It was a chaotic day. Thousands of supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) gathered in front of BNP’s headquarters at Nayapaltan in Dhaka on October 28, 2023. Political rhetoric was running high as BNP leaders boasted of their one-point movement’s outcome—to unseat Sheikh Hasina’s government on that day. Opposition supporters thought it was the time to actualize their long-cherished dream but nothing happened.
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But all at once, the dream shattered and the political setbacks following the ground defeat on October 28 led the BNP to lose relevance in national politics and the subsequent victory of the Awami League on January 7 voting with the people’s mandate.
But what went wrong on that day? Why the party failed in their one and half year long movement. The reasons could be attributed to BNP’s severe leadership crisis, lack of public support and coordination, and failure to adopt tactics in changing realities.
What Happened on October 28?
Dhaka turned into a battlefield on October 28 as BNP activists and police clashed, leading to the death of a policeman and injuring many more.
Since morning, BNP leaders and activists started thronging the rally venue in droves, chanting anti-government slogans. By 11:00 am, the entire road stretching from Kakrail intersection to Arambagh was packed by party activists and supporters.
Things started to heat up around 11:30 am when the Awami League activists on two pickups and a bus, en route to the Baitul Mukarram mosque to attend their peace rally, were stopped and vandalized by BNP activists near Kakrail mosque.
The first clash of the day ensued there and soon after more BNP activists rushed to the spot and were seen intercepting pedestrians. Around 12:30 pm, they started chanting slogans denouncing police and hurling brick chunks at them.
Another clash broke out between BNP activists and law enforcers in front of Kakrail mosque around 1:00 pm. The law enforcers threw sound grenades and tear shells to disperse the angry protesters and the demonstrators responded by throwing brick chips, and charged the law enforcers with sticks, prompting a chase and counter-chase.
The protesters assaulted several journalists and police members there. At least 10 vehicles and a police box were torched while over a dozen vehicles were vandalised during the clashes that took place in Kakrail, Nayapaltan, Bijoynagar, Malibagh, Arambagh areas, and near Matsya Bhaban.
The clash between the BNP activists and police later spread to the Nightingale area. Chased by police, the demonstrators broke into two groups — one going towards Nayapaltan and the other towards Shantinagar.
The Grand Rally Dismissed and Next Move Announced in Hurry
As the city roads looked like war zones sporadic clashes were happening here and there, leaving many more injured and the number of destructions of public, and private properties was growing every minute.
Law enforcers did their job. Around 3:00 pm, police approached the BNP headquarters at Nayapaltan from two sides — Fakirapool and Nightingale intersections. They opened blank fire and hurled sound grenades as they reached near the rally venue. The BNP activists lobbed brickbats in retaliation.
As the rally dismissed and activists were running the scene amid tear gas blasts, Dhaka South BNP Convener Abdus Salam and BNP’s joint secretary general Habib Un Nabi Khan Sohel pressurized BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir to announce hartal as a next move.
He took the hand mike and declared the Hartal on October 29. But it was not planned. According to media reports, the BNP initially planned to seize key government installations after the rally to force the government to resign.
Soon after the rally ended, thousands of BNP supporters who came to Dhaka with the hope of seeing the fall of Sheikh Hasina, were disappointed and stranded in hot water what to do now or where to stay? There was no option for them to return to their home with shattered dreams.
Even the hartal announcement created confusion, Mirza Fakhrul initially announced dawn to dusk strike but one hour later the party’s senior joint secretary general Ruhul Kabir Rizvi in a press release called for half day strike and sometime later re-issued statement and finalized dawn to dusk hartal.
The confusion proves a lack of coordination and planning among BNP’s policymakers. They did not examine possible scenarios and made alternative workplans. They failed to direct thousands of supporters on what to do next and could not manage the situation in their own favor.
Even the sound system of the rally venue was not operational and BNP men did not hear the speeches of their leaders.
Biden’s Fake Advisor Drama
Soon after the rally foiled, a man seated at the BNP’s Nayapaltan office, a new drama was staged.
A man– Mian Arefy – claimed himself as an advisor to US President Joe Biden, addressed a press conference at BNP’s headquarters sitting next to Ishraq Hossain, a BNP leader who had run for the mayor seat of Dhaka North a couple of years ago.
In the press conference, Arafi pledged “support from US President Joe Biden to facilitate a change in the government in Bangladesh” for both BNP and Jamaat. Arafi boldly asserted that the US president strongly supports the reinstatement of the caretaker government.
Later, the US Embassy in Dhaka has since clarified that reports of any embassy relocation are entirely “false and inaccurate.”
