AL's strategy of intimidation may no longer be working

BNP rally in Dhaka on December 10, 2022. PHOTO: RASHED SHUMON

Traffic is always a little light on Saturday mornings, with schools, universities and most offices being closed. Last Saturday morning, however, the empty streets had an ominous air. Strategic roads were cordoned off and the presence of police at numerous points was eerily similar to the days of political confrontation of the past.

People have been apprehensive of what would happen on December 10 ever since the BNP announced it would hold its rally in Dhaka on that day and indicated that it would be their biggest one so far. But the ruling party's aggressive suppression of opposition party members in all other rallies and pre-rallies (including the killing of a BNP activist by police firing on December 7), and BNP's apparent determination to carry on no matter what repercussions they face have led to the fear that Dhaka's rally will spawn unprecedented violence. By the time of writing this piece (4pm on December 10), no such fighting has been reported. 

Of course, all that could change in an instant. The police are ready to take action at the slightest provocation and the same goes for the Chhatra League, who have assembled at various points, including at their home turf – the Dhaka University campus. 

With two of its stalwarts, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and standing committee member Mirza Abbas, being sent to jail, the BNP has enough fodder to create a real ruckus. In fact, seven BNP members of parliament have announced their resignations from a parliament where they were "barred from speaking time and time again," according to BNP MP Rumeen Farhana (though this was clearly part of the party's strategy).

So far, whatever the ruling party has been doing is going in favour of the BNP. 

Indiscriminate arrests of hundreds of BNP members and supporters on the flimsiest or obviously false grounds, sending them to jail, attacking the rallies, deploying excessive police action on rally participants, engineering transport strikes wherever BNP rallies were due, and going through the mobile phones of people coming out on the streets before the Dhaka rally – these acts of unnecessary aggression have proved to be counterproductive to AL's goal of proving BNP to be a weak and unpopular political force. Instead, the ruling party has revealed its own weakness of taking too many extreme steps to crush its opponents.

AL's strategy towards the opposition may well have landed it into quicksand, something that it is finding increasingly difficult to come out of. The more repressive the means it adopts to neutralise the BNP, the more sympathy the BNP gains. 

In a scene where people are feeling helpless because of the punishingly high costs of living and the growing mistrust of law enforcing agencies as well as the legal system, blaming the government is inevitable. Not that the ruling party has not helped to create such resentment.

With stories of corruption in all the crucial sectors doing the rounds – in the banking sector, energy sector, education, health, law enforcement, pretty much everywhere one looks – people may find the BNP's rhetoric about such issues a little comforting. It may even make them forget the undemocratic regime of the military government of its founder, Ziaur Rahman, the corruption during the Khaleda Zia-headed BNP governments, the institutionalised corruption of Hawa Bhaban orchestrated by Tarique Rahman, the communal attacks after BNP's 2001 win and, worst of all, the horrific incidents of arson on the streets in 2014, conducted with the assistance of the Jamaat. 

Bangladeshis have a short memory, and the volume and consistency of catastrophe we face every day makes us focus on present miseries rather than on the ingloriousness of the past. Ordinary Bangladeshis are more concerned about what is happening to them now, especially regarding why they must suffer such financial hardship and such paralysing fear from the protectors of law and order when thousands of crores of taka are being looted by groups affiliated with the ruling party's elite and when the crimes of the politically connected are going on unabated.

The AL is therefore in an uncomfortable position of its own making. The year ahead looks uncertain, ominous, and difficult for the ordinary citizen as the economy is expected to continue to take hard hits and the politics of violence is expected to escalate around the national election. 

It is high time the AL abandoned its losing strategy of force, intimidation, and the politicisation of public institutions. While it focuses on bolstering the economy, it must stop the financial haemorrhaging of political cronies. 

By forgoing the strategy of violently suppressing its opponents and instead concentrating on supporting the public in every way possible during the ongoing financial crisis, the AL can show itself to be a mature political party that is confident enough to compete, and maybe even win, fair and square.      

Aasha Mehreen Amin is joint editor at The Daily Star.