The Politics of New Polarization
A smell of foreboding is in the air! At the end of the Eid holidays, Bangladesh is heading for an unsettling year in 1999 since the new BNP-led opposition alliance, united on a four-point programme, is poised, with a 30-day ultimatum, to oust the Awami League government by political agitation if the stated demands were not met by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. So far there are no indications of a dialogue between the two sides. As the New Year dawned, the combined anti-government front asked for the resignation of Mr. Abu Hena, the Chief Election Commissioner and a complete reconstitution of the election machinery. They also insisted on fresh voter's identity cards before the impending City Corporation and municipal elections, and wanted the withdrawal of all cases against the political leaders without which they would boycott all elections. Not unexpectedly, the Awami League leaders played down that concordat as an issueless campaign, demeaned it as an adventure of the power seekers, and they denounced the initiative as a dangerous liaison of the "anti-liberation forces" out to subvert the peace and stability of the country. For all the hard-line talks and the spin doctoring by their allies, the leaders of the Awami League can hardly ignore the determined drumbeat against them. No doubt, the emerging political configuration is a momentous realignment of politics since 1996 when the Awami League defeated the BNP, and with a sprinkling of support from the JP and others the Awami League returned to power under Sheikh Hasina's leadership.
Has the opposition-entente undermined Sheikh Hasina's government? Is it realignment for power struggle or an ideological polarization? How solid is the 4-point demand that brought the three main parties together? Certainly, the Jatiya Party's (JP) switch to the largest opposition party the BNP has, for all practical purposes, reversed what Sheikh Hasina has been flatteringly describing as the "consensus-government" from the time she became Prime Minister. With one JP leader still holding a cabinet position, it is an anomaly both for the government and the opposition. The seemingly united resistance will still hurt Sheikh Hasina's prestige but her cabinet will not be immediately affected by the realignment. Neither Anwar Hossain Manju, nor the JSD leader Abdur Rob wanted to quit the government. As a counter measure, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina decided to hit back at General Ershad's JP by wooing Anwar Hossain Manju to stay in the cabinet, and tried to create a pro-Awami faction of the JP. The patronage-power of the ruling party will come handy to allure the JP and the BNP factions and dissuade them not to join the opposition bandwagon. Yet the JP leader Ershad has emerged as one of the principal actors in the 3-party pact, and may become the key power player in the future.
As of this writing, the 4-point opposition-demand has not ignited such a political firestorm that would soon bring down the government or even force an immediate election. In fact, the anti-government mobilization will initially be an uphill slog for the diverse opposition forces. The current year may be over just in gathering momentum to mount a full assault on the government. If the incumbent Chief Election Commissioner steps down simply because his credibility is under fire, it would remove at least one sting from the opposition bite. Even on the rest of the issues, I detect some Awami flexibility including withdrawing a few cases against the opposition leaders and their troops. Sheikh Hasina will not concede on the Mujib killers most of whom have already been tried and convicted, and they were undergoing further judicial process. The government seems eager to go ahead with the trial of the alleged jail-killers of 1975. Politically, it will be difficult for the opposition to openly demand the exoneration of those found guilty of killing Mujib (and his family members) and those charged of murdering the top Awami League leaders (1975) held in jail. It's not yet known what kind of alternative strategy the BNP-led alliance had sharpened for the Awami tactics to disarm the opposition. Without well-orchestrated articulation of issues and appropriate counter-moves in the face up, the BNP-led alliance and the 4-point program would not dent the Awami League administration and its future prospect to be reelected.
Beyond the too familiar hartal-thumping activists, they would need astute tacticians to match their opponents in power. The Awami League has useful allies as it faces the BNP-led attack on the government. Numerous Bengali newspapers along with their columnists are inclined to support Sheikh Hasina's government and most of its policies and actions. It was the support of the Bengali newspapers that made the 1995-96 anti-BNP mass movement a success. Although they have not performed significantly in the polls, the left-leaning forces remained influential, and they would most likely support the Awami League in its confrontation with the right wing and the Islamically inclined antagonists. The liberal educators who dominate the academic establishments usually support the Awami League although recently the BNP has been able to inspire a group of teachers, writers, columnists and professionals to counter the influence of the better known pro-Awami League intellectuals.
Since the 1996 elections, it is an open secret that several prominent NGOs with countrywide institutional network are on good terms with the Awami League. Accusations have been flying all over that the Awami League had politicized the mid to lower echelon of the bureaucracy and the police that will not only crush the anti-government protests but also help rigging the future elections. The opposition politicians have blamed that the politically recruited bureaucrats (of 1973) helped the AL to win the 1996 elections, and they were not acceptable to supervise the next elections.
