The chambers of Dr Kamal Hossain and Associates, located on the 2nd floor of the MCCI’s imposing Chamber Building in Motijheel, has seen its fair share of the great and the good passing through its corridors over the years. Notable for the vast expanse of the law its practising lawyers have tackled over the years, from pro bono human rights litigation to representing the government in high-profile cases against powerful multinational companies, the client list alone will have ensured all sorts.
Even so, over the course of a late November afternoon, the hive of activity one witnessed through this warren of office space made you wonder if its stately environs had ever thrummed before with quite the same sense of anticipation, slightly nervous aspiration, and even hope for something new: not quite the stuff of a barrister’s chambers. But here we have a barrister, who in his service to the nation, transcended his own field a long time ago. That time he led the effort to capture its newly independent people’s resolve, their aspirations and convictions, in the form of the Constitution, was 46 years ago now.
The years in between saw him largely fall off the radar of public service, starting with the events of August 15, 1975 - he was on an official tour as petroleum minister at the time, and decided best to extend it for a while. It would be more than 4 years before he finally did return. Having trained as a lawyer, he decided to put it to use by starting his own practice, and that was how Dr Kamal Hossain & Associates started in 1980. It would mark the start of a period of tremendous personal achievement and accomplishment, establishing his reputation as one of the greatest legal minds of his generation with worldwide renown. Yet although he would form his own party following a final, bitter departure from AL, never again would he regain anywhere near the same relevance on the national politics stage, as he used to under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
That is until now. The reason behind the Chamber Building’s second floor these days buzzing more like a political party office than a distinguished lawyer’s chambers is that the party Dr Hossain founded upon leaving AL, the Gono Forum, is today the hottest ticket in town ahead of the 11th parliamentary elections scheduled for December 30. It has all happened very quickly, in the space of a month, and so although the party’s central office is still in Arambagh, at the moment Motijheel is where they are to be found, in keeping with Dr Hossain’s decades-long habit of attending his legal practice. Subrata Chowdhury, the party’s pugnacious executive president, Mostapha Mohsin Montu, the veteran general secretary, they’re all there. Plus importantly, a slew of young, eager faces, all noting ‘Dr Kamal’ as their inspiration.
And then of course, there are the new ones. Even on the day we are there, we get to witness a defection from AL, as Professor Abu Sayeed drops by. He stays for maybe half an hour, just enough to make the move official. Word is he might seek the nomination for a seat in Pabna from the opposition alliance that has formed under Dr Hossain’s leadership, the Oikyafront. Prior to him Bongo Bir Kader Siddique, who of course leads his own party within the alliance, is also there. Just the previous day, at a press conference, Dr Hossain introduced the ex-chairman of ETV, Abdus Salam, and Major General (retd) AMSA Amin, formerly of AL. But perhaps none has been as exciting, or signalled Dr Hossain’s intent quite as strongly, as the signing of Dr Reza Kibria, the Oxford-educated son of the slain ex-finance minister under an AL government, SAMS Kibria, and a macroeconomist with decades of experience working in developing countries for the International Monetary Fund.
By almost any measure you can think of, it was an audacious coup, and our appointment on the day is in fact for his first 1-on-1 interview (or 2-on-1 maybe, with Dr Hossain pencilled in as well) with the media in Bangladesh. From the moment of his unveiling, Dr Kibria has looked destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, be it for a rival faction, which to me at least is of secondary importance. As the man himself said in that first press conference, the AL of today is a long way off the party his father served anyway. “Today, the Bangladesh that I dream of is only possible under the leadership of Kamal Hossain,” he reiterated.
All of a sudden, up-and-down the nation, there is the sense of something brewing. Riding on the BNP’s electoral symbol, dhaaner shish, and anchored by Dr Hossain’s principled approach, the Oikyafront has emerged as a real challenge to a government looking bloated and bereft of new ideas after a decade in power, in next month’s polls. It becomes imperative then, to preview their alternative vision.
Is it real?
The papers on the day of our appointment were choc-a-bloc with the call to replace the CEC, that Dr Hossain had issued the previous day. By way of conversation almost, the first question that arises is whether the call was realistic. Kamal Hossain makes clear that the point is the CEC is not doing his job properly, and anyone who doesn’t do his or her job properly shouldn’t stay in that position. Whether that actually happens or not is another matter.
Before I move on to Dr Kibria, I had to try my luck on the one burning question in people’s minds, that in the absence of a definitive answer has allowed many to speculate or postulate their own conclusions, unfounded though they might be. Till now Kamal Hossain has been impenetrable on the role he would seek for himself after the election, were Oikyafront to form the government. It was bound to be a non-starter straight up. Instead I asked if I could put to him three possible roles one could imagine him in, and whether he could give his reaction to each (to which he agreed):
1. President (starting with the most typical one being bandied about): His look was dismissive, an indication to move on. As I did, he added, “I don’t consider putting myself forward as a candidate for any post. What I’d like to do is help in every way possible.”
2. Chair of a Constitutional Review Committee tasked with reviewing amendments brought in by the last regime or any other issues deemed relevant (the 2nd of Oikyafront’s 11 points concerns constitutional reform): This one had Reza Kibria nodding in approval, and the legal mind that is Kamal Hossain’s essence seemed stimulated as well. “I frankly would expect to be associated with any revision or amendments to the constitution, given my long involvement in this area.”
3. A powerful/influential adviser to the government, not restricted to any one field or department: “Yes well, I’ll be advising them for sure.” That was about as much as I was going to get.
