THOSE who saw Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's press conference on television on Saturday must have noticed her emphatic no to holding any dialogue over the next general election with BNP led by Khaleda Zia. In recent times, she had not made such strong arguments against holding talks with the opposition BNP like she did on Saturday. She even asked: “Why do I have to sit with killers?” Who are the killers? The answer lies in her speech. “It's unfortunate that I have to face queries repeatedly about holding talks with those who had killed my father and also tried to kill me. I did my best for the sake of the people and democracy and that's enough.”
It is clear from her remarks that the premier has labelled the BNP as “killers.” And her other remark, “I did my best for the sake of the people and democracy and that's enough,” is also significant. This means that neither her government nor the Awami League will take any step to reach a consensus over the next parliamentary election. There are sufficient and strong reasons behind Hasina's current stance over holding talks with the BNP. But what she said at Saturday's press conference is not the real reason. The reason is that she is now in a better position. The shock wave of the January 5 parliamentary election seems to have passed. The BNP-led opposition has not been able to demonstrate any sign of waging strong street agitation against the AL-led government to force it to hold talks over an early general election. So, why will Hasina's government or her party go for talks with the BNP? Holding dialogue means the government and the AL will have to make some sacrifice as the BNP-led alliance has long been demanding something. If the government does not want to give something to the BNP, then it is better for it not to open any dialogue with the party.
So, the issue of killers is not so significant right now. Hasina and the AL have held a series of talks in the past with BNP leaders to resolve the political crisis. Wasn't the BNP a killing force at that time? The accusation against BNP's founder General Ziaur Rahman is nothing new. The AL has long been accusing Zia of being involved in the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975. But the AL had held talks with BNP leaders on many occasions during the street agitation against the autocratic ruler H.M. Ershad. Even after restoration of parliamentary democracy through the ouster of the Ershad regime, the AL, under the leadership of Hasina, had held dialogue with the BNP many times. One thing was crucial, that most of the time the AL was in the opposition and the BNP was in power.
We cannot forget the much hyped dramatic dialogue between BNP Secretary General Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and AL's General Secretary Abdul Jalil in October 2006 to break the political stalemate over the parliamentary election. This secretary general level dialogue was held two years after the August 21, 2004 grenade attack on an AL rally in the capital. Hasina and AL leaders blamed the BNP for carrying out the grisly attack.
Take some more instances of holding of talks between BNP and AL in the last two decades. On August 31, 1994, the deputy leaders of the House and the Opposition, A.Q.M. Badruddozza Chowdhury and Abdus Samad Azad, respectively, held a more than one and a half hour parley at Parliament building to resolve the political deadlock. At that time, the BNP was in power and Khaleda Zia was the prime minister. Hasina was the leader of the opposition, and under her leadership the AL-led opposition parties were agitating in the streets demanding introduction of a caretaker government system.
On October 2, 1994, Hasina told then Commonwealth secretary general that her AL was ready to hold talks with the government, but the government was not sincere about creating an atmosphere for the talks. In the same month, under mediation of the Commonwealth secretary general, both Hasina and Khaleda agreed to hold talks.
On another occasion, Hasina had also agreed to hold talks with Khaleda in October following initiatives taken by a group of eminent citizens to break the political stand off over the introduction of a caretaker government system. Following the move by the eminent citizens, then Premier Khaleda wrote a letter to Hasina on October 28 offering to hold talks to resolve the political deadlock. In response, Hasina sent a letter to Khaleda on October 31 expressing her willingness to hold a dialogue. But Hasina urged Khaleda to fix an agenda before the talks.
Due to some preconditions given by Hasina, the dialogue between the two top leaders was finally not held. The political crisis was not resolved and the BNP-led government held the one-sided parliamentary election on February 15, 1996.
When the AL under leadership of Hasina was in power in its first term (1996-2001), leaders of the AL and the BNP had held talks several times to resolve the parliamentary standoff. Take two examples here. Under mediation of the then Speaker, leaders of the AL and the BNP agreed to resolve the parliamentary crisis on January 14, 1997. Leaders of both parties sat for talks again on February 2, 1998 to resolve the parliamentary stand off. They reached an understanding and BNP returned to the parliament ending the boycott.
The latest move for holding talks with BNP was the phone call by Sheikh Hasina to Khaleda Zia before the January 5 parliamentary elections. AL and BNP leaders even sat across the table during the political turmoil centring the January 5 parliamentary polls under mediation of the UN secretary general's special envoy Taranco.
Those days are gone. Now, the situation is different and Hasina is dealing with the situation with a different strategy. Is this politics of convenience?
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.