For the Bangladeshi politicians, the habit of protest, as a vehicle of opposition empowerment, is addictive but the country has recently been suffering from a hartal-fatigue that the AL would use against the new alliance. What the Awami League protestors did with relative impunity in 1996, may not exactly be replicated by the BNP in 1999, but hartal will be used to mobilize public support and give a political voice to the united front against the government. The Awami League government may be tempted to use repressive measures to keep the agitators at bay. Indirectly, it has already been hinted that the JP chief Ershad may be sent back to jail! Scores of cases have already been started against most ex-BNP ministers and even their grassroots workers on various allegations but the opposition feared that such contrived charges will accelerate in the coming months as the political acrimony intensifies. The recent Khaleque (allegedly forced to join the AL and then returned to the BNP) episode gives reason to fear that the ruling party might disarray the opposition both through intimidation and induced defections in the BNP and the JP ranks. But the Awami crackdown and coerced defection, if any, far from restoring stability, may signal even more instability. Moreover, the international observers and the Dhaka-based diplomatic community will not readily accept coercion for maintaining law and order. They might rather expect Sheikh Hasina to seek a fresh mandate sooner, not later!
It is not a compelling ideological confrontation between the right and lefts that divides the Bangladeshi parties, but some ideological tenets, stated or unstated, are surely intertwined with what is otherwise a partisan polarization for power. Not only the AL believes to be the rightful inheritor of power in independent Bangladesh that they fought for in 1971, but also it claims to its credit a lingo-centric secularism, distinctive from the earlier Muslim separatism that characterized Pakistan. The new opposition allies, on the other hand, laid their claims as the Bangladeshi nationalists, eager to protect the sovereignty of the nation (an euphemism for standing up to India's hegemony) and willing to respect the Islamic identity of the Muslim majority in Bangladesh. They want to identify the citizens of Bangladesh as Bangladeshis not Bengalis but the Awami League insists that Bangladesh, having been separated from Pakistan, should derive its national awareness from its Bangla language. The ideological postulations and counter-postulations between the AL and the BNP-led opposition are not always logical, but they exude an emotional appeal, sometimes an ugly smear, that could make or unmake a popular agitation or an election campaign. Apparently as an ideological battle but really to neutralize their political appeal, the Awami League and its front organizations will further step up their denunciation of the Jamaat and its leaders for their Islamic fundamentalism and alleged anti-liberation activities, including violent crimes, in 1971.
Over the years, the suspicion and fear of India have replaced the old ideological disagreement, and polarized the parties. There was a shadowy but a pervasive whispering campaign that the AL was India's B-team, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam, and no other issues worked so well for the party's rout in the 1991 election. It's the vulnerability on such polemical questions that led Sheikh Hasina move her party from the left to the center, and she successfully brought her party back to power (1996) after diffusing the pro-Indian and anti-Islam accusations. Two years after the water treaty was signed between Sheikh Hasina's new government and New Delhi, there are doubts about the fairness of that deal, and the volume of water that Bangladesh actually receives during the dry season. In the triangular relationship embodied in the CHT peace accord, India is viewed as the absentee actor that holds the ultimate key to its success or failure. Those questions will surely unravel as the BNP-led coalition challenges the ruling party. A broad spectrum of the conservative Muslims and the right wing religious groups look upon secularism as a legitimizing façade to capitulate to India, and they want Bangladesh to derive its basic national identity from the Muslim and Islamic heritage. Such a view is not acceptable to most Awami Leaguers and their supporters but the new BNP-led coalition might press it against them.
The old brew of Mujibism has been in the backburner during Sheikh Hasina's tenure, but the legacy of the Bakshali approach to politics still haunts the Awami League and scare countless Bangladeshis who lived through the early years of nationalistic fervor and ideological zealotries. Also, many senior Awami Leaguers and their cohorts feel that the BNP-led alliance would never be able to mount the massive scale of anti-government protest, which they successfully launched in 1996. This assumption indicates AL's overconfidence and it fans the impasse between the government and the opposition camp. To me, the four-point agreement will remain a paper-alliance unless its associates agree to work together until the next election. There is already a confusion and disagreement between the BNP and other partners of the alliance over the participation in the municipal elections that are usually contested on the non-partisan basis. Public perception that Khaleda Zia might be suffering from a chaotic indecision is deadly for her party, and the new opposition platform as a whole. Observers doubt if the JP will fully support the BNP leadership all the way through the election, and beyond. Even the JP's own organizational unity and its ability to effectively contribute to any massive anti-government protest are not above question. It's quite possible that Sheikh Hasina could outflank the BNP-led alliance in its moment of weakness.
In the light of the recent election results and a modicum of opinion polls, most opposition leaders are counting that the combined voting strength of the centrist BNP, the JP and the Islamic groups outweigh the supporters of the Awami League. They are also hopeful that those who seriously dislike the Awami League rule had no better choice but to support the new alliance for a change of guards. The right wing groups believe that without their committed votes, the BNP and the JP candidates would not be able to defeat the Awami candidates at the poll who usually reap the benefits of the solid minority "vote banks". The complex arithmetic of public support in the light of the fresh realignment could be overstated or underestimated, but the ruling party is surely concerned about the new calculus of the electorate strength. It is possibly too early to pinpoint how will the recently forged opposition compact be transformed into an workable electoral arrangement among the allies and how will the ruling party fare in its future electoral contest with the BNP-led alliance!