Bangladesh’s political arena seemed to become vibrant again in recent months following a series of opposition rallies and programmes. BNP seized the opportunity to display its organisational strengths, too. But then the BNP lawmakers, all in a sudden, resigned from the parliament after December 10 Dhaka grand rally, which was nothing short of springing a rather untimely surprise. Politics has taken different turns and twists since then amid showdowns and counter-showdowns. The recently detained BNP bigwigs were released too. Still the party seems to have lost its momentum – thereby raising serious question over the party’s tactics: can BNP, with persisting differences among the party leaders, become a worthy opposition in the ensuing election year? SHEIKH MOHAMMAD FAUZUL MUBIN delves deeper into the details.
With an election year approaching fast, BNP seems to have been able to emotionally drive its supporters to join street programmes in recent months. Although legendary politician and Canada’s first Prime Minister John A Macdonald once said politics is a game requiring great coolness, politics, in fact, is also a game that requires intelligence and strategy. To evolve or at least survive in this, one has to be timely, and prove their ability and courage both on and off-field.
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At the same time, strong self-criticism and patience must be present. But the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (popularly known as BNP), the country’s largest opposition party, has not been able to effectively show any of these in more than a decade. There is no question about the long history of the BNP, but their effectiveness as an opposition political party, specifically in current times, is questionable. The political capacity of the party was at the bottom just a year back as there was not much activity on ground-level. Even, there weren’t much discussions about the party itself. However, at the end of last year, the determination to stand up again can be seen in BNP. Both in the national parliament and on the streets, the presence of BNP was palpable and conspicuous. As BNP is currently passing through a critical phase in its political history where the party is seen as grounded, raises a question of whether it will be able to come up from there, be a worthy opposition party or it will fall off prematurely?
1. WHAT LEAD TO POLITICAL DOLDRUMS?
BNP in September last announced to hold mass gatherings across the country including the capital, to protest against, what the party alleged, the rise in prices of fuel and daily necessities, the killing of several BNP leaders and activists, and demanding release of the BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia. Following this, BNP held a series of rallies in all divisions of the country, which ended with the rally held in Dhaka. Many leaders and workers of the party joined the mass meetings held in different parts of the country. The political arena became heated through to the strong speeches of the BNP leaders in the rallies and counter speeches of the ruling party leaders. The ruling party also started to show its strength on the streets. Clashes also occurred between the workers of the two parties in some places. In these circumstances, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) objected when BNP wanted to hold their final rally in front of their party office premises in Naya Paltan, as they said there was a risk of traffic jam and disturbance. DMP asked BNP to conduct their rally elsewhere, even the home minister announced that the administration will resist if BNP activists try to block the roads in the name of a rally. But BNP remained adamant about holding the rally there.
Subsequently, the recently released two senior BNP leaders Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Mirza Abbas were arrested while trying to gather in front of Naya Paltan. Thus, BNP arranged the final rally in Dhaka’s Golapbagh ground in absence of the general secretary and some of the senior leaders. After the political gathering, all BNP parliamentarians resigned from the national parliament. In order to maintain pressure on the government, BNP announced continuation of the activities. However, since their last rally, the activities of BNP have declined immensely. Many of the political analysts think that the decision to hold a public meeting in Naya Paltan was the stubbornness of BNP and it is not possible to do politics through insistence. On the other hand, there are differences of opinion over the decision of BNP MPs to withdraw from Parliament. Again, experts feel that the temporary absence of Mirza Fakhrul Islam and other senior leaders may create a gap in the party’s politics, and through this, mass tide may also be created, but it depends on the next steps of BNP.
2. IS BNP A PARTY GAINING MOMENTUM OR A FADING FORCE?
A look at the history of the BNP shows that the party has passed its prime and has lost much of its charm. Many people think that BNP is unable to build a movement due to its alliance with fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami. BNP leaders, on the other hand, claim that they are not given enough opportunity to establish a mass movement on the streets. But they must know that no government in the past has ever cherished the opposition party. The opposition party has to take risks and speak for the people. As Awami League did to come to power last time. However, BNP was an effective opposition party on the streets on their earlier days. After the formation of the party, BNP was in power for three terms before. In the first phase from 1978 to 1982. The second phase was from 1991 to 1996, and the third phase was from 2001 to 2006. According to political analysts, BNP had a golden period in the 1980s when it was in the opposition. Many of the new generation leaders of the BNP came through the continuous anti-dictatorship movement of the eighties.
