BNP chief Khaleda Zia, who is now leading a one-point movement to topple the present government, as means to realise opposition’s demand for reintroducing the caretaker government (CTG), was vehemently opposed to the system when she was prime minister around 18 years ago.
She had then frequently described the idea of a non-partisan unconstitutional, and unprecedented in the world history, in order to counter and reject the demand for CTG by Awami League, Jatiya Party and Jamaat-e-Islami.
She opposed the system so much that she had rejected any discussions on a neutral non-partisan/ CTG as it was, according to her, contrary to the notion of a representative government, wrote Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed in his book The Ishtiaq Papers; which reencountered a meeting with her on October 9, 1995.
Barrister Ishtiaq, along with four other eminent citizens, had mediated a negotiation to break the political standoff that prevailed over the introduction of CTG system, and held a series of discussions with Khaleda and Hasina on this regard.
But referring to the October 9, 1995 meeting, Ishtiaq further wrote: “She [Khaleda] took great pain [in explaining] to us how the neutral-non-partisan caretaker government was opposed to the basic concept of a representative government.”
In trashing the opposition’s demand for a non-partisan and neutral CTG, Khaleda Zia on several occasions had cited her prominent observation — “Only a child or mad person can be neutral.”
Khaleda, labelled an “uncompromising leader” for her role during the anti-autocracy movement against Ershad, at a meeting with the BNP Parliamentary Party on November 9, 1994, had also announced that she might lose power, but she would not deviate from her principle. As AL and other political parties continued to intensifying their violent agitation on the streets, Khaleda had initially announced her resignation as the premier — four weeks before the polling day.
At the November 9 meeting with the five eminent citizens, Khaleda reaffirmed her earlier announcement on her resignation and the formation of an interim government made up of MPs. She had made the announcement in line with her stance against CTG, which she found had stood against the constitution.
But she hastened to add that upon the dissolution of Parliament and her resignation, the position of the PM in the interim government must be occupied by a member of her majority party in the outgoing Parliament.
Khaleda Zia had agreed to accommodate five opposition nominated persons to get elected unopposed to Parliament from seats vacated by the opposition, along with six sitting members of Parliament of her part — they would form the cabinet to run the interim government following the dissolution of Parliament.
The opposition, however, did not agree to the proposal of making a ruling party MP the prime minister. The AL had been demanding for a non-partisan prime minister, but Khaleda Zia did not agree. The G-5 made efforts to convince her, but failed as well.
Those efforts, however, could not break the political standoff and the parliament had dissolved towards the end of 1995. The Election Commission had proceeded to hold the elections. Following this, the AL, Jatiya Party, Jamaat and some other parties declared that they would boycott the elections, and started intensifying their agitations further.
A farcical parliamentary election was held on February 15, 1996, and the new government was headed by Khaleda Zia, but it was unable to function in the face of a non-cooperation movement by opposition parties. So, finally, Khaleda had to concede to their demands and the non-partisan CTG system was introduced by amending the constitution in March, 1996.
And it was the BNP-led government under Khaleda’s leadership that had made the caretaker system controversial by increasing the retirement age of Supreme Court judges in 2004 by amending the constitution. The retirement age had been increased in such a way that it allowed the chief justice to lead the caretaker government system until the end of 2006. Centering this, the political situation had become volatile that ended with the then president declaring a state of emergency in January 2007.
After 18 years, since the introduction of CTG, history has repeated itself with Khaleda and Hasina swapping their stances.
Sheikh Hasina, who had led a nearly three-year long agitation for the introduction of CTG, has now opposed the idea; terming it unconstitutional as it consists of unelected people. Using a Supreme Court verdict that declared the CTG illegal, her government abolished it by amending the constitution on June, 30, 2011.
Before abolishing the CTG Khaleda’s BNP enforced three days of hartals (strikes) protesting the government’s move to cancel it. The day the parliament abolished the CTG system by amending the constitution, Khaleda Zia at a press conference stated: “All the possibilities of holding free, fair, neutral and competitive elections are now gone.”
Khaleda said the AL-led ruling coalition has amended the constitution despite protests from the opposition, and by ignoring the aspirations of the people for the CTG system. “The consequences will not be good,” she had warned. “Elections will be farcical if held keeping the prime minister, cabinet and parliament in effect in the name of an interim government.”
Since then she has been reiterating that her BNP-led alliance would not join the next parliamentary election without the restoration of a non-partisan CTG system.
And her party and the BNP-led alliance have been agitating for a reinstallation of the caretaker system. Refuted by the government, she has recently launched a one-point movement to oust the government as a means to realise their demand.
Khaleda Zia, who demonstrated her unqualified love for the constitution, when she was in power, to reject the opposition’s demand for the caretaker government, has failed to do so when finding herself in the opposition bench in parliament.
Under her leadership the BNP lawmakers in both the seventh and current ninth parliaments have opted for boycotting the House proceedings day after day, which was as per a High Court verdict delivered in 1994, unconstitutional.
Her party deputies boycotted 163 of the 382 sittings of the seventh parliament between 1996 and 2001. She joined in on only 27 sittings.
Currently, the situation is worse than before. Raising various demands, including the reintroduction of the CTG system, Khaleda Zia has been leading her party MPs to boycott the House proceedings. Her party deputies joined only 54 out of total 362 parliamentary sittings over the last four years.
The way the political situation is developing, centering the mode of the election time government, Khaleda and her party deputies may continue their House boycott; paying no heed to the constitutional provision and their oaths to discharge their duties as per the constitution.
Doesn’t the overall situation say that Khaleda Zia had defended the constitution when it had served her party’s purpose?
The writer is a Senior Reporter at The Daily Star.