Will the 'National Unity Process' succeed?
Regard-less of his distinguished credentials as a jurist and academic, Dr Kamal Hossain was once a formidable politician. He was the country's first law minister, leading the constitution drafting committee. He then went on to serve as the foreign minister, until the brutal killing of Bangabandhu. In the early '80s, he was proactive in bringing Sheikh Hasina, now the prime minister, to Bangladesh from her exile in India. With her backing, he ran as the opposition Awami League's candidate in the '81 presidential elections, albeit unsuccessfully.
He left the party in the '90s and formed a new one, Gono Forum. Since then, his political significance only dwindled, until now. He is now spearheading an effort to unify belligerent opposition groups belonging to different aisles of the political spectrum. If his so-called "National Unity Process" (provided that it manages to secure BNP's political and grassroots backing, as expected) succeeds and decides to go to the polls slated to be held in December or January, it may pose a considerable challenge to the decade-long rule of the AL. With him in the political field is AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury, former president and Bikalpa Dhara party chief. The fact that Sheikh Muhammad Shahidullah, the convenor of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, is also a part of the process lends further credibility to the endeavour.
As of now, the only issue that bars them from forging a grand opposition alliance is Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that infamously opposed the Liberation War in 1971 and is now in electoral alliance with the BNP.
While almost everyone involved in the unity process is in consensus that the controversial Islamist party wouldn't be a part of the possible grand alliance, the leftist parties and Bikalpa Dhara are insisting that BNP must sever its ties with Jamaat, fully.
In particular, a phrase—"indirect anti-liberation force"—included in the Kamal-Chowdhury joint statement, who wouldn't be welcomed in the unity process, was interpreted by many in the BNP as being directed against them. While several leaders in the unity process clarified that the term was not mentioned to refer to the BNP, Mahi B Chowdhury, Bikalpa Dhara's spokesperson and Badruddoza Chowdhury's son, doubled down in implicating BNP in a subsequent interview with Prothom Alo on September 17.
"If Jamaat is linked with BNP and the latter is a part of the unity process, there's a risk that Jamaat could indirectly be associated with the process," he told News 24, a news channel, on October 1, explaining his point. "If the issue of the anti-liberation forces is not resolved prior to the final announcement, Bikalpa Dhara would not remain in the process," he added.
However, such insistence may have something to do with seat sharing rather than ideology. Bikalpa Dhara's founder Badruddoza Chowdhury has a long history of associating himself with anti-liberation individuals while occupying important positions in the BNP. It was reported in Kalerkantho, among others, on July 12 that Mahi B Chowdhury, on behalf of the Jukto Front—an alliance of four small parties including Bikalpa Dhara, demanded that BNP must concede at least 150 seats to its partners in a bid to bring a balance of power, should they form the next government. Therefore, it may be a zero-sum game for Bikalpa Dhara: If BNP parts ways with Jamaat, Bikalpa Dhara and other small parties would be able to seize more seats from BNP.
However, some other influential people in the unity process appear to be apathetic to the Jamaat issue. Mahmudur Rahman Manna of Nagorik Oikya, for one, is keen on forging the greater unity at any cost. "Jamaat is not a big deal at all for our unity process," he told The Daily Star on September 28, while clarifying that it wouldn't be a part of the unity process.
Dr Kamal, too, prioritises on striking a unified bloc. "We are now trying to forge a greater unity and Jamaat will not be a barrier to the unity process. The important issue now is the greater unity among the people and also the political parties. This is why we are focusing on it," he told The Daily Star the same day.
Oli Ahmed, chief of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—a partner in the BNP-led 20-party alliance—in a party meeting held on September 28, went a step further by heavily criticising his former comrade Badruddoza Chowdhury for his party's persistence with the Jamaat issue.
While the opposition groups are still at loggerheads over the terms and conditions, they have managed to shake up the political scene, to be fair to them. They may not matter individually when it comes to the ballot-box, but when unified, they represent quite a formidable political force opposing the incumbent. That is a scenario that the ruling party would like to avoid.
The AL initially welcomed the potential alliance, under the presumption that these groups would not be able to overcome their differences, notably, over the issue of Jamaat, hence, would fail to join hands with each other. However, now that the possibility of a new united opposition front has become very real, the ruling alliance leaders—including the prime minister herself—have launched blistering attacks targeting their counterparts saying that, "killers, money launderers and usurers have joined hands against the Awami League government."
Meanwhile, the ruling party has also initiated efforts to expand its own alliance, with its general secretary urging leftist organisations, including the Communist Party (CPB) and the Socialist Party (Basad) to come under its umbrella, only to be rejected. Such unease signifies that, at least for the time being, these otherwise politically not so powerful individuals must have been able to significantly shake up the status quo by banding together.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.