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Zero-sum politics: Mutually agreed rules of the game

The political space of Bangladesh is bedeviled by extreme forms of disagreements, confrontation and hostilities between the two largest political parties. There are exceptions and variations in degree but, starting from the top to the rank and file, because of endemic mutual mistrust and hatred the dominant sections on both sides are perennially at loggerheads to delegitimise and apparently eliminate each other, if possible.
Ironically enough, they also agree a lot with each other, and indeed seem to have a mutually agreed set of rules of the game. They are in politics for a zero-sum contest where winner takes all. When in power, with or without mandate, both tend to do everything possible to convert the state structure, government and its institutions into their monopolised territory. Being in power is a licence to acquire income and wealth disproportionate to legitimate source by use and abuse of power.
Accountability as per laws and through institutions like Anti-corruption Commission is only applicable for those in opposition, that too not so much for justice in the due process but as a convenient tool of harassment. Being out of power is not only a state of lost opportunity to fatten up wealth and status but also of higher and higher risk ranging from denial of rights of assembly and association to being subjected to excesses by law enforcement agencies, fabricated cases, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Therefore, staying in, or returning to, power is the only option for both, and elections only under such terms as will ensure victory.
Since the status of being out of power is unacceptable, they seem to agree that they don't have to be bothered if the game in the name of people and democracy is to be played holding the latter as hostage. It matters hardly anything for them, except as a means of political gain, that the game is played at the expense of fundamental rights of the people including women, youth and even children with such brutality and heartlessness that no words can describe. They seem to agree not to be disturbed that this ruthless rivalry is not only distancing themselves from the people but also intimidating them so they despise politics.
It appears as if they have agreed with each other that nothing is lost in portraying politics as worst form of hatred, conflict and violence; as the devil that deprives kids and youth of their right to go to schools, colleges and universities. Nor is anything wrong in depicting politics as the machine for maiming and killing people using axes and machetes, petrol bombs and grenades.
Psycho-social implications of all these on the next generation including a growing apathy and horror-image of politics seem to be of much less importance than the perceived short term gain of the power-game by show of force. They don't appear to be disturbed by “collateral damage” as the Americans say, however counterproductive these may be for the future of democracy, governance and democratic practices.
They appear least troubled that the only beneficiaries of the growing violence are the undemocratic, fundamentalist and militant forces who are likely to gain grounds in the political, social and economic space. Any talk of unacceptability of such undemocratic forces is more for short term political mileage than strategic effort to prevent the same. On the contrary, they can take every possible means to collude with such forces in their bid to stay in or regain power.
Our leaders appear to be ardent proponents of the infamous Bush doctrine—“either you are with us or with enemies.” Both have demonstrated ample examples of intolerance and suppression of dissent. When outside power they cherish freedom of expression and right to criticise as sacred, but hate the same when in power to an extent that critics are indiscriminately bracketed with opponents and branded as conspirators against the state. Media freedom and independent civil society are among best allies when in opposition, but worst enemies when in power.
Key public institutions like administration and law-enforcement agencies have been systematically politicised by turn almost with mutual consent, as also sections of various professional groups—lawyers, engineers, doctors, workers, business, media, civil society, teachers and students—so as to use them to promote party interest with rent-seeking as the main incentive. On top of the list of institutions of choice for both are the law enforcement agencies like police, Rab and BGB who are so brazenly co-opted that they publicly threaten to use disproportionate force, and do so in practice, against political opponents. In the process, they have also done everything possible to undermine their professionalism and integrity.
They do not care that enforcers of law are converted into law breakers because that is what they want them to do as their main support base when in power. Even when not in power, despite the risks they have to endure, they do not seem to be disturbed much because it is only a matter of time for their turn to come to use the same tools with greater vengeance. One set of violations and repressions justifies another; one set of manipulations leads to another; one set of denial of rights becomes a legitimate basis for another; one act of vengeance is the cause of another; and impunity goes on.
Agreed rules of the game include a competition with each other to do worse than the opponent. When the unprecedented culture of boycott of parliament was started in the 5th Parliament by the then opposition party that stayed away from 33% of working hours, it soon became a race of who could boycott more. It continued in earnest so that eventually the opposition party in the 9th Parliament set an unbeatable record of 83% boycott. And then the 10th was designed in such a manner that the parliament didn't need to have any opposition worth the name. One resorted to manipulation of the election time caretaker government by raising the retirement age of the judges, the other replied by converting it as unconstitutional when the convenient moment came.
Both love to be supported and praised by the international community and leave no stone unturned to use these for political mileage. Both on the other hand hate to be criticised and spare no effort to ridicule international concern or support as unacceptable intervention into internal matters. When desperate to return to, or stay in power, neither is of course abashed to welcome, and even incentivise, external support by whatever means possible.
The list is far from complete. So, what next? Rules of the game can be changed only by those who framed them. They will do so when they will truly realise how badly they are alienating themselves from the people, not in the foreseeable future though. Before they step back and consider the possibility of constructive and positive engagement with each other they appear to be determined to fully implement their joint project of making politics “off the people, buy the people, far the people.”


Iftekharuzzaman. Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).
Published on 26 January, 2015 in The Daily Star. Link