SAVING THE DAY
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chief Khaleda Zia's latest stance for a neutral election-time government system (instead of the usual non-party caretaker government) has indeed opened a new window of opportunity in the country's politics. It is true that had the party taken this stance before the controversial January 5 election, strings of violence that had plagued the country in the last two years could have been averted.
There is no denying that Khaleda had missed the train in two phases. She could have taken Sheikh Hasina's phone call as an opportunity, withdrawing or relaxing the strike for a day to join the talks in which the prime minister had invited her. Or the BNP could have accepted the latter's proposal of an all-party unity government to help the Election Commission oversee the national election. On the contrary, Khaleda did what she had done during the movement to oust Ershad's autocratic regime. She remained as uncompromising as she had been with Ershad. But make no mistake. The BNP in 2015 is a skeleton of the party in the eighties. So is its student wing. Even though the party has a strong supporter base in the grassroots, at the end of the day it is an election-oriented party and its workers, especially in the cities, find it difficult to brave police action and bring out processions. This is what makes the party dependent on Jamaat to carry out its political programmes.
Be that as it may, the BNP's latest stance brings about a pleasant break. If the party really accepts the idea of a 'neutral' caretaker government, instead of its original demand—a non-party caretaker government—it means that the party has accepted the changed political atmosphere and has learned to concede some ground to gain more. Even though the Awami League (AL) high-ups, it seems, has not taken Khaleda's latest proposal seriously, the party, too, has a lot to gain from it.
The present government, whether it accepts it or not, suffers from a huge legitimacy crisis. Voter turnout was remarkably low in the January 5 polls, added to that is the election where MPs were elected unopposed in more than half the parliamentary seats. Amidst a boycott by all major political parties but the AL and its Mohajote members, the election had all the hallmarks of Ershad's 1988 election, in which ASM Abdur Rab's Combined Opposition Parties consisted of outfits that no one had ever heard before. This is not befitting of a party that has a glorious history, a past that speaks of fighting for people's democratic rights. Strange as it may sound, Khaleda's 'neutral' caretaker government proposal can be the agenda based on which a round of talks can start.
In fact, the nation badly needs to reach some consensus over the issues that presently plague the country. Its urgency is all the more highlighted by the killing of four eminent bloggers that have taken place in the last seven months. There is no denying that a government elected 'more democratically' would have handled the issue better. A government that is not elected in popular votes does not feel accountable enough. It also cannot make unpleasant decisions, especially about things that might not go down well among the electorates. More attacks on bloggers might force the AL to lean a little right. We have already heard responsible government officials make comments that they would not have made a year or two ago. The AL might have to make a bigger space for political Islam in its own fold (à la Madina Charter) as, in the absence of any strong centre-right force, swathes of the country's disenfranchised masses might head further right. No one can blame the AL much if that happens, for politics, at the end of the day, is a balancing act. A political party has to read the pulse of the people well and has to alter its agendas accordingly.
It is true that the AL government has done remarkably well in its fight against terror. The JMB and other such outfits that had spread its tentacles in the last decade have been rooted out. No terrorist attack has taken place during the AL's two consecutive terms in power. Yet, in the last couple of years, the country has witnessed extremism of a different kind—targeted killing of individuals. As the assailants work in separate sleeper cells, it is quite difficult to stop them fully. Some recent arrests have shown that the individuals who have been carrying out these attacks do not belong to any known Islamist political parties who believe in democratic process. As they are not from any known political groups, it is quite difficult to track them. As the arrests of the alleged murderers of Rajib Haider have shown us, most of them studied in secular universities, unlike terrorists in 2003-2008, who came from Islamic seminaries. Worse still, some of them can be lone wolf cells, which, constituted by individuals without any connection with the main terrorist organisation, are acting on their own.
There are reasons to believe that as no significant breakthrough has taken place in the bloggers' killing case, the terrorists might increase the scale and intensity of their attacks. Lack of democracy makes a country a breeding ground for terrorists; and if that nation has unemployment and a youth bulge, it is a recipe for disaster. A dialogue on the modalities of the election time, government and its formation, empowering the Election Commission and fighting terrorism can save the country from yearly bloodshed that we had witnessed in the last two winters.
It is high time the ruling party understood that economic growth and infrastructural development alone is not enough to fight growing extremism; there are hearts and minds to win and the only way it can be done is through politically empowering the masses. Khaleda and her BNP, for their turn, must shun violence and declare to accept the election result, whatever it may be. Even though she has said that her demand for a 'neutral' government must not be misconstrued and that she has not moved away from the demand of a 'neutral' government, her repeated use of the term 'neutral' and the careful omission of 'non-party' tells us that a change in heart is perhaps on the way. Even though it is premature to tell if the ever-quarrelling side will finally talk out their differences, it is, presently, the only way out for us.
The writer is author, editor and journalist. He is Head of Daily Star Books. Twitter: @ahmedehussain fb.com/hussainahmede