Jatiya Party and its penchant for drama
If one can be certain of one thing when it comes to Jatiya Party (JaPa), it is that the party will be a perpetual source of drama. Coupled with its unwavering commitment to unpredictability, JaPa has been true to its sense of dedicated opportunism over the years. So it is no surprise that, ahead of the 12th parliamentary election, JaPa is showing its true colours, striving to be a player worthy of the big table. But internal rifts and factional infighting are rife in the party, while its leaders make differing statements about the same issue, so much so that the top leaders themselves seem confused about the party's stance.
Nonetheless, the official opposition warrants attention. And the latest incident that has called attention to Jatiya Party is a press release. The chief patron of the party, Raushan Ershad, declared herself the chairperson, while its incumbent chairman, GM Quader, was on a three-day visit to India. Within hours, Raushan's political secretary Golam Moshi told journalists that she was "oblivious" to such a notice and asked to find out who had conveyed it.
This sort of incident is nothing new for Jatiya Party. Earlier, Ershad's unpredictability was a key distinguishing feature for the party. After his passing in 2019, overt and covert conflicts between Raushan and GM Quader added to the party's dramatic character. There is no denying that JaPa has two factions. Although there was an unwritten compromise between the two leaders of the party, things changed after Raushan's meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at Gono Bhaban on August 19. Raushan is generally regarded by the ruling regime as far more reliable than her brother-in-law. After her meeting with the PM, Raushan declared that her party would take part in the forthcoming election, while Quader's statements before he left for Delhi suggested that the party may not join the polls.
The 10th parliament was different from all the previous parliaments in Bangladesh as Jatiya Party showed how an "opposition" could be one that was fully government-sponsored and government-backed. It contested the election as an alliance partner of the ruling party, but became the opposition in parliament.
Upon his return, Quader told journalists, "India has a lot of investments in this country. So, India wants the next government to be formed in Bangladesh through fair elections. India wants us all to create a good election environment. There should be no violence and no instability in Bangladesh."
But what was striking is that he did not disclose whom he had met with or spoken to during his India trip. "I have spoken to several important people," Quader said. "I can't disclose with whom we held talks and what we have discussed." While this was not a secret trip at all, it was still rather mysterious for Quader to be so cagey regarding his meetings and the people he met, particularly in the context of a phantom memo that had supposedly been written by an invisible hand. One cannot help but wonder: was this a ploy? If so, who was at the helm of it?
Jatiya Party was founded in 1986 when Ershad, a three-star general at that time, was in office as a military dictator. In the initial days, he faced huge criticism for, among other things, changing the secretaries-general on a whim and running the party however he fancied. Ershad, unable to shed the yoke of authoritarianism, often referred to JaPa as not the people's party or a party of his workers, but as "my party." And that, many say, was the reason why this party was never owned by the public. Although the "king's party" at that time – and that too of a dictatorial "king" – the party split into factions at least four times while Ershad was alive.
MA Matin left the party and formed another Jatiya Party. This was followed by Kazi Zafar and Shah Moazzem Hossain leaving the party and forming another faction of it. Then, JaPa's then Secretary-General Anwar Hossain Manju left and formed another faction of Jatiya Party. After this, Secretary-General Naziur Rahman Monjur left the party and formed Bangladesh Jatiya Party.
When Ershad was alive, he was known for his somersaults, especially before the polls. Many put it down to his tendency to bet on the winning horse. With a number of corruption and criminal cases going on, the former dictator was always in need of protection of the incumbent to fend off the arm of the law. Ershad's unpredictable nature was evident from his stance in the elections of 1996, 2001, 2008, 2014, and 2018.
Ershad was ousted from office in the face of a mass upsurge in the 1990s and got 35 seats in the following election, with around 12 percent votes in the bag. In 1996, JaPa formed a coalition with Awami League and got 32 seats, with 16.41 percent votes, thanks to the deal with the winning party. In 2001, the party got only 14 seats, with 7.25 percent votes. In 2008, JaPa contested the election as a partner of the grand alliance and bagged 27 seats with 7.04 percent votes. In the infamous 2014 election, where 153 MPs were elected uncontested, Jatiya Party bagged 34 seats with some seven percent votes. And in 2018, it once again contested the election as an ally of the Awami League-led 14-party grand alliance and managed to win 22 seats.
Jatiya Party has traditionally enjoyed a strong base in the northern parts of the country, which include its founder's hometown. The party also used to enjoy substantial support in almost every district of the country. But those were JaPa's golden days, which are gone now.
Even the recently concluded city corporation polls clearly illustrate Jatiya Party's current state. Except in Ershad's hometown of Rangpur, the main opposition's performance was quite frustrating. Except in Sylhet, JaPa candidates lost their security deposits in all four city corporation elections, even though BNP had boycotted the polls. In the Dhaka-17 by-poll, JaPa candidate Shikder Anisur Rahman got only 1,328 votes.
Jatiya Party's love-hate relationship with Awami League is nothing new either. Although apparently on good terms with the ruling party, Ershad and his party have always lived up to their reputation of seeking cheap opportunism. This was also why, in 1996, JaPa made several attempts to forge an alliance with BNP, albeit to no avail. Like before, and as ever, the coming days remain uncertain. With Raushan politically inactive due to her lengthy illness, the anti-Awami faction within JaPa may become stronger.
In the 2014 election, Jatiya Party was a saviour for the ruling party, even though Ershad had called upon JaPa candidates to withdraw their nomination papers. The 10th parliament was different from all the previous parliaments in Bangladesh as Jatiya Party showed how an "opposition" could be one that was fully government-sponsored and government-backed. It contested the election as an alliance partner of the ruling party, but became the opposition in parliament. This was certainly very rare, if not unprecedented, in parliamentary politics.
While one cannot be certain what Jatiya Party may do this time, one can most certainly rest assured that it will not cease to deliver the same level of drama it always has.
Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is chief reporter at The Daily Star.