WHAT KHALEDA DID
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Khaleda Zia holds the rather unenviable feat of leading two consecutive failed political movements. The first in line was not a hands down defeat though, for the Awami League (AL), afraid that it would not be able to hold the polls in all the constituencies across the country, paved the way for the election of over half the MPs in the parliament unopposed. Even though this step has seriously questioned the legitimacy of the polls and the government that has been elected through such a process, the BNP has miserably failed to exploit the situation in its favour. The party, before the January 5, 2014 election, had launched a string of violent street agitation to force the AL government to reintroduce the caretaker government system. At the eleventh hour of the movement, all the top guns of the Dhaka city BNP suddenly fell silent and the only visible presence that could be seen during Khaleda's self-styled 'March for Democracy' programme was that of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) activists.
In his famous essay Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) Karl Marx, referring to Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon, said that history repeats itself, the first as tragedy, then as farce. The same perhaps goes for Khaleda Zia's second attempt at forcing the AL to swallow the caretaker pill. What started as the BNP's legitimate protest for not allowing the party to hold a gathering in Dhaka, later turned into a countrywide blockade. But like its famous predecessor, the movement fizzled out as soon as city corporation elections were declared. This time round, too, the BNP higher-ups failed to show up on the streets of the capital, especially after some of its thana level leaders were allegedly picked up by law enforcers, later to be found dead. The burden of shame must be difficult to bear for the BNP leaders as they have been heard talking about fleeing from the sinking ship in some leaked telephone conversations.
What ails the BNP despite its apparent popular support can be a matter of serious scholarly investigation. It is, however, clear that to launch a movement or to sustain it, the party is heavily dependent on the JI. A partnership that started as a shelter for the Islamists is gradually turning out to be the BNP's lone source of hope. If organisational strength alone is taken into account, the JI is stronger than its senior partner; it is a cadre-based party and, as both the parties share the same ideology, the BNP's decline is directly proportional to the rise of the fundamentalist party. If the BNP leaves JI or the JI decides to break up with its long-term bedfellow, it will rob the BNP of any future possibility of launching any street agitation against the AL government. However, a concomitant byproduct of the discourse is also true: the absence of the JI in the BNP-led alliance might earn the party some popular support, especially those who are weary of the BNP's alliance with a party that has association of Islamism and war crimes. It might turn out to be good for the JI as well--it will give the party an opportunity to take a clean break, set its house in order to come out with a clean image.
But whether the BNP is capable of walking alone is cloaked in doubt. Taking advantage of the AL's open door policy, BNP leaders, most of whom are facing cases of arson, are joining the AL in thousands. Not only that, some top leaders of the BNP are quite openly talking about leaving the party or bidding farewell to politics. The average age of the party top brass is above 60, not considered a brownie point among the voters, a majority of whom are in their early thirties. On top of it, the BNP is in general disarray. Its organisational chain of command has loosened, party grassroots are demoralised and are dogged with police cases. To turn around from such a political cul-de-sac demands brinkmanship, which the BNP leadership do not seem to have at present. Tarique Rahman, the BNP's chairperson in waiting, is living in London and, as the two failed movements have shown, does not seem to wield any active control over the party cadres. His remote-control leadership and occasional analysis of Bangladesh's recent history best serve as periodic shots in the arm for party activists' depleting morale.
When the BNP is like this, it is not unnatural that the AL will try to take advantage of the situation. A (non-Awami League) minister's comment that Khaleda Zia will be sent to prison soon sounded bizarre and farfetched. But the BNP splitting into a government-friendly opposition is a possibility in the changed political landscape of the country. Bangladesh's recent political history, however, does not encourage such an idea. The BNP has faced even worse times in its 37-year-old political existence. The worst, perhaps, was the murder of its founder Gen Ziaur Rahman within three years after the formation of the party. Party leader KM Obaidur Rahman, at the height of Gen Ershad's dictatorship formed Janata Dal with a ship as its election symbol. During the eighties, the party also withstood the defection of hordes of its leaders to Jatiya Party. In 2004, Dr Badruddoza Chowdhury, along with some BNP leaders, formed Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh (BDB). The party is now a microscopic entity in Bangladesh's politics. The BDB chief has never won any parliamentary election since he left the BNP. Closely following the BDB's footstep, two years later, Dr Oli Ahmed, along with 24 MPs of the BNP, formed the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Oli still enjoys some popular support in his constituency, but his party holds some sway only in Chandanaish and Chandina (Redwan Ahmed, LDP Secretary-General).
The BNP's future, like that of its junior partner Jamaat-e-Islami, lies in reform. The JI, for its turn, should slap a self-imposed moratorium on national politics, do a sincere soul-searching and reform some of its policies to earn the trust of the majority of ordinary Bangladeshis. The JI leaders, who are not accused of war crimes, should seriously entertain the idea of forming a new party or an umbrella organisation that will be more inclusive towards women and the non-Muslim members of the society.
The BNP has to come up with serious issue-based politics, especially the one that will be able to attract young Bangladeshis. During the mass upsurge against Gen Ershad's regime, the BNP had two crucial ideological advantages over other parties--it never participated in any election held under Ershad's rule and the party had brought itself before people as the only source through which the masses' anti-AL grievances could be channelled. While the latter is still very much true, the former has become redundant in 2015. Khaleda's uncompromising stance has led her to the blind alley in which BNP leaders have suddenly found themselves en masse. Economic policy-wise, after the AL has dropped socialism as a party policy, there is hardly any difference left with BNP.
Khaleda and her team have serious soul-searching to do in order to chalk out a plan to take the party to the young people. This job is insurmountable as it is, and her task will be made even more difficult by leaders and members of her student wing, most of whom - as their recent political history suggests - are not tuned in to the needs of the country's youth. Reform is a long running process; impatience can only lead the BNP to a third failure.
The writer is author, editor and journalist. He is Head of The Daily Star Books. Twitter: @ahmedehussain