Two heartening things about Khaleda Zia's first post election speech were that it shunned hartals and oborodhs for the time being and called for peaceful dialogue to move towards a more acceptable poll. As for the rest, they were full of the usual threats, half truths, contrived versions of events and self-serving narratives. It also contained some dangerous innuendos implicating our security forces. (See our “analysis” published on Tuesday, January 21st, and BNP's rejoinder and our reply published today).
As an opposition leader Khaleda Zia's “finest hour” was during the anti-Ershad struggle of the '80s. Driven by a widow's obsession to avenge her husband's assassination she was unwavering to the cause of the destruction of Gen. Ershad.
It was her single minded, relentless and uncompromising stance that earned her the respect of millions who saw in the young widow's determination the emergence of a new leader who could be depended upon and relied on to lead the party that her husband founded.
She was a totally unknown person in the political circles as she was generally confined to the domestic chores by her strong-willed and domineering husband. Hence her emergence as a leader was indeed a surprise for all, especially as she took on a military dictator.
It was for her role during that period that earned her the title "Aposh heen Netri" (The uncompromising leader). It was to her "uncompromising" stand against autocrat Ershad that many attribute her surprising victory in 1991 election, confounding political observers and, of course, the Awami league that took its victory as certain.
If the anti-Ershad movement of the '80s was Khaleda Zia's 'finest hour,' her recent role in anti-Sheikh Hasina agitation was her "darkest." What was her greatest quality of the past -- uncompromising personality -- became her biggest handicap as she was unable to think creatively to an ever evolving political scene that needed smart assessment, quick adjustment and clever response. Handling PM's telephone call and failing to respond to the offer of any ministry in the poll-time all party government are two glaring cases where she failed to respond cleverly and her “uncompromising” reputation did her in.
To start with, Khaleda Zia did not accept her defeat in the 2008 polls to be a reflection of the public verdict but took it as a result of the machination of the so-called 'One-Eleven government' which was army-backed. Thus she did not feel the need to examine whether there was anything wrong in the way she and her son ran the country during 2001-2006.
In fact there was no introspection, no soul searching and hence no new thinking resulting from the 2008 election defeat. Since there was no attempt to analyse the mistakes, there was, naturally, also no attempt to understand what the AL did right like its appeal to the youth, commitment to try the war criminals of 1971, etc.
BNP greatly underestimated the appeal of the war crimes trial on the people of Bangladesh, especially the youth. It is this writer's view that Khaleda Zia never tried to understand the deep wound that our people felt about the killers of 1971 never being held accountable for their crimes. She showed unforgivable disrespect -- to the memory of our Liberation War and its martyrs -- when she appointed Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Md. Mojahid (both accused of war crimes and are facing trial), cabinet ministers in her 2001 cabinet. It is one thing to support or take support from Jamaat but quite another to make them occupy cabinet post of the country that they fought tooth and nail, killed, raped and participated in genocide to prevent from being born. That action, howsoever a product of political exigency, distanced the BNP and its chief from the hearts and minds of millions, especially those of us who are still alive and have been freedom fighters, and from our children who are proud of what their parents did.
The second mistake, and for which Khaleda Zia and her son, Tarique Rahman, must be held particularly responsible, is not to have a Plan B. From the outset the demand for election under a caretaker government was their single demand, and not participating in the elections without it was their single option. There was never any thought given to evolving situations and to what they will do if AL goes ahead with the election in spite of everything. They seemed to have ignored our electoral history that no election was ever postponed due to the boycott of any other party save the one in 2007 when the army intervened.
As we now know that BNP's local level leaders were ready, willing and eager to join the election fray and to take on the AL. Many felt confident to win despite the odds. But they got no hearing from the high command. The cost of poll boycott and its multifarious consequences appears not to have been calculated. In retrospect, it turns out to be a grave mistake, whose consequences are yet not clear and whose likely impact could make this Khaleda Zia's greatest challenge since her entering politics.
So what's in store for the BNP and its leader?
Much depends, as it always does with both parties, on what the leader chooses to do. Challenges before the BNP chief are both formidable and urgent. She must transform or perish.
To start with, BNP must objectively assess where it has gone wrong, how those wrongs came about, implications of those mistakes, and how to overcome them. Nothing short of a “re-invention” of themselves is called for.
This re-invention must include an in-depth analysis of its political platform. Will a regurgitation of 'Islam in danger' and 'sovereignty in danger' be enough to re-energise the party? For it to reinvigorate itself BNP must take into account the country's demography that indicates that more than 60% of our population is under the age of 25. What is the central concern of these voters? What message will BNP have for them? Why should they put their faith in the party?
The most serious soul searching of BNP must involve its relations with Jamaat. It not just a question of political alliance, or even that of BNP's position on war crimes trial, but far more importantly the intellectual base of BNP's goals as a large political party that twice formed the government and may do so in the future.
What kind of future Bangladesh is BNP offering us? Where and what is the difference between BNP's future vision of Bangladesh and that of its ally, Jamaat? As BNP gets more and more dependent on Jamaat, how much of the latter's political philosophy will get incorporated in the vision of the former? How much of our laws will be based on principles of democracy, freedom, justice, equality, etc, and how much on religious edicts? What has been the experience of modern societies running on the basis of religion? Once religion based politics is accepted then where do we draw the line? What are BNP's future plans for tackling extremism and terrorism? As we show in our reply to BNP's rejoinder ( see separate story), the past record is not very encouraging.
As BNP tries to re-group, re-energise, re-invigorate and re-emerge it will have to come to the electorate with new messages of hope and a new vision for the future, especially it will have to provide suitable responses to the questions we ask above. We do not want to see a party as large and as voter based as the BNP being swallowed up by an obscurantist party prone to violence as exhibited during the recent agitations. BNP will make a grave error if it underestimates the shock, horror and anger people felt when innocent bystanders were being set on fire, petrol bombs were thrown into running buses and kids were burnt alive in the name of political agitation.
In this crucial period of re-invention the old issues, old tactics and old allies are more likely to be burdens rather than assets. Is Khaleda Zia ready, willing and most importantly, capable of giving leadership in this all important transition?
The writer is Editor and Publisher , The Daily Star.