Islam.
This refers to proposals which, while disguised as reform issues, seem to be motivated by ulterior intentions. For instance, the BNP says they want to build a ‘Rainbow Nation’ on the basis of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’. Bangladeshi nationalism is basically a concept manufactured by General Zia as a means of countering the notion of Bengali nationalism, the founding value of the Liberation War. Its articulation is provided clearly in the preamble and Article 9 of the constitution. If they were serious about inclusivity and non-discrimination, they could have simply pledged to enact anti-discrimination legislation.
They have also pledged to compile a list of all the martyrs of the Liberation War. This is a particularly problematic point coming from the BNP, which had, within its highest forum, a convicted war criminal right until his execution – Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury. Other convicted war criminals like Abdul Alim were BNP leaders too. People were shocked by Khaleda Zia’s comments that there is controversy regarding the number of martyrs. The BNP’s key ally Jamaat, an organization which produced some of Bangladesh’s most notorious war criminals, and which has itself been convicted of war crimes as an organization, has long been trying to stoke the ‘numbers’ debate for years. It is clear that this proposal, which has nothing to do with the structure of the state, has ulterior motives and hence, should be treated with extreme prejudice.
The above analysis inevitably leads one to some harsh conclusions, including that the BNP has a fundamental misunderstanding as to the distinction between structural reforms and policy changes. They also seem to be equating the state with governments.
Some of their pledges, while noble, cannot be taken seriously given the lack of requisite details, while it is difficult to have faith in some of their other pledges, given their own long-standing political history and past performance in government.
Writer: Lawyer, researcher, and political activist. He is currently working as a senior political associate at the Centre for Research and Information (CRI), and previously served as a special aide to the Prime Minister.
Source: India Today