The BNP is facing a bigger challenge than it had encountered before the last parliamentary polls, according to party leaders and political analysts.
In the runup to the last polls in January, 2014, Khaleda Zia led the BNP to enforce street agitation for more than two years to compel the government to restore the election-time caretaker government system.
The movement failed to get back the system, which was abolished by the Awami League-led government in June, 2011. While enforcing the street agitation, the BNP reached a point of no return with its demand. The party led its alliance to boycott the polls.
The BNP had to pay for the boycott as it was left outside of the parliamentary politics for the first time since democracy was restored in Bangladesh with the fall of Ershad in December, 1990.
On the first anniversary of the January 5 parliamentary polls, the party again opted for adventure and Khaleda led her party to a countrywide blockade for around three months in 2015 to topple the government.
The movement failed, again. Her party leaders and activists had to pay heavily for this. Around 50,000 cases were filed against BNP men in connection with violence during the blockade and many of them were put behind the bars. Some are still on the run.
Five years later, the BNP leaders are again mulling a street agitation with the polls only a few months to go.
It is clear to the BNP leaders that Khaleda would not be released from jail before the election likely to be held in December. So, the party needs to take to the street in September demanding release of Khaleda along with the demand for the restoration of non-partisan election-time government, said a number of BNP policymakers.
Khaleda landed in jail on February 8 upon conviction in the Zia Orphanage graft case. Initially, her party leaders had thought Khaleda would be released on bail.
However, they were frustrated when despite winning a hard-fought legal battle for bail at the Supreme Court in middle of May, their leader could not get out of jail as she had been shown arrested in seven other cases.
She got bail in Zia Orphanage graft case. Recently, she has initiated another round of legal battles to secure bail in the seven cases.
But things are not easy. Considering all aspects of legal matters, one of her senior lawyers recently commented that he did not see any chance of her being released before the polls.
In her absence, her son Tarique Rahman is supposed to lead the party. He became acting chairman of the party after Khaleda was sentenced. But Tarique has been in London for 10 years.
The present situation puts the BNP in a quandary. There are many questions whirling in the minds of BNP leaders and activists. Should the party now launch a vigorous street agitation demanding release of Khaleda and restoration of an election-time government system? Does the party have organisational strength to twist the government's arm? Or will they face the same situation they faced in the past?
On Khaleda's advice, the BNP did not go for any tough movement even after she landed in jail. The party observed peaceful programmes but that strategy did not work, said party insiders who favour vigorous street agitation.
The biggest question among them is: should the BNP boycott the next parliamentary polls if none of its demands were met?
Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury, party's standing committee member, said, “This time the challenge is huge as democratic, political, and electoral space have been squeezed to a zero level."
Asked, BNP Vice-Chairman Abdul Awal Mintoo said compared to 2014 and 2008, this time the situation is more challenging for the BNP. "The party will be able to face those challenges devising appropriate and time-bound strategies."
Khosru alleged that the government was trying to hold a one-party unchallenged election and Khaleda was sent to jail for that. “Khaleda Zia was sent to jail just to put the BNP in a corner and to put it in a more challenging situation.”
Recent comments of some BNP leaders that the party would not run for polls if Khaleda was not released fuelled speculations. BNP leaders are divided over whether to take part in the polls under a Sheikh Hasina-led government.
But the most important question is: can the BNP afford another polls boycott?
Pro-BNP intellectual Prof Emajuddin Ahmed, former vice-chancellor of Dhaka University, said, “The BNP leaders know very well that the government will do its best to keep the party out of the race. I think no such situation has been created that the BNP will boycott the election. BNP is an election-centric party and I believe that it will participate in the election.”
The political scientist, who closely observes the BNP's politics, said, “Participating in the election is a part of a movement. If Khaleda is not released from jail before the election, the party should join the race as part of its ongoing movement to get Khaleda released and restore democracy.”
Political analyst and Gonoshasthaya Kendra founder Zafrullah Chowdhury, who has been monitoring the BNP closely for a long time, echoed Prof Emajuddin's views.
"I think BNP will join the polls even if Khaleda remains behind the bars. The BNP should not boycott the national elections this time.”
Zafrullah also said if BNP made its position clear that it would take part in the election, the whole political situation would change in its favour.
The BNP high-ups, however, seem to be in a dilemma.
A section of BNP leaders said taking part in the polls without a change in the political situation would be meaningless and the government would have the upper hand.
In their views, Khaleda has become the symbol and icon of the party and they cannot think of going for the polls with her inside jail. They argue that Khaleda's presence is important in their campaigns as no one has her popularity.
Other BNP leaders said the party should take part in the polls as the BNP cannot afford another election boycott.
Since restoration of democracy in 1990, the BNP won three parliamentary polls. But the party has been out of power since October, 2006.
Founded in 1978, the BNP was never out of power for such a long time. It would face risk of losing registration with the Election Commission if it boycotted the next parliamentary polls.