It was in this context that BNP won the 1991 elections. Even during the 1996-2001 period, BNP as an opposition party threw an effective challenge against the government. But after 2009 the party failed to fulfil that role. The people will take to the streets at the words of the opposition and declare solidarity with them only when they feel that their party is talking about their rights. As much as the BNP has carried out programs on party issues in the last eleven years, it has not shared the demands of the people. So, analysts think the party has lost its way now and unable to create mass movement like before.
3. LEADERSHIP CRISIS OR LACK OF UNITY?
Experts see lack of unity among party leaders as another major reason behind BNP’s current dysfunctional politics. As BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia is not actively present, it is not clear who is running BNP, even to the general leaders and workers of the party. Many BNP leaders lamented and said, “How will the movement start? We might take a decision after a long discussion. But it may get cancelled by the remote control.” They called Tareque Rahman as the ‘remote control’. Most of the BNP leaders were in favour of going to the 2014 elections. But that did not happen because of the ‘London revelation’.
Political analysts also think that boycotting the 2014 elections was a wrong decision of BNP that was taken by Tareque Rahman. No matter how adverse the situation, if BNP went to that election, they would have been the main opposition party in the national parliament. But since BNP did not go to the elections at that time, the Jatiya Party established itself as the main opposition party in the parliament. BNP did not participate in the 2014 elections citing unfavourable en3 vironment, apparently there were more obstacles in the 2018 elections.
BNP leaders argue that they participated in the elections as a movement for the release of their party leader Khaleda Zia. Khaleda had to take bail by executive order because BNP could not even conduct that movement effectively after the elections. Also, there are differences of opinion among the top leaders of BNP on many issues. Additionally, the Jatiya Oikya Front that BNP had formed before the elections, stumbled at the start.
Some party leaders also discovered ‘conspiracies’ in the alliance. After Khaleda went to jail, Tareque Rahman, who has been staying in London since 2008 and announced his retirement from politics before leaving the country, was made the acting chairman. Many party leaders feel that he is responsible for the plight of BNP. Moreover, Tareque is a convicted accused in the August 21 grenade attack case. Thus, BNP leaders and activists also differ on how appropriate it is to give such a person the responsibility of managing the party. Because of that, many party leaders became inactive, some even resigned.
4. QUITTING PARLIAMENT: A BNP MOVE IN RIGHT OR WRONG DIRECTION?
The BNP members elected to the 11th parliamentary elections came and took oath at the last moment amid party tensions. The party also won the by-elections in the seat vacated by the general secretary of the party, and also took the post of MP for the reserved women’s seat in the parliament. Then, despite the rumours of resignation at various times, BNP MPs have remained in the parliament for the past four years. Even with seven members, they kept the parliament vibrant by talking on various issues. However, one year before the next elections, BNP walked the path of resignation from parliament. BNP MPs announced their resignation from the parliament at the Golapbagh rally.
On December 11, seven BNP MPs submitted their resignations to Jatiya Sangsad speaker Dr Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury. Before resigning, BNP MPs said that they do not want to see this government in power. They are unhappy because of the irregularities of the government. On the other hand, general secretary of Awami League Obaidul Quader said, “Even if BNP MPs resign, nothing will happen to the national parliament. If seven of them leave, the Parliament will not stand still.”
“Even if BNP MPs resign, nothing will happen to the national parliament. If seven of them leave, the Parliament will not stand still.”Obaidul Quader MP
Minister of Road Transport and Bridges of Bangladesh
However, even if there is a constitutional right to resign, there are questions about how realistic this decision of BNP is. Senior journalist Kazi Abdul Hannan said, “According to their demands regarding the elections, they could have gone to the general discussion in the parliament, they could have gone to the special discussion, even they could have brought a motion of no confidence. But they didn’t do anything.
” He also opined that further analysis was needed before taking this decision. Former vice-chancellor of National University and political scientist professor Harun-orRashid considers it an adamant decision from BNP. He said, “When the mass movement on the street reaches its peak, if the members of parliament resign, there is an opportunity to create a movement by combining the two, there is an opportunity for a mass coup. But now I don’t think that situation has been created in Bangladesh. BNP may be thinking that by resigning they will be able to gather more movement. But the result will be the opposite.”
