On December 19, 2022, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) announced its much hyped plans for “structural state reforms” in the form of twenty-seven proposals which they pledged to implement if voted back to power. While it is commendable that BNP has actually articulated its policy positions, the list itself left one underwhelmed and thoroughly unimpressed.
A closer look at each of the proposals reveals that apart from a few serious proposals regarding structural changes to the state which arguably merit further discussion, most are actually regurgitation of past manifesto proposals, academic discussion topics, and long-standing civil society talking points. Most are matters of government policy as opposed to state-structure, while some are inherently contradictory to the politics of BNP and their key allies, including Jamaat-E-Islami, thereby making them seem disingenuous.
For the ease of discussion, I have grouped the twenty-seven points into six broad categories: serious, routine, ambiguous, confusing, contradictory, and problematic.
‘Serious’ includes those proposals which merit further informed discussion. Unfortunately, only four points deserve such attention, namely, the proposals for a constitutional reform commission, election-time non-party caretaker government, an upper house of parliament, and strengthening local government. Here too, the matters are not completely clear-cut.
For instance, what does BNP mean by “undemocratic, unreasonable, and controversial” amendments that the constitutional commission would look into? Would this, for instance, include the fifth amendment to the constitution enacted in 1979 by General Ziaur Rahman? The same amendment which fundamentally changed the nature of the constitution by, among others, replacing Bengali nationalism with Bangladeshi nationalism, removing the ban on religious parties, giving constitutional protection to the killers of Bangabandhu and his family members, and removing secularism and adding "absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah" in the preamble.
It is unclear how a non-party caretaker system can be introduced when the Supreme Court has already authoritatively ruled on its legality. It is also debatable whether an upper house of parliament would be beneficial for a country like Bangladesh or simply add to the deeply ingrained system of patronages.
While BNP aspires to make local government stronger, their assertion cannot be taken seriously without knowing what exactly BNP plans to do differently from Bangladesh’s decades long, largely unsuccessful, experimentations with various formats of local government.
‘Routine’ includes those proposals which political governments are expected to carry out anyway as general matters of governance and do not involve structural changes to the state. Additionally, some of these pledges seemed to have been made in ignorance of steps undertaken in the last fourteen years in Bangladesh.
For instance, reconstitution of constitutional, statutory and public institutions, happens anyway following transition of power and/or expiry of tenure. By the same token, it is expected that governments should be, as a matter of good governance, ensuring fair wages of the working class. The wages of RMG sector workers have been increased multiple times during the current government's successive tenures since 2009. Additionally, the existing Labour Act of 2006 (amended in 2018) provides for a review of workers' wages every five years.
When BNP talks about developing the armed forces with the supreme spirit of patriotism, the question that naturally arises is, as opposed to what? I do not believe lack of patriotism has ever been an issue for our armed forces. BNP is also stating the obvious when it talks about formulating time-befitting youth policies. It should be noted that Bangladesh, as late as in 2017, formulated a very modern youth policy in consultation with national and international stakeholders such as the Commonwealth Secretariat and the UNFPA. A national plan of action is now being implemented to realise the objectives of the said policy.
When BNP pledges to make education ‘need-based’ and ‘knowledge-based’, it is a reminder of their pledge before the 2018 election to introduce 3G mobile technology, when the country had already rolled out 4G nationwide! Bangladesh is currently implementing the objectives of the Education Policy, 2011, ‘ICT in Education’ masterplan, and the UN sustainable development goals regarding quality education, which are much more extensive, time-befitting and adaptable than the aspirations outlined by BNP.
It is noble that BNP wants to ensure that farmers get fair prices for their agricultural produce. But this is a very complex issue for a market economy and simple aspirations will not do. BNP must be able to make their case as to what mechanisms they are envisaging, over and above existing mechanisms such as agricultural credit, subsidies, or crop insurance, to achieve this aim.
BNP has pledged to introduce a UK’s National Health Service (NHS)-like universal healthcare system. It appears that their self-exiled leader Tarique Rahman, currently living in London, has been very impressed by the NHS. This subjectivity makes this suggestion whimsical and capricious. Would the BNP have suggested Singapore’s healthcare system for replication had Tarique taken shelter there instead of the UK?
The UK has one of the largest and most efficient income tax collection system which ensures that everyone with formal employment contributes to the state coffers through a national insurance (NI) system. This large revenue net forms the basis of their welfare state. Can the same be said for Bangladesh? Without any extensive research on this issue, it is dangerous to simply want to replicate another country’s system, especially one which is substantially different in socio-economic terms.
While I agree with the principle of working towards universal health coverage (UHC), as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), without any guidance whatsoever as to the main challenge of healthcare financing, it is difficult to take up this proposal for discussion.
