Through a Pakistani lens | India-Seminar.com

This article was published in India-Seminar.com in 2008 and is available at the following link

https://www.india-seminar.com/2009/603/603_ahmed_bilal_mehboob.htm

NEARLY four decades after the secession of East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – most Pakistanis continue to see Bangladesh and its experiments with democracy through a three-faceted prism. The initial feeling of acrimony over the dismemberment of their nation, or the hope that one day Pakistan and Bangladesh will either re-unite or form a confederation, are today merely part of a faded discourse that no longer enjoys currency in public or official sentiments. The psyche of both the Pakistani people and the state over the wound caused by the secession of Bangladesh seems to have healed itself far quicker than has ostensibly happened in India over the separation of Pakistan where, apparently, a perspective clouded by resentment still resonates, even if it’s not dominant.

In fact, our own obsession with India and an India-centric approach remains the predominant lens through which we look at Bangladesh. One major approach is based on our understanding of Bangladesh’s relations with India. Clearly the fact that India is the largest exporter to Bangladesh creates substantial unease in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis continue to characterize political parties in Bangladesh as being either ‘soft’ or ‘tough’ on India. The overwhelming victory of the Awami League and its allies, who won an impressive 263 seats in the 300 member Parliament in December 2008, continues to be a cause of anxiety in Pakistan given the pro-India image of the Awami League. The Awami League trounced its rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) coalition, which managed only 32 seats.

Tensions between Bangladesh and India appear to please many in Pakistan and closer relations between the two countries are viewed with suspicion. Irrational or jingoistic but such is the sad reality which both media and intellectuals reflect in their occasional public, but generally private, discussions. Against this backdrop, the Awami League victory has not been perceived as a source of great satisfaction in Pakistan. The sentiment among certain segments of the Bangladeshi political elite that the Bangladesh ‘establishment’ sided with the Awami League to present a ‘liberal face’ of Bangladesh to the world is echoed in Pakistan’s discussion rooms. Unfortunately, after a rather promising start, the current state of relations between Pakistan and India have once again become strained following the terrorist attack in Mumbai. One hopes that as relations between the two countries normalize, this habit of viewing Bangladesh’s politics through an Indian angle will subside.

A second prism through which we in Pakistan view Bangladesh revolves around the role of its military in politics. Expectedly, given our own troubled history with military intervention in politics, the role of the Bangladesh military in the country’s politics generates substantial interest in Pakistan. Quite unlike the decade of the 1990s when, despite weaknesses in the political process, it appeared that Pakistan was gradually moving towards a democratic consolidation, the period between 1975 and 1991 in Bangladesh was dominated by its army, a development very similar to what has usually happened in Pakistan. Yet, instead of welcoming the change, the democratic transfer of power to a civilian government in Bangladesh in 1991 created some consternation in Pakistan. The dominant view, shared with leading Bangladeshi scholars, was that since the Bangladesh military was happily engaged in peacekeeping missions overseas, it would not risk the ire of the international community by intervening in the internal politics of the country.

This understanding, however, had to be revised as the powerful Bangladesh military intervened in politics once again in 2007. Fortunately, however, it stopped short of turning the intervention into a full-scale coup and instead facilitated the appointment of a dozen businessmen, technocrats and former diplomats to manage the administration.

A key reason why the Bangladesh Army preferred to stay behind the scenes was that it did not want to lose out on the opportunity to participate in UN peacekeeping missions, as it accounted for a considerable sum of money coming into Bangladesh, directly benefiting army personnel. Many in Pakistan wonder whether such a reward system could similarly work in their own case.

Yet while many in Pakistan give credit to the inventive model of the military coup in Bangladesh, they are less sanguine about its applicability in their own country, especially when the 18 month itch with a democratically elected government has already kicked in and stories of alleged corruption and incapacity for good governance are rather widespread.

Nevertheless, having tried the Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf models – all hands-on, very intrusive and boasting of ‘unity of command’ – the ‘behind-the-scene’, ‘reform-oriented’ role of the Bangladesh military in 2007-08, backed by the silent or not-so-silent cheers of international diplomats, looks just too tempting to the democracy-fickle millions in Pakistan. Bangladesh’s impressive electoral reforms, that I discuss ahead, are believed to have been achieved under the military’s watchful eye, an accomplishment that eight years of the Musharraf regime could not boast of in Pakistan.

Bangladesh witnessed a peaceful transition of power from a military-backed caretaker government to a democratically elected government in 2008. The successful handling of the ninth parliamentary election in December 2008 by the military, and the wide scale of political and electoral reforms preceding the election, has been viewed with admiration in Pakistan. When it comes to electoral reforms, many feel that Pakistan’s political leadership has a few lessons to learn from the country’s former eastern wing that chose to go its separate way and became the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1971.

Although Bangladesh was a late starter on electoral reforms, it has made quick and impressive strides contributing to a smooth election and subsequent quick transfer of power. The Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) became a truly independent body only during the past couple of years as a result of the intensive electoral reforms undertaken by the caretaker government. These reforms became possible only after the government appointed a Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) who was not only considered reform-minded and dynamic, but had impeccable administrative experience.

