Khaleda Zia in politics: Missed chance for BNP?

The BNP’s current risk-averse behaviour is not conducive to running a successful campaign
The debate around Khaleda Zia
That the BNP chief Khaleda Zia would not be directly involved in her party’s activities or politics has been a moot point since February 2018, when she was jailed on corruption charges. Photo: Star

That the BNP chief Khaleda Zia would not be directly involved in her party's activities or politics has been a moot point since February 2018, when she was jailed on corruption charges. BNP's failed movement to release Khaleda from jail seemed to further ensure that her days in politics had indeed come to an end – although the matter has made headlines recently, thanks to the contradictory comments made by the ruling Awami League leaders. With the next parliamentary election less than a year away, the matter has understandably gained much attention.

Khaleda Zia's legal rights notwithstanding, the BNP, which is effectively the main opposition camp in Bangladesh, smells a rat in all this. Party insiders suggest that the ruling party is intentionally reviving the issue as a topic of debate. The ruling party leaders, on their part, counter that they have no intention of bringing the issue to the fore, but have just explained what is written in the executive order on the basis of which the 77-year-old BNP chief walked out from jail on health grounds.

The debate on whether Khaleda could come back to politics began when senior Awami League lawmaker Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim said on January 26 that she had been released from prison "with an undertaking" not to get involved in politics. It took a new turn when Law Minister Anisul Huq and Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzaque said she could indeed make a comeback to the country's political scene, but not contest elections, only to be countered by Information Minister Hasan Mahmud and Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader.

Amid this debate, the BNP has decided to be extra cautious. With the election round the corner, any mistake could cost them dearly as the party has been out of power for three consecutive terms. In the last two elections, they took different approaches that brought them the same outcome: nothing.

There are at least four possible scenarios for which the BNP suspects the Awami League has intentionally revived the Khaleda Zia issue.

First, the BNP has been rather successful in their street campaign to push its 10-point charter of demands, including a general election under a non-partisan interim administration. Many were sceptical about the party's organisational strength to wage any such campaign. Many even mocked the party for thinking of a campaign on the streets. But the BNP proved everyone wrong and has been running a successful campaign with wide public support, challenging the ruling party with huge rallies. The recent discussion about Khaleda, according to BNP insiders, is to throw the party off its game; the street campaign will be defused as leaders would get busy talking about the party chief.

Second, there is a "pressure" on the government to hold an inclusive and credible election. Without the participation of the opposition BNP, the next election would not be an inclusive one. So, the issue of Khaleda's engagement in active politics could be a ploy to get the BNP to come to the table for talks.

Third, the party fears that if Khaleda Zia becomes active in politics, the government may suspend the executive order that allowed the former premier to get out of jail. The government might claim that since Khaleda is active in politics, she must be in good health, and hence must go back to jail.

Fourth, since Khaleda has been in jail, her elder son and the party's Acting Chairman Tarique Rahman has been at the helm of the party. The current campaign has also been taking place under his leadership. Those who don't like Tarique's leadership within the BNP, however, have no option but to go along.

The party, so long as it is under Tarique's leadership, is adamant about not joining the polls under the Sheikh Hasina government. So, if that section of leaders brought Khaleda back to politics, it would create enough of a buzz for the old guards to rally around the former prime minister. That would challenge Tarique's leadership within the party and, at the same time, it would be possible to send Khaleda back to jail, and split the party and bring a section of the party to the election to make it inclusive.

Whatever the case may be, the BNP leadership has decided to remain quiet for now. What is almost certain, however, is that in politics, one does not get a second chance to seize the initiative. And the BNP appears to have lost its chance. The party leaders could well have tested the waters with a countermove soon after the law and agriculture ministers' comments. What if they had mentioned that Khaleda would speak to the press shortly? Or that she would address a public meeting remotely from her home? What would have happened? At best, she would have had half an hour that would be the most covered and most watched news event in quite some time. At worst, she would be sent to jail and the BNP would have another reason to take to the streets with a stronger resolve for the 10-point demand. What is certain is that it would have tested the ruling Awami League's sincerity or resolve.

The BNP's current risk-averse behaviour is not conducive to running a successful campaign. Electoral politics needs quite a lot more pluck.

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