Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Deja vu, Bangladesh?

Two countries and many common problems, the major one being lack of democracy. It may be a quirk of fate that the journey Musharraf set Pakistan onto could not be fulfilled in eight years but may well be completed by Bangladesh in two, provided the Bangladesh Army stays the course and does not deviate from the "selection and maintenance of aim", writes Pakistani defence and political analyst Ikram Sehgal.
These are still early days, except for a few political hiccups which may be excusable given the political naivety of any military brass in any country, favourable signs point to the "Bangladesh model" becoming a third world success story, an achievement the military can be proud of.

Lessons certainly have been learnt from the Pakistan experience, they have till now generally avoided the mistakes committed. Genuine democracy can only be achieved if the military aims for impartial accountability across the board, the spine of justice duly stiffened by its unobtrusive supportive presence. Secondly, an impartial election commission must carry every eligible voter on the electoral rolls, he (or she) getting the opportunity to vote without any external influence guiding his (or her) choice. Thirdly, an absolute majority of votes cast in any constituency must elect a candidate, the first two candidates having the most votes going head to head with the outright winner getting more than 50 per cent of the votes cast. Lastly and most importantly, the army should stay away from politics. If you are a professional soldier, you may be a brilliant A or B, you will still not know anything of politics.
Accountability being carried out in Bangladesh is not selective but across the board. And it is being done intelligently! A very credible election commission is engaged in an emergent but pragmatic exercise to correct the electoral rolls i.e. add the voters left out in each constituency and remove 'ghosts' who managed to populate those rolls in the thousands. An interaction with Mr Shamshul Huda, the chief election commissioner, and two members of the EC, was extremely informative; one was struck by their sincere commitment and pragmatic approach. When you bring integrity to intellect, you get positive results.
On January 11, 2007 (or 1/11 as it is known) the country was paralysed and close to anarchy. With no hope of reconciliation between the two major political parties, the army reluctantly moved to restore the ultimate authority of the constitution. The BNP-appointed president was "encouraged" to be "born again". Some of the major crooks in the country are behind bars, facing investigation, prosecution and incarceration, the rest of the crooks are in limbo, a doomsday clock ticking away relentlessly. December 2008 is the target date for cleansing the country and for the electoral rolls to be ready, a pragmatic time-table to which both the intelligentsia and the masses agree to, most of them happily, some purists reluctantly. Freed from political dictatorship, the political parties are themselves talking party reform. Only those who want to escape accountability disagree, not enough to have any nuisance value.
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in Pakistan did excellent work in the beginning. Overly staffed by serving and retired military officers, it ran into difficulties about one year or so into its inception, rumours of corruption became rife. NAB faced a credibility problem because the armed forces and the superior judiciary were kept out of its purview; the "plea-bargaining" concept further eroded its credibility. The final shred of respectability was lost with "selective accountability" targeting only recalcitrant politicians or those businessmen/bureaucrats without good contacts in the regime. Amjad, a brilliant professional of known honesty and integrity, opted out instead of compromising his principles. Despite such discrepancies and a limited horizon, NAB continues to do excellent work.
In a PROBE magazine-sponsored seminar "Fighting Corruption" in the Dhaka Press Club on June 30, one had a chance to "share the Pakistan experience". While Professor Mahbullah gave a sound theoretical analysis, Professor Shamsher Ali made practical suggestions for implementation. Professor Hossain Zillur Rahman eloquently focused on the real issues, his lucid analysis closely approximating the successes and failures of any anti-corruption drive. Major General (Retd) Ibrahim gave an emotion-packed appeal for success of the accountability process. As the Coordinator of the National Coordination Committee for Combating Crime and Corruption (or NCC as the mouthful is known), Lt General Masud Uddin is the point-person designated by the army to lead the extremely successful anti-corruption drive in Bangladesh. Someone once said, "Read between the lines, it tires the eyes less!" Unlike the previous speakers who chose to speak extempore, Masud read out an 18-page statement that seemed to signal an intention to remain engaged over the long-term.
Bangladesh has gone after white-collar criminals without looking at their antecedents, or being impressed by their connections. While General Masud clarified that his task forces (TFs) included specialists from different civilian departments, his insistence on TFs being led by army officers was extremely disappointing. The army has to keep its rank and file from getting involved in civilian functions. The army is inadvertently playing into the hands of criminals who want the streets to react. The mention about "monitoring units" was scary because that is exactly how everything started to go wrong in Pakistan, the army creeping into every conceivable post that a specialist civilian could do far better.
One got unfortunate vibes that Masud, at the cutting edge of one of the most successful accountability in the third world history, represents a school of thought in the army who see themselves as "avenging angels" with a long-term mandate. With limited resources (and limited knowledge) the army has to conserve and concentrate rather than disperse its potential. The "Bangladesh model" will remain successful by focusing only on major criminals, 5000-6000 core individuals involved in the governance or benefiting from it during the last 15 years. The army should also target those in the police, income tax, customs etc who have corrupted the process. Deterrent effect should be the major force! Let us not forget those who have given bribes unless they come forth with evidence, also perjury needs to be targeted. The concerted attack that the army's recalcitrants can make will not be political but economic, the streets reacting to food shortages and rising prices. Hardened white-collar criminals will go scot-free if the army is unfortunately diverted from its primary focus as it tries to cope.
One gets apprehensive if the real intention of the army is different from what has been publicly stated by its COAS General Moeen Ahmed, a man of great professionalism and commitment, and a person one admires for being steadfast in his resolve to keep the army out of politics. Even the present step forward by the army needs a strategy for safe exit. The "Bangladesh model" will make history if the army remains focused and not get inextricably involved.
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