Nelson Mandela had once said that dialogue is the most powerful weapon at one's disposal. Yet it is surprising to see how often we have abjured the path of discourse and allowed short-sightedness to influence our decisions. All this time the opposing camps have been talking at each other and not to each other. It was thus a pleasant surprise to see the prime minister react so quickly, positively, and unexpectedly, to the request of Dr Kamal Hossain, the leader of the newly formed Oikyafront, for a dialogue. And that too without any preconditions. We say unexpectedly because the strong and inflammatory rhetoric that immediately preceded this development, and the way the possibility and prospect of dialogue between the ruling and the opposition was rejected out of hand by some important ministers and office-bearers of the ruling party, had created apprehensions in the mind of the people about the forthcoming national elections. The move has been hailed by all, and deservedly so. The exemplary farsightedness of the PM deserves our commendations.
It is no secret that even the AL has had concerns about the next elections. And much it may flaunt the validity of the 2014 elections, in their hearts the leadership was aware of the popular perception that the elections were not what a proper free and fair election might be. It was also aware of the fact that putting development over democracy was a misplaced notion that might not wash for long, because what people really wanted was development and democracy to go in tandem. But whatever may be the compulsions and motivations for agreeing to sit for the dialogue, one would like to believe that the change of heart was stimulated by a genuine concern for creating conditions in which all the parties would be able to participate freely in the elections and that the voters could choose their representatives without hindrance. And participation doesn't entail only the day of voting but every single day from the time the schedule is announced, up to the polls. This is what popular expectation is too.
What is equally surprising was the change in attitude of the PM and the party members in general to the newly formed opposition combine which was initially written off as a non-starter, given the disparate constituents of the combine. It again proves that there is no last word in politics and that coalition and opposition combine will continue to be a feature in our politics. In fact, coalition politics has been the norm for a long time, since democracy was reborn in 1991. The present ruling dispensation is a combine too. And this is not the first time that some opposition parties are seeking to put together their strength and put up a common front against the ruling party. It was done to oppose Ershad in 1986, and in every election since then, to fight the ruling party. And some of the ruling party leaders including the PM had welcomed the alliance.
While one is delighted at this development, we would hope that our optimism is not misplaced, and is duly recognised and respected by both the sides. We feel that the only aim that the two sides should aspire for is the modalities of holding a participatory and credible election. We are confident that the flexibility the AL has displayed, by climbing down from the high horse it was riding, would be reflected in the dialogue too. Flexibility is what the Oikyafront must also display. Admittedly, both sides have strong positions on certain issues. But sticking adamantly to one's restated positions would be counterproductive. The opposition must understand that it may not be possible for the ruling party to meet all their conditions. However, the main onus is on the ruling party; it should be more flexible in its approach than the other side, since it is the one that is in a position to effect such changes as would be necessary to meet that one single objective. The AL should also acknowledge the concerns of the opposition regarding the elections and several matters related to holding of the polls.
We feel there are basically three issues that ought to be addressed in order to achieve the aim. Firstly, for the EC to function according to its mandate it must be shielded from undue interference and influence of the administration. Secondly, the dichotomous situation where elections will be held for seats which would still be extant should also be remedied. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the matter of polls-time government and its complete neutrality in the conduct of the polls. One couldn't emphasise enough on the need for neutrality of the government during the elections. It was for this very reason, that governments in power failed to exercise impartiality during elections, that the AL had rooted for and launched the movement that ultimately introduced the caretaker system. There is nothing to believe that the situation has changed after it was done away with, again by the AL. Thus, a polls-time government and how to ensure its total detachment from the elections, is a matter that the dialogue should thrash out.
We would like to see a positive dénouement to a happy start and it would be unwise to make any predictions, but failure is imponderable because no one can foresee what the outcome of failure would be. Unfortunately, we have seen the result of failed talks in the past, mostly because of the arrogant and vainglorious position of the interlocutors. We would not like to see this to be a talk-for-talk exercise only. Admittedly, to expect that all the prickly issues would be ironed out in one single sitting is unrealistic. This should be the first of a series of dialogues which should be time-bound and issue-bound to accommodate the reasonable suggestions of the parties in order to organise an election that would be owned by all the parties and accepted by the voters as credible. Failure would not be a failure of the political parties only but of politics and of democracy. Failing in this endeavour would be failing the people. The parties should start the dialogue with the thought that in this onerous exercise failure is not an option.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.