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BANGLADESH: Thirsting for Trouble

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By Shah Husain Imam

The way Ilias Ali has "disappeared" could make Houdini turn in his grave. The vanishing tricks that made the Hungarian-born US magician larger than life had to do with his sleight of hands. What couldn't have been in Houdini's bag of tricks is the calculated, coldhearted cloak-and-dagger vanishing act performed by his Bangladeshi disciples on BNP organising secretary Ilias Ali and his driver.

Hijacking has become a national pastime. From car jacking to human lifting we have graduated from committing individual criminality to engineering dubious group agenda. While other disappearances are receding in the background, that of Ilias has moved to the centre stage of national discourse. Not because it is the latest in the series but because of political motif associated with it.

We are so bombarded by newer issues of human interest and so violently shaken by them that they become personal obsessions, almost family affairs. The macabre is touching every citizen's life in a highly distracting and stressful way never experienced before.

Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia from her March 12 mass rally gave AL government a 90-day ultimatum to restore caretaker system of government to hold national elections or else face tougher agitation. One would have thought that relative peace would reign until the deadline -- June 10 -- was over. We are sadly mistaken.

After Ilias Ali's "disappearance" and three consecutive days of countrywide hartal, the opposition has given another ultimatum to the government. This is as though a baby ultimatum to a mother ultimatum. This micro-ultimatum, however, is the most difficult one because it demands immediate satisfaction. There is a reality check here -- for the opposition, though. If Ilias has not been found out in more than a week, he could still remain untraceable for some more time. Given every ruling party's trait not to buckle under opposition pressure, another spate of continuous hartal may be staring in the face. That will be a blunder.

The ruling party has already ordered its foot soldiers out on the streets in the event of such a hartal, raising a possibility of further violence, confrontation and loss of lives and property. It is going to be a precarious balancing act for BNP; should the party rub the wrong side of the citizens' patience and resort to a longish hartal, it may not be confined to a tussle between the two parties, even ordinary citizens may get involved going against the hartal itself. Already, the first prolonged hartal has taken some of the shine off the BNP's sheen, another could recoil more negatively on the BNP's popularity rating.

BNP strategists may regale in the belief that the party with more hartals under its belt comes out winner in the polls. More to the point is the reality that no political party is given two consecutive terms in power in Bangladesh. Anti-incumbency factor has swayed swing votes, estimated at 20% of the electorate, to the opposition.

As for hartal being an election winner people had become accustomed to the sparing use of the option by the BNP, so that the masses are in no mood to stomach continuing hartal anymore.

Therefore, it is the second factor of anti-incumbency that both the opposition and the ruling party should be focusing on, each for its own reasons.

The opposition's generic threat of forcing the government's hands in yielding to the original caretaker demand or of toppling the government through agitation goes against its own interest. The whole world remembers that the non-party interim caretaker government system was introduced during the BNP administration and through its unrepresentative parliament. However much the BNP may dislike the government it is only through the AL dominated parliament that the interim caretaker arrangement, since abolished, will have to be restored.

The opposition and the ruling party are under the delusion that the ultimatums and threats and the government's handling of these are matters between the two parties. They think they are just settling scores; but that the whole nation is held hostage to their public posturing, caprices and whims is entirely lost on them.

Hartal is just a call away from happening and the opposition can only get discredit, not any credit for it. Continuous hartal is unthinkable in any other country. We have repeated it to frothy lip corners that a political general strike holds the entire nation ransom to spiraling violence, destruction of property, denial of livelihood, interference with education and access to emergency medical service. As people suffer, bullet-ridden corpses fall, countless are maimed and economy dealt a severe blow in these stressful times, the political parties go about their business as usual in a cavalier fashion. If this is not injustice done to the people, then what is?

They should for once remember Abraham Lincoln's unsmiling face which he had explained away to a curious questioner by saying he saw nothing to smile at.

Look at Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, Nigeria and Sudan, to name only a few, where there are people versus government issues or political turmoil or civil war raging in different forms and shapes. Compared to them we are much better off and yet we are itching to court trouble, headed for more turmoil.

We are ever seeking, ever tormented, to borrow the words of a colleague.

The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star and can be contacted at:  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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