Who then will be prime minister? Their opponents have been only too eager to propagate the scenario whereby an Oikyafront victory will mean Tarique Rahman becomes prime minister, playing on the toxicity that surrounds the name of the Zia family scion. Yet that view seemingly ignores the reality that the acting chair of the BNP (with his mother incarcerated) has been exiled in London for over a decade now, and is said to have sought, and received, political asylum there. Dr Hossain spells it out for us eventually.
“I don’t think there is any possibility of that because of the situation as it stands, plus remember he is also convicted and therefore unable to contest a by-election, as he would need to in order to return to Parliament. First he would need to come back and get rid of that disqualification through the courts,” he explains.
Obviously the prime minister’s seat wouldn’t lie vacant while all this plays out, which puts the lie to the entire claim. Besides, it also counts out his mother, who is ageing, but not yet out of it by most indications.
Turning to Dr Kibria, I first ask for his critique of the present government’s economic performance, and how he viewed the entire narrative built around ‘development’ that they have propounded.
“I’m a macroeconomist by training. My job is to analyse the economic situation, the macroeconomy. The growth has been good, in terms of rates, in terms of numbers, but in terms of a broad-based, sustainable development, I don’t see what I would want to see. The sort of growth pursued by this government is not sustainable,” he starts.
So it’s the quality of growth that bothers him?
“Yes, the quality. It’s good in terms of numbers, although I don’t always believe the numbers - as a macroeconomist I calculate GDP, I know how it’s done, and I can tell you that the government’s numbers are not terribly precise, but that is a separate issue,” steering clear of a suspicion that has indeed been voiced in recent years by a number of sources including the World Bank and and IMF, and locally the CPD. But governments seem to have the final say over their numbers. We move on.
“It is the asset-less poor who are being left behind. They have been totally excluded from the fruits of this 'wave of development' that has taken some sections along and made them fabulously rich, but it has missed them. They only get to see it on tv.” I can see him finding his voice as he talks about the marginalised sections of society, that should usually speak to genuinely feeling for them and wanting to do something good for them.
“Growth must be inclusive. And the growth that we will try to develop when we, when (not if, the repetition is clearly for emphasis) we are in office will principally be different in this regard. It will be inclusive, where the rich will be even better off, the squeezed middle will get some room to breathe with some welcome stability, and the poor most importantly will see a new ray of hope.”
It’s a credible opening gambit. Before coming back to the economy though, he himself asks to explain his decision to join politics during this period. “The nation is at a critical juncture and what happens in the next few weeks may well determine the course of our history. This is the time when courageous people must stand up for what is right, despite threats and intimidation and temptations of power and money.” For him, this is about being on the right side of history.
Dr Hossain has been roused to act by a government picking too many fights in every corner. Thus far, he has proved himself well and truly up for it- and that he is in it to win it. Oikyafront’s acceptance of the dhaaner shish (paddy sheaf) election symbol uniformly across the alliance showed it was going to use its common sense and intelligence, instead of getting bogged down in sentimental drivel. It has thus shown itself to be practical as well as flexible. That in turn has rattled the government, who until even just August of this year could never have imagined the shape of the beast they are now confronted with.
“Equality of Opportunity”
The central theme of the economic, or social vision for Bangladesh that Oikyafroint will look to pursue, is said to be “Equality of Opportunity”. It is clearly a brainchild of Dr Kibria, who talks enthusiastically and with passion as he expounds upon its main themes. It further cements Dr Hossain's preferred strategy of bringing in some real quality talent into politics, thyose who would not have done so otherwise, and setting them up for key positions in the alliance government, should it come to fruition.
“There is certainly a battle ahead. Some individuals think of this narrowly in physical terms, but the people of this country understand that it is a battle of ideas, a struggle to restore the noble principles upon which this Republic was founded. Those of you who fought and made sacrifices for our freedom must now come together to restore our freedoms. The young generation will play a decisive role in our struggle - it is up to them to help redeem the pledges of the old - to create a nation free of bigotry, free of hunger, free of corruption and free of ignorance,” he says. There is clearly more than just an economic component to this.
“Economic growth must benefit all our people - and the State must step in to help those largely bypassed by economic progress. Competitive markets need to be underpinned by appropriate regulation, and businesses must be protected from extortion and rent-seeking by those holding positions in power.” Certainly the government will find it hard to deny the entrenchment of crony capitalism that has taken place under their watch. That really stands out as his principal gripe it might be said, with the present government. Dr Kibria lays great store by education as well, and loathes the present scenario with its "golden GPAs" and pass rates.
“The present educational disadvantages faced by the bulk of our population must be addressed more effectively. The quality of our education needs to be improved rather than mindlessly focusing on marks and pass-rates. This is essential for our nation to move towards our goal of “Equality of Opportunity” for all. This is not only morally right, but is essential for the development of the human capital that drives economic development of all great nations. The State must play a major role in this area, as it must forcefully address the issue of widening income and wealth-inequality.
“What we seek is a very different Bangladesh, whose people are prosperous and happy; where economic mobility depends on merit and effort; where the social, physical and political environment is such that talented individuals currently living or working abroad (entrepreneurs and professionals) will feel encouraged to return to make a contribution to our collective progress.” It’s an impressive presentation of the kind of Bangladesh he wants. Listening to Dr Kibria, you can’t help but hope that he is indeed on the right side of history, with his passion and intellect. More importantly, that he is on the right side on the ballot.