The extensive electoral reforms were the result of a comprehensive dialogue between the BEC and the political parties. As many as sixteen political parties were involved in three rounds of dialogue. In addition, media and civil society were also consulted by the BEC on the reforms before they were introduced in the form of various laws. In contrast, dialogue between the Election Commission and political parties is rare in Pakistan. The last time the Elections Commission of Pakistan consulted political parties ahead of the general elections was in 2008 for merely a couple of hours and that too at the direction of the Supreme Court.

Pakistani observers viewed the preparation of an accurate voters list in Bangladesh with considerable envy. The Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC), with the active participation of the army, was able to prepare a voter list of about 81 million people which is digitised, carries each voter’s photograph, includes close to 95% of all eligible voters and, above all, has won the confidence of all political parties, citizens’ organizations and the international community. The list took just eleven months to prepare.

A significant bye-product of the voter list is a National Identification Card for the adult (18 years and above) population of Bangladesh. Photographs of all adults, including women, were mandatory, for both the voter list and identification card. By integrating each voter’s (including those of purdah-observing women) picture into the voters list, the commission has satisfactorily solved the problem of voter identification. Voter identification remains a major challenge, creating perpetual controversy as a potential source of bogus vote casting, especially at women’s polling stations in Pakistan, Bangladesh and, to some extent, India. Moreover, incorporating the voters’ picture in the electoral rolls has precluded the need of carrying any additional identification document by voters.

The Election Commission of Pakistan too had commissioned similar computerised electoral rolls way back in April 2006, and completed the exercise in about 20 months, just a few weeks before the 2008 general election. Unfortunately, the so-called computerised electoral rolls of Pakistan neither contain the individual’s picture, nor are they complete or error free. Despite a door-to-door survey and an expense of over a billion rupees, the resulting voter list does not generate requisite confidence in either the political parties or citizens’ groups. Our list is replete with errors, viz. multiple entries of voters, and thus a major source of dissatisfaction for various candidates in the 2008 election.

Further, despite the fact that Pakistan instituted a system of National Identification Cards as far back as 1974, and adopted computerised identification cards through the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in 1998, even today nearly a quarter of the adult population (around 25%) remains without identification cards. The Bangladesh government, by contrast has performed the feat of providing identification cards to over 95% of its adult population in less than a year. The process of voter registration and preparation of a National Identification Card is an integrated process in Bangladesh, eliminating time-consuming duplication of effort by citizens and state institutions.

In addition to the success story of the compilation of electoral rolls, the recent elections in Bangladesh set an admirable example of fair and orderly election. As any politician with experience of electoral politics will testify, a major expense of candidates is incurred on mobilising transport for voters on polling day. In order to minimize the influence of money in elections, the Bangladesh Election Commission prohibited the use of all motorised vehicles on election day, except for inter-city traffic and emergency use. No banners or hoardings were allowed by the BEC either. Candidates were allowed to print only black and white posters of a certain size, and attach them to strings that were hung across the streets. Posters could not be pasted on any wall or structure. Painting on walls was not permitted. All these instructions were strictly followed and none of the international observers found any violations. The result was clean walls, resulting in huge savings on cleaning and re-painting.

Another interesting electoral reform was the 30-page exhaustive disclosure and declaration form that each candidate was required to file along with nomination papers. The disclosures and declarations were made public by the Bangladesh Election Commission and placed on its website for public scrutiny. Each candidate was required to state his/her educational qualification; details of any pending criminal cases; any outstanding amount payable to any state institution; details of any outstanding or written-off loans payable to any bank or financial institution, and so on. Whether or not such public disclosures can be made mandatory in Pakistan, it is nevertheless clear that such disclosures help voters decide about the ‘suitability’ of candidates.

Another innovative feature of the 2008 parliamentary election in Bangladesh was the inclusion of a ‘no vote’ provision for voters unhappy with all candidates. In the 2008 election, some 380,000 voters cast a ‘no vote’, accounting for about 0.5% of the total votes cast. The election rules provide that if over 50% of the voters chose to cast a no vote in a particular constituency, it would automatically lead to re-election. Fortunately, no constituency faced this scenario in the 2008 election.

News about the living conditions of stranded ‘Bihari Pakistanis’ in Bangladesh is prominently carried in Pakistan. This time, however, a sizeable number of the Urdu speaking population, who had been living in camps for the last 38 years and consistently refusing to accept Bangladeshi citizenship by claiming to be Pakistanis, opted to register as voters in the 2008 election after becoming Bangladeshi nationals. Although their exact number is not available, it is widely accepted that most of the Urdu-speaking voters did vote in this election. Candidates in constituencies with a sizeable number of Urdu-speaking voters even published election posters in Urdu, a fact highlighted by Bangladeshi media. Interestingly, as many as 87% of registered Bangladeshi voters turned out to vote in the 2008 election. Pakistan, by contrast, suffers from a chronic and embarrassingly low voter turnout, the lowest average turnout among countries of South Asia, and one of the lowest in the world. (Pakistan ranks 164 among 169 countries studied by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance – IIDEA – since 1945.)

