“Nobody loves the country!” And so saying, the room service man at my hotel banged the pot of tea on the table. The polling had just ended. Twenty people were dead and there was no official word on the voter turnout, though I know the last booth I went to saw just 28 votes cast out of a voter list of 2097. Awami League has put it at 40 to 46 per cent. The BNP said it was 3 to 5 per cent. The room service man was angry. “What is going to happen to us, didi?” he asked me. “Where do we go from here?”
That is the one question that hangs over Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina put up a brave face when asked how she was going to handle the multiple crises on her hands. “What do you want me to do? Sit down and cry? No! I am confident I can fully tackle any crisis facing the country.”
Many say that is plain bravado in the teeth of mayhem. There is a plan, yes—to form the government with a straight face and carry on as if it is business as usual. But there is no accounting for what the opposition might do next. In December, they enforced a 26-day hartal. On the streets, people apprehend more of the same, along with tell-tale signs of a country paralysed. Then there is the opprobrium of several western countries calling the polls a farce.
Not that they were waiting for a foreign stamp on what they knew was the truth. Awami League supporters who voted said they were only doing their constitutional duty, but many suspected they would be caled upon to do that duty again soon. Predictably, BNP supporters termed the polls a travesty. However, thousands of Awami League supporters who could not vote because 153 candidates were elected unopposed were disappointed.
“I support Awami League. But the candidate in my constituency won without a contest, so I could not vote. I feel cheated,” said Tito, a newspaper dealer in Dhaka.
In a way, I confess I felt cheated too. Here I was in Dhaka to cover elections, and couldn’t but help compare this one with the 2008 general elections. That time, Dhaka was in a festive mood, strung with festoons and banners. This time, all I found were three or four black-and-white cut-outs of Sheikh Hasina at the gpo roundel that had seen better times. Colourless festoons of an independent candidate fluttered forlornly in the Gulshan area.
In 2008, the loser, too, had held a press conference. This time, she was nowhere in sight. Begum Khaleda’s home was cut off by a posse of police. They took my name and dutifully went in. But came back and said sorry, Madam was not willing to meet me. Madam was unwilling to meet a former university vice-chancellor and friend too.The BNP says Khaleda has been under house arrest for two weeks now. Hasina says she was only given the security that her party had iitself asked for. The truth perhaps lies somewhere in between.
Finally, an interesting aside from an otherwise uninspiring sojourn. As I waited before Khaleda Zia’s house, asking the police to let me in along with the VC, the local news cameras were rolling. Later that evening, I was headline news: Indian journalist refused to meet Khaleda Zia.
By Monideepa Banerjie in Dhaka