Adecade ago, when she was in power, Khaleda Zia tried but could not forge national unity to fight militancy. Almost all parties boycotted the talks because of her party's strong ties with Jamaat-e-Islami, a party accused of patronising militancy. Her latest move to forge national unity to rid Bangladesh from militancy faces the same fate, as little has changed and there is fresh pressure on her to sever ties with Jamaat, an anti-liberation force.
Can Khaleda make a difference this time?
After the countrywide unprecedented bomb blasts by the militant outfit JMB on August 17, 2005, then premier Khaleda Zia had offered a 'national dialogue' to find ways to stop bomb terrorism. She had invited 27 political parties and 15 professional bodies to the dialogue that began on December 12 amid boycotts by the opposition alliance. Then main opposition, the Awami League-led 14 party, boycotted the dialogue in a united manner, protesting the presence of Jamaat's leaders in Khaleda's cabinet. On the first day of the dialogue, Krishak Shramik Janata League asked Khaleda Zia to expel two Jamaat's leaders, Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed - who were recently executed for committing war crimes - from the cabinet on charges of patronising militancy in the country.
The then ruling BNP had also faced tremendous internal pressure when a number of senior BNP leaders categorically alleged that Jamaat was the main force behind militancy. For his vociferous statement about Jamaat's role in militancy, then BNP lawmaker Abu Hena was punished by Khaleda Zia with expulsion from the party.
As Khaleda Zia declined to take any step against Jamaat, the much-hyped anti-militancy talks fizzled out with only three political parties and five professional bodies joining. Thus, the goal of creating national unity was far from being realised.
After the unprecedented attack on a Gulshan café on July 1 that killed 20 hostages, the BNP chief urged for national unity to fight militancy. She urged the government to hold talks on how to fight militancy. Her party has planned to hold a national convention on militancy, inviting leaders of all political parties and representatives of professional bodies. But again Jamaat-e- Islami appeared as a stumbling block to her move. A number of senior ministers and ruling AL leaders have categorically rejected her call, stating that neither the government nor the AL will hold any talks with BNP. In defence, AL leaders stressed that BNP will have to sever its ties with Jamaat that opposed the country's Liberation War and allegedly patronised different militant outfits.
AL's stance may be viewed by some as merely a political strategy. But when some pro-BNP professionals and intellectuals on Thursday night at a meeting with Khaleda advised her to sever ties with Jamaat, the issue should have been given more importance. A number of leaders of the BNP, on condition of anonymity, told media that many eminent personalities and leaders of political parties will not join BNP's convention if Jamaat leaders were present.
Yet, Khaleda Zia remains nonchalant. She is still unwilling to severe her party's ties with Jamaat. Considering the historical background, it is not so easy for her to cut the ties with a party with whom they have had a long, solid partnership. This goes back to General Zia, whose ascendancy to power as a military strongman after the bloody changeover of August 15, 1975, was the beginning of a 'bright future' for the anti-liberation forces.
As Gen Zia gradually consolidated his power and transformed himself into a political leader, he had introduced his own style of politics, which appeared as a blessing for anti-liberation forces and religion based political parties. In 1978, Zia also made Abdul Alim a minister, who was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2013.
Gen Zia had amended the Constitution through martial law proclamations in 1977, lifting a constitutional ban on religion-based politics. This opened the door for anti-liberation political parties, including Jamaat-e-Islami, to resume activities in independent Bangladesh. Jamaat and some other parties had been constitutionally banned after the country's independence for their role against the country's Liberation War in 1971.
The BNP led by Khaleda forged an unofficial compromise with the anti-liberation force Jamaat in some constituencies in the parliamentary election in 1991 to defeat the Awami League. Following the pact, the BNP extended support to some Jamaat-backed candidates, while it returned the favour to BNP in the same way.
After Khaleda-led BNP won the 1991 elections, it appointed Abdur Rahman Biswas, known as a 'peace committee' member during our freedom struggle, as the Speaker of the Parliament. Within six months, he was elected President of Bangladesh on BNP's nomination in October 1991. In doing so, Khaleda followed the footstep of her late husband Zia who had made Biswas a minister of his cabinet in 1979.
Khaleda Zia, however, took it to the next level. During Gen Zia's regime, anti-liberation politicians were given important positions in the government only after they had joined the BNP. Her BNP formed an electoral alliance with Jamaat before the 2001 parliamentary elections. She shared power with Jamaat directly after winning the polls, by inducting Jamaat's Ameer Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed into her cabinet, giving them important portfolios.
Together they had waged unprecedented violent street agitations in several phases against the AL-led government since 2013 and in early 2015, but their agitations failed.
Khaleda faced tremendous pressure in some occasions in the past to cut ties with Jamaat. But she never conceded to the pressure. Now, the crucial question is: will the 'uncompromising' leader change her mind for the sake of national unity in the wake of these terror attacks?
The answer most likely will be no, as she still strongly favours her party's ties with Jamaat even after so many developments in the political arena in the last six years since the beginning of the trial of war criminals in 2010. What are the lessons of the politics of the last six years for the BNP leader to learn?
Whatever may be the weakness of the war crimes trial there cannot be any question that people have extended their wholehearted support to the trial even if nearly 40 years late. Many of them are still bearing the pain of the atrocities of Jamaat's leaders who had collaborated with the Pakistani occupational army to carry out genocide to foil the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
For its heinous role in 1971, the Jamaat has been dubbed as a terrorist organisation in several judgements delivered by the International Criminal Tribunals. Its registration as a parliamentary party with the Election Commission has also been scrapped by the High Court in 2013 as Jamaat's objectives stipulated in its charter run counter to the country's constitution. It means Jamaat is now disqualified to contest the parliamentary election.
Yet, how does Khaleda Zia, chief of one of the major political parties in Bangladesh, still favours keeping her party's ties with Jamaat when many of her party's leaders blame the party's present sorry state for maintaining ties with the anti-liberation force?
Khaleda Zia, whose role in the anti-Ershad movement was laudable must now rethink her politics. Her strong role in anti-autocracy struggle was lauded by people who honoured her by voting BNP to power in the parliamentary elections held in 1991. Again, she became elected prime minister in 2001. The records show she should rely on people to lead her party, instead of Jamaat, to lead her BNP to the power again.
Considering the ground political reality, therefore, the BNP chief should reassess her current political strategy and come up with a new brand of politics as she promised in her party's national council a few months ago.
The writer is Special Correspondent, The Daily Star.