After the seemingly successful intrusion of the military into politics and delivering a rather admirable election to the people of Bangladesh in December 2008, many in Pakistan forecast that the army chief, General Moeen U. Ahmed would assume the presidency of the country. They were proved wrong. The General retired and a political figure was elected as the new President of Bangladesh.

Many Pakistanis also expected that following a smooth and orderly election, politics in Bangladesh would become more stable and less fractious. However, this assumption appears to be somewhat premature. Bangladesh seems to be following in the footsteps of Pakistan’s fast-fading environment of ‘reconciliation’ between Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and the Zardari led PPP. Even though Sheikh Hasina has promised to set a new example in politics in line with her promised ‘charter of change’ by seeking opposition support in decision-making and even giving Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister, a position in the government, reconciliation and cooperation between the two parties remains somewhat distant.

Nawaz Sharif’s party and the ruling PPP had locked horns throughout the decade of the 1990s, much like the acrimonious relationship that exists between the two leading political parties in Bangladesh. The signing of a Charter of Democracy in May 2006 between the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif did raise hopes that the two parties were willing to learn from the past. Yet, while the charter of democracy does seem to have guided the PPP and PML-N in forming a coalition government after the February 2008 elections in Pakistan, the ‘conciliatory’ atmosphere did not last long. Fortunately though, the PML-N, which occupies the opposition benches in the National Assembly today, has not let its opposition to the government reach acrimonious levels. The government-opposition relationship in Bangladesh, in contrast, seems to be much more tense.

Although the Sheikh Hasina government has yet to make major headway in rooting out corruption or containing militancy, she remains remarkably popular in the country with 78% people very satisfied or satisfied with her job performance.1 In contrast, the popularity rating of President Zardari of Pakistan stands at a low 32%, down from 64% a year ago.2 Another poll released by Gallup International in July 2009 records public confidence in the Bangladesh government at 87% while 88% approve the job performance of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.3 The performance rating of the Bangladesh leader of the opposition, Khaleda Zia, at 41% is quite a contrast from 79% popularity ratings of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, head of the leading opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gilani, a stalwart of the PPP, hand-picked by President Zardari, incidentally enjoys 67% approval ratings.

Economic progress is another point of reference for viewing Bangladesh from Pakistan. Prior to East Pakistan seceding and becoming Bangladesh, a small but influential section of the Pakistani establishment unjustifiably believed that East Pakistan was a drag on the national economy and that Pakistan would develop much faster after the break-up. On the other hand, many people in the then eastern wing of the country believed that the western wing was exploiting their resources and that they had been deprived of their rightful share in national development allocations.

Nearly four decades later, the people of Pakistan are naturally curious about how the estranged former eastern wing has fared on the economic front. Development professionals and economists in Pakistan are envious of Bangladesh’s success at controlling its high rate of population growth. At the time of independence, Bangladesh was more populous than its erstwhile western wing. This ‘superiority’ in numbers was not recognised by the western wing for most part of their journey together from 1947 to 1971, as the first Constitution of the country developed the principle of ‘parity’ between the two wings by allocating an equal number of parliamentary seats to both despite the numerical superiority of the eastern wing. The Bangladesh population, at around 140 million in 2006, is growing at an annual rate of about 1.4% compared to around 3% in the period up to 1990. In contrast, the Pakistan population grew at around 2.6% per annum, a figure that has only now come down to 1.8% per annum. Its population, as of 2006, now stands at 157 million.

Despite a higher population, Pakistan exports fewer workers to international markets as compared to Bangladesh. As of 2007, Bangladeshi workers around the world numbered 981,000 compared to around 300,000 Pakistani overseas workers. As a result Bangladesh was able to earn close to US $8,000 million in remittances through its overseas workers in 2007-08 compared to about US $6,451 million by Pakistani migrant workers. Pakistan is envious of the growing competitiveness of Bangladeshi workers in the international market.

Pakistanis also note that Bangladesh’s GDP growth rate during the past decade or so has been impressive, at times higher than that of Pakistan. For example, the GDP growth rate in Bangladesh was 6.21% in 2007-08 compared to Pakistan’s 4.1% in the same period. Although total Pakistani exports are still higher, Bangladeshi exports of cotton garments and finished cotton goods are a source of envy for Pakistan, especially as it is one of the largest growers of cotton whereas Bangladesh virtually has to import all its raw cotton for its finished cotton goods. Bangladeshi exports of finished cotton goods worth over US $10,000 million compared to Pakistan’s US $7,500 million during the year 2007-08, illustrates the point.

Overall then, close to four decades since the coming into being of Bangladesh, Pakistanis continue to view the country’s political and economic developments through the prism of their own mixed track record.

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