Though the armed forces in Bangladesh have been highly politicised, the people of South Asia have been deeply committed to democratic order. During the British rule in India, Bengalis were in the forefront of democratic movements in the 1920s and 1930s. The All-India National Congress and the Muslim League, which had been mainly responsible for the partition of India and Pakistan, were led by Bengali political leaders in the formative phases. The freedom movement in British India, in a sense, was a movement for a democratic polity and was deeply rooted in the democratic ethos.
The Lahore Resolution of 1940 appealed to the people of East Bengal mainly because of its democratic overtones: it espoused the principle of national self-determination; it also laid stress on internal autonomy. Pakistan came into being in 1947 on the basis of the Lahore Resolution. The continuance and full flowering of parliamentary democracy became the pet demands of the East Pakistanis after that, and most of their movements were firmly grounded in democratic ideals. Seven of the historic twenty-one points of the United Front, a grand coalition of the opposition political parties in East Pakistan organised with a view to focusing their demands and fighting the ruling Muslim League in the 1954 provincial elections, were closely related to the proper functioning of the parliamentary system in East Pakistan (Jahan 1972:45-47).
The famous Six-Point Program, which ultimately led to a full-fledged nationalist movement among Bengalis in the late 1960s, began with a call for the establishment of a federation in Pakistan on the basis of the Lahore Resolution; it also demanded a parliamentary form of government with the supremacy of the national assembly, directly elected by the people on the basis of universal adult suffrage (Ahamed 1989:32-43). The main motivating force for Bengali involvement in the War of Independence in 1971 was their desire for a democratic system, a desire blatantly denied by the Pakistani ruling elite during the post-election years.
But while the people of Bangladesh are committed to a democratic order, the political parties, which are the positive instruments for a working democratic system, are not yet properly prepared for the job. Though Bangladesh has scores of political parties, only a handful of these are institutionalised, well-knit and organised at the grassroots level, and having definite policies and programs of action. This is due partly to political history and tradition and partly to the socio-economic structure of the country.
In South Asia political parties have never been decisive instruments for framing public policy or for projecting alternatives. Except for short interludes, moreover, political parties have had few opportunities for functioning openly since competitive politics has been restricted. During the colonial period political structures were merely embryonic, and their operations were mostly extra-legal. Even after independence in 1947 the ruling elite continued to maintain many of the restrictions which had been imposed on the free flow of political activities during the colonial period. During military rule, political parties and party activities were usually the first casualties.
Democracy is essentially a system of alternative programs and policies propagated by political parties. When a particular set of programs and policies fails to command the support of the people alternative programs and policies are tried. Elections are formal procedures to choose programs and policies at a particular point in time. Bangladesh has, however, inherited a political tradition where mass movements and elections are entwined. During the last four decades there were a number of political movements, which crystallised certain issues and mobilised political forces. Elections were then held, not to choose between the alternative programs and policies, but merely to pick the winning political forces.
Though a vast majority of voters participated in these elections, they took sides not merely as party supporters but also as supporters of the crucial political movements; some of these took the form of national movements. These elections, strictly speaking, became plebiscites. The election of 1946 on the Pakistan issue, the 1954 elections on the autonomy question, the elections of 1970 on the basis of the Six-Point Program, and those of 1991 under the caretaker government were meant to serve other functions; they were more legitimising plebiscites than elections. Each was unique, and had distinct appeals to the voters.
Not only is the political history and tradition not congenial to the growth of a stable party system in Bangladesh, but neither are the socio-economic conditions. The endemic poverty of the people, intense factionalism among the various social groups and classes, and a network of patron-client relationships reaching from the grassroots to the central politico-bureaucratic elites at the national level, have resulted not only in organisational weakness and a very low level of institutionalisation in the polity, but also in institutional fragmentation.
Under such circumstances no political party can serve as the effective allocator of values or platforms for conflict resolution or a meaningful focus of civic loyalty. Political loyalty has been directed to persons, to the loci of patronage. Since political loyalty has been channelled towards patrons or centres of patronage, persons who can seize the principal patron roles and sustain the flow of material benefits to the clients are likely to receive the conditional allegiance and support of the client network. That explains why some of the opposition leaders change their position overnight and become staunch supporters even of a regime dominated by the military. A political party cannot retain the support of a substantial portion of the voters and remain underdeveloped.