Later police arrested the fake advisor to Biden and he however said that he “only followed instructions he received at the BNP office.”
Such a funny press conference at BNP’s office at that time indicates BNP’s helplessness at that time and further angered citizens.
The Next Move
BNP’s anti-government protest was more or less peaceful before October 28 but the movement took a violent turn from that day.
BNP started a series of countrywide blockades and strikes aiming to paralyze the country’s economy and force the government to resign. And yet this tactic didn’t work well instead received fatal setbacks for massive violence.
BNP enforced 31 days of hartal-blockade from October 29 to January 6. During this period, more than 328 arson attacks and 198 vandalisms were reported across the country.
Tragically, in the act of desperation, BNP men allegedly carried out heinous deadly attacks on trains which killed 9 persons and burned many more.
In the final phase before the January 7 election, the party started cocktail attacks on polling booths and government, private properties.
More than 97 crude bomb attacks were reported 29 polling booths and 4 election campaign offices were attacked. But all the weapons failed to hit the target as people’s were not on their side and they couldn’t wage any successive momentum of their movement.
The party’s leaders were arrested in connection with the violence cases and activists were unsure what to do and felt isolated in the political enclave, rejected by people.
The election was held on time and people voted for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for another term and BNP, once again dip drive into political backfoot with despair.
What’s Wrong With BNP?
This is for some main reason.
Losing the public’s support
In the past decade, the BNP has faced a severe erosion of popular support. The party, once enjoyed popularity, is grappling with a series of setbacks that have left it weakened and embroiled in controversy.
Khaleda Zia, the Chairperson of BNP, is currently incapacitated for political activities due to her severe illness and tarnished reputation in connection with corruption allegations. Meanwhile, Tarique Rahman, the Acting Chairman of the party, has been residing in self-imposed exile in London for more than a decade. This absence of leadership has resulted in a significant vacuum, plunging the party into a state of disarray.
As the party struggles to navigate these challenges, it is clear that the BNP is at a crossroads, attempting to maintain relevance while grappling with the shadows of its troubled past.
After their 2008 election loss, the BNP chose to boycott the 2014 elections, predicting another defeat. Insisting on a ‘caretaker government,’ they stirred unrest with violent protests, shutdowns, strikes, and anti-election campaigns.
The BNP’s street violence in 2014 led to 153 deaths, causing disruptions and economic setbacks. Despite opposition efforts and international mobilization, the election proceeded with opposition violence on voting day.
In the 2018 elections, the BNP secured only 7 seats and accused the government of widespread vote rigging and result manipulation. The election day was marred by violence, resulting in 18 fatalities and over 200 injuries.
This widespread violence and remaining out of power for a long time make the BNP less popular and weak.
Struggling with a fractured body?
The BNP even failed to conduct a general council meeting for the past 14 years, since 2009, despite its constitution mandating such a meeting every three years.
With de facto leader Tarique Rahman operating from London, a significant leadership gap has emerged, straining relations with grassroots leaders. This disconnect has prompted a mass exodus of BNP leaders, diminishing prospects for attracting young members. Over 30 former BNP MPs, including 15 central leaders, contested elections against the party’s non-participation stance. Many loyal leaders, including Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, face arrests and numerous accusations. These crises render the BNP increasingly dysfunctional, echoing Abraham Lincoln’s adage, “A house divided cannot stand.”
Failing to remain relevant
The BNP has struggled to align itself with significant public movements in recent years. In 2013, during the Shahbag protests and the Hefazat-e Islam counterprotest, the party failed to actively participate in the national discourse, facing distance from the Shahbag youth and being overlooked by Hefazat’s strong coalition.
In subsequent youth movements in 2015, addressing No VAT on Education and quota reforms, the BNP couldn’t establish a meaningful narrative. Notably, the party’s failure to advocate for people-centric concerns like price hikes, economic downturn, and corruption, focusing solely on state power, further widened the gap between the party and the public.
Lacking a clear agenda
The BNP’s quest for power lacks a compelling vision for change, failing to present a distinctive alternative to current governance. Unlike other parties with clear ideologies, the BNP seems to lack a specific vision, leaving it without a coherent and appealing ideology.
In its 2018 campaign, the party focused on freeing jailed leader Khaleda Zia and electoral reform. However, doubts persist regarding its ability to address electoral issues, given past unsuccessful attempts in 2013-2014.
The BNP faces skepticism about its competence to bring about meaningful change, and concerns over its past effectiveness make it less attractive to voters. Many Bangladeshis question what the BNP could offer that the ruling Awami League isn’t already providing.