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The Army that can Deliver

Sreeradha Datta is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 08, 2007

    Bangladesh's Chief of Staff General Mooen U Ahmed's visit to India scheduled in the fourth week of August now stands postponed in wake of the severe floods sweeping across the country. This visit by the army chief was keenly awaited in India and is particularly significant in the light of the political developments that have taken place in Bangladesh ever since the Khaleda Zia-led BNP coalition government demitted office in October 2006. As is widely known, a series of unprecedented events led to the cancellation of the 9th Jatiya Sangsad (parliamentary) election and the promulgation of emergency with the present caretaker government under Fakhruddin Ahmed taking over on January 11, 2007. This second interim government immediately embarked on a series of sweeping political and electoral reforms aimed at consolidation of democracy, which included wide ranging anti corruption measures against individuals and institutions. While the caretaker government quickly took charge and stabilised the volatile domestic situation, given the nature of tasks it had on hand the government had to entrust and rely largely on the Army for implementing many of them.

    Despite the civilian face of the present administration, the composition of the cabinet of advisors to the caretaker government is a clear reflection of the ground realities. Two of the ten advisors have a service background and the two most coveted posts in Bangladesh, namely that of the head of the Anti Corruption Committee and the Election Commission, are both held by ex army chiefs.

    Certainly the army in Bangladesh has been the most stable organisation and the previous BNP government during its five years tenure relied largely on the army to restore law and order and address the growing internal violence in Bangladesh. Over the years the army has become the bastion of law in the country, which has ensured that continued to receive political support and patronage. While the present administration has firmly taken grip of the state of affairs, the army has also been making its presence felt in more than one way. Unlike in the past, ever since Bangladesh became a parliamentary democracy, the army has been visible periodically though it has been very rarely heard. On previous occasions, the army has performed duties when called upon to do so but quietly retreated to its barracks once the job was done.

    But in the last seven months the army has not only been very active but also vocal about its performance and achievements. Ironically, the first political articulation by the present Army Chief was an open indictment of Bangladeshi politicians, although given the highly sensitive domestic opinion he had to at the same time affirm the army's intention to stay behind the scenes and not capture power or directly run the country.

    As developments unfolded in Bangladesh it became apparent that the power centres were located not only within the interim government but also rested with the armed forces. President Iajuddin Ahmed's recent praise of the army as the saviour of the country is in recognition of the role played by the armed forces during recent crises. For the first time since 1991, the army has also been made responsible for the preparation of the national ID and voters list. In keeping with the government's promise of holding elections by 2008, the Election Commission has in fact laid out a timeline, which included October 2008 as the date by which the voters list with photographs is to be completed and the Jatiya Sangsad elections to be held by December. It also intends to discuss electoral reforms with the political parties between September and November 2007 and complete these by early 2008. But given the purposeful undermining of the two main political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist party as well as their leaders Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, while at the same time ignoring various other forces, it is quite evident that the present dispensation is not above having its own political interests. While the Army's lack of political ambition has been reiterated time and again, there is no guaranteeing that either the army or the interim government is above structuring a political party to pursue their political ambitions. Indeed, it was during the Chief Advisor's first visit abroad for the SAARC Summit that Moeen Ahmed was brandishing his own brand of democracy suitable to Bangladesh. And despite the army's full backing to the government, the obvious strain between the two axes of power is also surfacing.

    While many argue that the threat of the United Nations to withdraw Bangladeshi peace keeping forces from its blue helmet duties is effective to keep the army from taking on a more open political role, there is also a growing dissatisfaction within the armed forces and demands to emerge from behind the shadows of the technocratic government may soon gain more ground. Thus, Iajuddin Ahmed's recent advice to the army to stay above political ambition cannot certainly be seen in isolation.

    Arguably, in the past, the consecutive military regimes have known to have embraced the very vices that they had usurped power to remove. Consequently, the idea of the armed forces running the government is not viewed with much favour in the country. On the contrary, Bangladeshis are demanding democracy more passionately than ever before. Notwithstanding the questionable track record of the democratic governments, there was a discernible hope in domestic quarters about the outcome of a non-elected government taking over power. Not only would the unfolding crisis be averted by this caretaker government, but also its reform plans would instil Bangladesh with stronger democratic practices which successive elected leaders have failed to do. Despite certain murmurs of dissatisfaction being heard across Bangladesh about some of its actions, it will be the army backed caretaker government that will for at least another year call the shots in Bangladesh.

    Thus, when the Army Chief, recently promoted to a full general with extension of tenure beyond 2008, visits India, it would be the best opportunity to obtain a firm commitment on the various Indian security concerns that emanate from Bangladesh. Recent months have witnessed a spate of visits, talks, and meetings between India and Bangladesh. This frequency of bilateral contacts beginning with the External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee's Dhaka visit in February 2007, have included amongst others the high profile foreign secretary talks. The number of meetings at varied levels now taking place by itself is a positive development irrespective of what ground has actually been covered between the two countries. There is also a clear indication that there is an effort by both nations to address their mutual concerns. And when one of Bangladesh's most important person, if not the most vital personality, visits India hopefully soon, the least one can expect is that the expression of political will be corroborated by actions in addressing India's vital security concerns that have long remain unattended.