‘Ambiguous’ includes those proposals which have provided for certain visions, as opposed to concrete proposals, lacking requisite details to be taken seriously. For instance, BNP says they want to balance the power of the President, Prime Minister, and Cabinet Ministers, but does not specify how. It is doubtful whether this is even possible while retaining the existing Westminster format of ‘first-past-the-poll’ electoral system.
Although the BNP has expressed its intention to amend the 2022 law for appointment of the election commissioners, they have not identified why this is necessary, or what alternative system they are proposing. By the same token, no idea or plans have been given as to how they plan to make the judiciary "effectively" independent.
BNP also intends to form a number of commissions for administrative reforms, media reforms, and the economy. However, no details are provided as to what such commissions are meant to achieve. One academic has jokingly commented in social media that perhaps these points are meant to entice the consultants of such subjects with the prospect of future consultancies!
BNP has pledged to repeal all ‘black laws’, including indemnity for the power sector. It is fascinating to hear about ‘black laws’ from a party which gave constitutional protection to the indemnification of Bangabandhu’s killers under General Zia, and indemnification for rights abuses committed during the 2002 ‘Operation Clean Heart’ under Begum Zia.
‘Confusing’ includes those proposals for which BNP itself has not been able to reach a position. BNP says they will ‘examine’ Article 70 of the constitution. This is actually a pretty straightforward issue, either MPs are allowed to vote against their parties or they are not (subject to certain exceptions). Similarly, they talked about “considering” increasing the age for entering government service, but did not take any clear position. This issue, as far as I am aware, is being ‘considered’ by the current government too.
‘Contradictory’ includes those proposals which do not seem compatible with BNP’s or their allies’ long-standing political positions and/or their past performance records. They have pledged to fight corruption, ensure the rule of law, and better protect human rights. While these are noble aspirations to have for a political party, apart from the ambiguity as to their course of action, there is considerable doubt as to whether these will be possible to be achieved by a party led by Tarique Rahman, described as a ‘symbol of kleptocratic government’, who ran a parallel government from Hawa Bhaban, and orchestrated grenade attacks on his political opponents.
BNP has also pledged to not tolerate any terrorist activity in Bangladesh. This is an admission of sorts, implying they did so before. This is a dubious proposition at best, given the level of state-sponsorship received by such terror groups as Haarkat-Ul-Jihad Bangladesh (HuJi-B) and Jamaatul Mujhaeedin Bangladesh (JMB) during the last BNP-Jamaat Government, and the fact that no change in leadership has transipred in the meantime.
BNP has pledged to work for religious freedom and women empowerment. This is doubtful coming from BNP, given their Islamist allies’ position regarding religious minorities and women. People still remember the nationwide violence perpetrated against Hindus following the 2001 parliamentary elections and the regular pogroms against the Ahmadiyas between 2001 and 2006. As for women, in 2011, when the Awami League formulated one of the most progressive women’s policies in Bangladesh’s history, BNP supported the opposition to the policy mounted by the extremist group Hefazat-E-Islam.
‘Problematic’ refers to those proposals which, while disguised as reform issues, seem to be motivated by ulterior intentions. For instance, BNP says they want to build a ‘Rainbow Nation’, but on the basis of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’. Bangladeshi nationalism is basically a concept manufactured by General Zia as a means of countering the notion of Bengali nationalism, a founding value of the Liberation War. Its articulation is provided clearly in the preamble and Article 9 of the constitution. If they were serious about inclusivity and non-discrimination, they could have simply pledged to enact an anti-discrimination legislation.
They have also pledged to compile a list of all martyrs of the Liberation War. This is a particularly problematic point coming from BNP, which had within its highest forum, a convicted war criminal right until his execution, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury. Other convicted war criminals like Abdul Alim were BNP leaders too. People were shocked by Khaleda Zia’s comments that there is controversy regarding the number of martyrs. BNP’s key ally Jamaat, an organization which produced some of Bangladesh’s most notorious war criminals, and which has itself been convicted of war crimes as an organization, has long been trying to stoke the ‘numbers’ debate for years. It is clear that this proposal, which has nothing to do with structure of the state, has ulterior motives and hence, should be treated with extreme prejudice.
The above analysis inevitably leads one to some harsh conclusions, including that BNP has a fundamental misunderstanding as to the distinction between structural reforms and policy changes. They also seem to be equating the state with governments.
Some of their pledges, while noble, cannot be taken seriously given the lack of requisite details, while it is difficult to have faith on some of their other pledges, given their own long-standing political history and past performances in government.
Shah Ali Farhad is a lawyer, researcher, and political activist. He is currently working as senior political associate at the Centre for Research and Information (CRI), and previously served as a special aide to the Prime Minister.