Nurul Islam Anu
It has often been said that the human mind’s capacity to face challenges is infinite, and in the game of politics the process has been more than spectacular. Even the most perceived ordinary has often achieved the spectacular. A soft spoken half-clad Gandhi, with a stick and a goat as his companions, led a valiant struggle to a fascinating end against the biggest imperialist power; a principled and quiet lawyer, Nelson Mandela, faced the ruthless theme of racial discrimination and turned the message of racial equality to a thundering success.
In our country, an ordinary young man from Gopalganj, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, perceived as ordinary by many, fought and gambled with his life against the brutal tyranny of Pakistani colonialism to create a nation; a lungi clad bearded man, with straw “tupi,” raised his thunderous voice to champion the cause of peasants and working classes against an all powerful Samantabad. Examples can be multiplied.
The contemporary political mind is the proud inheritor of this legacy and, consequently, his expectation to witness the miracle in meeting challenges has been higher. He has often been disappointed. And yet he has been consumed by the eternal bliss of hope. Look at the interviews of the common people when the dialogue between the Awami League and BNP began, each person’s eyes glittering with hope in the gravest contemporary political crisis facing the nation. He was again disappointed — his hope now shifted to the protector of the Republic and the defender of the constitution, the president.
The president’s handling of the crisis was less than transparent, and often appeared sneaky and manipulative, but was totally avoidable. The wide-ranging debate, and the repeated mention of the constitutional provision — Article 58 of the constitution — is known even to the common man. The underlying philosophy behind Article 58 is its consideration, and the exercise of the inherent and implied power by a person no less than the president of the republic who is expected to apply the highest quality of “consideration” in its exercise. Did the president rise to that height of a non-partisan protector of the republic in the exercise of that noble level of “consideration”? Let us put facts in their proper perspective.
The president must have perceived a possible reaction from Justice Hasan, and it goes to the credit of Justice Hasan that he recognized the futility of accepting the position of chief adviser, and the spared the nation the danger of a potential civil war. The absence of any appreciation for Justice Hasan’s action in this regard is unfortunate, and I commend my former class friend for a far-sighted act exercised in the greater interest of the nation. In this regard an unclear excuse of sickness was brought to the scene, even though un-contradicted media reports unmistakably spoke to the contrary. His written assertion, subsequently released to the press, did refute the “excuse” of sickness.
The next obvious constitutional choices, Justice Mahmudul Nabi Chowdhury and Hamidul Haq, were never invited by the president to discuss the issue, and to obtain their opinion. The nation was in a constitutional crisis, and logic and responsible exercise of discretion demanded that the president personally invite them to Bangabhaban. It was not done. Why? The nature of the crisis demanded delicate handling, and to leave this important task to a military secretary was an appalling lack of presidential discretion. Then again, BNP’s objection to Justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury, and Justice Hamidul Haq’s statement to the press do not show their unwillingness, as was depicted by Bangabhaban. The whole story and its handling was sneaky and manipulative, not transparent and credible.
The president’s offer to assume the chief adviser’s position even before exhausting the requirements of Article 58 was impolitic and irresponsible. The important issue inherent in the exercise of the requirement of Article 58 is the element of a quality of high consideration and discretion by its user. Obtaining an opinion from a partisan attorney general, or listening to objections of a political party without any credible justification, is certainly not responsible exercise of the highest quality of “presidential discretion and consideration.”
The president is well aware of the background of his selection as president after the controversial removal of Dr Badruduzza Chowdhury, but his tenure has not been characterized by any conspicuous non-partisan act of significance to make his non-partisan character pronounced. At best his tenure was one of hazy partisanship. That scenario made it imperative for him to make a bold and credible bid to appear non-partisan. He clearly failed to do so.
The story of Justice Hasan’s illness, and delayed release of his written position to the press and the nation; his inability to personally call Justice Mahmudul Amin and Justice Hamidul Haq to ascertain their position on such a vital constitutional issue; his propensity to get the opinion of a partisan attorney general, not corroborated by other eminent jurists; his inability to announce his name even 15 minutes before his swearing in as chief adviser; his failure to ensure a proper invitation to Sheikh Hasina and other leaders of the 14 party alliance, all point to a non-transparent, sneaky manipulative process, not credible for ready acceptance. The wide public reaction following the swearing in is indicative of that.
Where do we go from here?
Awami League and the 14 parties alliance have reacted responsibly, and many are surprised at that. While Sheikh Hasina did not accept it as a responsible presidential action, she said: “As he has taken charge it is now his responsibility to perform neutrally and implement the reform proposals to create a congenial atmosphere for holding a free and fair election. Whether we will accept him depends on what measures he takes in the future.”
A party of AL’s standing, with their pronounced political position, could not perhaps react better under the circumstances. That puts the ball in the president’s court clearly and with a pronounced focus.
Important issues like the reform of the Election Commission, clearing of the mess created in the administration during the last days of BNP rule, avoidance of any perceived generosity of the president in protecting the rank and file of the BNP and its colossal misdeeds and acts of corruption, establishment of a credible machinery to conduct the election can compensate for the mess created by the president. The president may kindly realize that the crisis is not yet over, and the responsibility clearly rests on his shoulder. The slightest mistake may cost the nation enormously.
His hurriedly arranged address to the nation was stale and uninspiring — a boring narration of a bad story. It clearly lacked indication of his vision for the next 90 days, his determination to clear the partisan mess, his commitment to use the law and order machinery in a fair and impartial manner, or his determination to gain the confidence of the opposition.
Mr President, your governing style has hardly been bold and never looked beyond the routine. There were endless misdeeds which demanded protest from you as a non-partisan president and protector of the republic. As a result the nation’s health has been greatly harmed.
The need at this hour is different, requiring you to scale a new height from where you can see the potential danger and command a broader and different vision of a prosperous, secular democratic Bangladesh.
Let us hope you will not fail us again, respectfully, Mr President.
Nurul Islam Anu is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.