There are areas, many areas, where one will disagree with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. That is quite natural, for one may not always see eye to eye with a head of government on policy for a good number of reasons.
But recently when the prime minister averred that the United States did not wish to see her in power, there was good food for thought in that statement. Again, when she told the Jatiya Sangsad that Washington had the power to remove foreign governments, she was not wrong. It was history she was referring to and one had no reason to not agree with her.
In these past many weeks and months, we in Bangladesh have clearly run into problems where our dealings with Washington are concerned. The recent tweet by Antony Blinken on visa restrictions for Bangladesh’s politicians and others if and when the forthcoming general elections are impeded or voting is not gone through in a fair, free, and transparent manner has had passions aroused throughout the country.
The political opposition is immensely happy that these restrictions are now the focus of Bangladesh policy in Washington. For their part, the ruling circles, despite the embarrassment they have run into with this American move, have been going around informing people that this visa-related warning is directed at the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
How so? If the Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotts the elections or creates conditions that might lead to the voting coming into question, that will be good enough reason for the Americans to conclude that visa restrictions will need to be in place, for the opposition.
Not so, argues the opposition. It has put forth the argument that the US move comes in light of the elections of 2014 and 2018 and that the Biden administration is now firm about a credible election taking place in Bangladesh.
One will surely have noted the rise in confidence among the opposition, with many of their spokespersons quite believing that a restoration of their glory days is at hand, that the Awami League is in retreat. It all depends on how one observes the situation.
But beyond that come issues of a more concerning kind. A young, rather articulate opposition politician made the surprising comment on a western Bangla media recently that if things go wrong with the elections, complaints will not be made to the Election Commission but to the American embassy in Dhaka.
That was not only bizarre but outrageous as well. In other words, Bangladesh’s citizens were being informed, to their shock and dismay, that everything related to our elections now depends on how the US embassy and by extension the State Department will deal with us or with the Sheikh Hasina government.
Must that happen? And must we be beholden to foreigners to keep watch over our electoral process and on how the voting goes ahead?
Of course, it is imperative that we have good elections, voting which is beyond question or doubt, take place later this year or early next year. And of course we expect the Election Commission to apply its full authority, without any political influence being exercised on it, between now and the voting. We will certainly expect the government to ensure a level playing field for all parties as they campaign for popular support.
The government would be well-advised to go out on a limb to explain its achievements in these past many years and its plans for the future to the electorate. Likewise, the opposition will be expected to spell out its programs for the future alongside an explanation of the reforms or policy changes it has gone through since it was last in office.
That said, when that young politician stresses the importance of the US embassy rather than that of the Election Commission, we understand the reasons behind his statement.
But should those reasons be a reason for him to propagate the idea that if and when election-related complaints are made to American diplomats based in Dhaka, corrective measures will be taken by them and that a government will be in place in line with their preferences?
One does not quite feel like saying it, but the fact remains that Bangladesh is not a banana republic. It is not Somalia. It is not Sudan. Yes, Bangladesh has problems where human rights are the issue, where transparent politics is up against roadblocks.
We in this country have kept up the argument that the rule of law must be in full play, that draconian measures such as the Digital Security Act ought not to have been there at all given the laws which already exist and the constitutional provisions which are there for our political classes to uphold. We have a good economy going; we have our people not going hungry.
But yes, we have issues with the ruling classes in such areas as guarantees of electricity throughout the country. The minister of state for power has assured us that the power supply will return to being normal in two weeks. Our question to him, though, relates to why electricity simply turned non-existent when for years we were informed that the entirety of Bangladesh had come under power coverage.
There are other areas, food prices being one, where we expect the government to act seriously and firmly if popular support for it is not to erode. The middle classes and the poor have been reduced to misery, if not yet to absolute penury, by rising prices.
Families have by and large dispensed with meat and fish in their meals. Their purchase and intake of vegetables have declined, for with their limited income they are unable to fulfil their expectations, to go back home from the market with bags brimming over with the ingredients which constitute lunch and dinner for their families.
These are the problems we encounter on a daily basis. We would like the government to spell out the means through which food at affordable prices and supplies of electricity, gas and water can be ensured for citizens.
For the opposition, the desperate urge to see the back of this government through a movement on the streets must be replaced by coherent policies on what it means to do about such issues should it regain political authority. Verbal jousting will not do, neither for the ruling party nor for the opposition.
Statecraft has no space for hubris. More than a half century after liberation, it is embarrassing to have foreign governments educate us on what governance is or should be. Our self-esteem as a nation is not enhanced when our politicians, in government as well as opposition, are eager to impress foreign diplomats with their thoughts on circumstances prevailing in the country.
It is quite acceptable when such diplomats raise issues which concern their governments with the government of the host country, but that is done beyond public knowledge and in line with protocol. In Bangladesh, that convention was broken in the mid-1990s. We are yet trapped in that condition.
One last word. Antony Blinken and the administration he is part of ought not to have gone for an announcement of the visa move on Twitter. There was a lack of ethics here.
One state does not have the moral authority to belittle another in a manner which eschews the norms of diplomacy. The Biden administration, given the pressure it has been subjecting the Bangladesh government to, should have waited till the elections before making such a move.
The Blinken tweet only lends credibility to Sheikh Hasina’s point that the Americans are not willing to see her in power. Suddenly those grainy images of Chile 1973 and Bangladesh 1975 begin to fly around, to our discomfiture.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.
This article was first published on Dhaka Tribune.