Can BNP stick to its proposals for state reform?

BNP reforms
BNP’s proposal for state reform: Yay or nay? Photo: Star

As part of its ongoing campaign, the main opposition camp BNP has presented a 27-point proposal for reforming the state structures of the country, which has sparked much speculation and debate. The ruling Awami League has already dismissed the proposal as "laughable" and "merely an attempt to mislead people." BNP leaders are hopeful of forming an inclusive and egalitarian "rainbow nation," as opposed to what they suggest is a spirit of vengeance, through the amalgamation of diverse views and beliefs.

Except for a few, the proposals are not new; most of the points were unveiled by the party chief Khaleda Zia on March 19, 2016 when BNP announced its Vision 2030. But two significant points were incorporated into the state reform proposals this time: one says that no individual will be eligible to serve as the president or prime minister of the country for more than two consecutive terms, and the other says that every citizen will enjoy full rights to exercise their respective religious beliefs based on the fundamental principle that dictates "religion belongs to respective individual; state belongs to all."

The 27-point proposal sounds quite rosy and ambitious. Even before remarking on the proposals, a few questions beg to be asked: does BNP really mean what it says? Why has the party come up with such a grand announcement in the midst of a campaign demanding the restoration of a non-partisan interim government during elections? What was it that triggered the party to incorporate two such points in their state reform proposals?

After the 11th parliamentary election in 2018, the party started going on its own way, breaking away from the electoral alliance Jatiya Oikyafront, which had performed rather poorly in the polls, raising serious questions within the party. BNP also faced severe criticism for its anarchy in 2013 and 2014, prior to the 10th parliamentary election. The BNP-led 20-party alliance was blamed for that election-time violence, particularly Jamaat-e-Islami, which was one of the key players of the alliance. Oikyafront's formation had created a rift among the 20-party alliance partners and there were rumours about its dissolution. On the other hand, many of the new Oikyafront partners had a good public image. And BNP needed both the old partners and the new to wage a strong and credible anti-government campaign.

BNP then started holding talks with both the left- and right-wing political parties to bring them under a single platform, but many had reservations about Jamaat. The reform proposals came to the fore when BNP started holding talks with its like-minded parties to wage a simultaneous movement. It gained momentum after the party's acting chairman, Tarique Rahman, floated the idea of a national government after the 2018 elections. Following this concept, BNP spoke with its like-minded parties for an outline of such a government. 

This was essentially when BNP accepted two recommendations of the left parties. One was the two-term limit. The religion issue was also a smart move by BNP to get the left-wing parties warm up to it and also to remove the right-wing tag off the party, although many of its top leaders had background in leftist politics. So, in order to strengthen its campaign, BNP brought all the opposition forces together, and the issue of state reform came to the fore.

It is evident that these two points might have been merely politically expedient for the BNP at the time. But now that the party has included them in the state reform proposals, one must revisit the question of whether the party really means it. It is too early to conclude whether the party will keep the promises if it is voted to power. These proposals are surely very good and substantive, but rather challenging for any political party to implement in practice, especially where most of the major parties do not even have the semblance of intra-party democracy. BNP has been out of office for a decade and a half. The party is desperate to return to office, and for that it is ready to do whatever is required. 

One only needs to revisit the lofty promises that the opposition parties made when they were campaigning against the military dictator HM Ershad. Both BNP and the Awami League were in the opposition camp together and quite desperate to get the autocrat out of office. But when everything was said and done, and a new party assumed office through a democratic election, the ruling party, which was the BNP, forgot about those promises. So did the Awami League when it assumed office five years later.

Will BNP be able to stay true to its promises this time around? We will have to wait and see. 

Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is deputy chief reporter at The Daily Star.