In addition, analysts say that there will be no crisis in the legal or parliamentary proceedings due to the resignation of BNP MPs. According to analysts, there is no possibility of dissolution of parliament according to the current constitution. In that case, according to the law, the vacant seat must be filled by by-elections within 90 days of the effective date of resignation.
5. SOLUTION ON THE STREET OR IN DIALOGUE?
BNP is now continuing its programme to demand elections under a non-partisan government and is talking about a solution on the streets. The ruling Awami League is also holding on to the position of holding elections under their government and is giving counter programs on the streets. There are many discussions going on in the country about where is the end of the exercise of show of strength on the streets of the two parties and whether there is any possibility of a compromise or a solution to the main demands of the opposition parties for elections under a non-partisan government.
6. WHAT’S BNP DEMANDING?
Does the BNP see any possibility of negotiations with the government? In response to this question, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said that they are not willing to negotiate with the Awami League government. His statement is that only if the resignation of the government and election under a non-party government is announced, then the question of negotiation can come. He said, “When the government accepts that we will go to elections under a non-partisan government, then that arrangement can be discussed. But that decision has to be completely on the street.” BNP now feels that, after overcoming the disastrous situation in the last two elections, this time their party leaders and workers have come to a state of survival on the streets. Therefore, it can be assumed that the leadership of the party is not willing to talk about the discussion with the government.
7. WHAT’S AWAMI LEAGUE SAYING?
On the other hand, the government is still not willing to accept the demands of a non-partisan government. Awami League is also trying to show public support to them or their strength with various programs in favour of their position on the streets. However, Awami League presidium member Dr Abdur Razzak said that they believe that BNP will come to the discussion in the end. Explaining this, he said, “The way they (BNP) want to bring down the government by demonstrating their strength will not succeed. When they (BNP) are not successful and realize that, maybe they will come to a discussion and resolve it through discussion.” He noted that they are waiting for that.
8. IS BNP MORE ORGANISED NOW THAN EVER?
Many think that BNP is more organised now than ever – no matter what state the party leadership is in, with Chairperson Khaleda Zia convicted on corruption charges and Acting Chairman Tarique Rahman in exile in London.
Furthermore, there is a perception that the party cannot do anything by themselves, but with the recent programmes, they have shown that they are still capable of holding grand rallies.
Supporter turnout is merely an indicator of the party’s popularity, which is only one of many prerequisites for winning any election.
The recent turnouts are significant in that count also – especially in view of an election year approaching fast. BNP in the last 14 years has tried two of the three known ways of putting pressure on their political rivals: waging violent street protests back in 2014 and 2015, and peaceful tactical negotiations in 2018. None of those worked.
This time around, the party seems to have learnt from past mistakes and adopted the difficult yet definitive third path – engaging with the general public by highlighting pro-people issues, strategically reviving its grassroots workers, slowly building up a peaceful movement through mass rallies, and most importantly, making sure that the top leaders of the party are out there leading from the front and directly connecting with the people. As for concluding note, despite holding large gatherings in divisions and announcing countrywide simultaneous movement with various parties, the apparent stagnation of BNP has raised eyebrows irrespective of political divides.
It is often said that not being able to conduct their desired rally in desired venue is a kind of psychological defeat for BNP. Due predominantly to questions over the party leadership, party strife and appointment of rather individualists as leaders, BNP looks to have lost momentum once again. A section of the people think that fear factor and uncertainty may have won over this time. BNP thus is losing the strategic game with the ruling Awami League.
BNP’s thinktanks, if any, have unmistakeably failed to explore realistic ways of continuing movement tactics. Although some BNP leaders are hopeful of creating movement by the end of this year, they may not have control over the fast-changing political realities at that crucial juncture. Many think once the election schedule is announced, it’s unlikely to be possible on part of this BNP to stop the elections as they could not do so in 2014 and 2018. In fact, if BNP fails to do anything before or during the elections, a question will emerge as to whether BNP will survive as a party or not.
According to the constitution, the next 12th national parliamentary elections will be held within 90 days before January 30, 2024. That is, the national election is not far away, time will tell how this election will be, what will happen in the elections and what will be the situation. But all analysis indicates that 2023 is going to be a crucial year for both BNP and Bangladesh politics.