Bill Slim’s “Defeat into Victory” is a must-read for students of warfare. It could well be a must read for politicians who seek to turn the tide and come out successful amid all the adversity. But if a publishing house was looking for an author to title something like “Victory to Defeat”, BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia would be a strong candidate. Rarely in the politics of the sub-continent has one seen someone poised for victory losing out all and ending up giving the rival a walk-over as Khaleda has done in the recent parliament elections in Bangladesh.
Around the time she had that famous 37-minute chat with Sheikh Hasina and the prime minister came up with the ‘multi-party cabinet’ to hold the polls, I recall CPB president Mujahidul Islam Selim making a valid point. He said the BNP, provoked by its ally Jamaat-e-Islami, was walking into the Awami League trap. Selim was almost prophetic but it is a surprise why Khaleda could not see the obvious. The nation was in a mood for change in keeping with the post-1990 tradition of anti-incumbency and BNP was poised for victory if it contested the polls. The most favourable intelligence reports landing on Hasina’s desk did not promise victory for the Awami League. They only differed on the margin of defeat.
Hasina had no fallback options when she made the “multi-party” cabinet offer to look like she was trying to be inclusive. So she must have prayed that Khaleda would be as obstinate as ever in pushing for the caretaker and not accept the “all-party” option for the polls. It was a gamble that paid off. The BNP hit the street with the Jamaat, provoking more violence and providing Hasina with the justification to use the condign instruments of the state against the Opposition.
If Khaleda had accepted Hasina’s all-party cabinet proposal and agreed to join it and then go for the elections, most senior Awami Leaguers admit not even God Almighty could have saved the party from defeat. The BNP had been out on the streets, its organisation mobilised, its Jamaat allies ever willing to fight it out. Then if it suddenly blew the peace-pipe, agreed to contest the polls if their leaders and activists were released, the transition from agitation to electioneering would have been easy.
The Awami League was busy handling huge factional squabbles all over the country and even Hasina’s authority was not proving effective in managing dissidence. The Awami League, bloated over the years in power, would take time to mobilise and unless they faced an agitation threatening life and limb, they would not have much of an urgency to hit the streets. For Khaleda, it was important to keep her supporters on the streets and not give the Awami League a good reason to come out. That would prove fatal for the Awami League in the end. Riding the wave of anti-incumbency which seems to be endemic in Bangladesh since it returned to democracy from military rule, the BNP would have come to power.
The Jamaat was already de-registered and surely could not contest. But if the BNP contested, the Jamaat votebank would be transferred to its kitty without a shade of doubt. Even Jamaat cadres would campaign for BNP because Khaleda’s coming to power was their only hope to get out of the stranglehold of the war crimes trials. Once the BNP-Jamaat stopped attacking the police and called a stop to the agitation, the law-keepers would have no real reason to help the ruling party out. The bureaucracy understand democracy the best – the officers know which way the wind blows and would swing with it. And if the Awami League could not win city corporations even in their traditional strongholds like Gazipur, how could they win a majority in the parliament!
Large-scale rigging, Khaleda would say. The lady has never been a grassroots organiser, and that is her problem. She should know that if a city corporation cannot be rigged and won by a ruling party, it is impossible they could do that in 150-160 seats or more. Surely not in 300 seats. That was possible thirty years ago, not in the world of modern satellite television and Internet-driven social media. And surely when hundreds of foreign observers are around looking to hammer the government for any fraud or malpractice.
This election was Khaleda’s great chance to stand on her own feet, give up company of Jamaat-e-Islami tainted by 1971 war crimes and put BNP on the road to power without encumbrances. Once in power, she might have used her administrative authority to water down the war crimes trials if she had to do the Jamaat a favour. Only if she had to.
Instead, she placed all her hopes on Jamaat’s street power and believed their violent agitation would force Hasina to step down. She did not realise many who want a change don’t want the Jamaat to lead the way. Surely none with an iota of national pride would have a soft corner for Jamaat, especially after Pakistanis spilling the beans over Abdul Quader Molla’s execution.
Khaleda did not realise that Hasina was as obstinate and determined as her in pursuing her objective. The only way she could win this election was by getting Khaleda to boycott, though all the while she would have to keep up the façade of dialogue and inclusive politics for domestic and global consumption. By joining the all-party cabinet (BNP’s joining would have made it truly all-party), the BNP would have gained a foothold in the administration. By remaining on the streets, that would never be possible.
In hindsight, one can only say Khaleda placed too much faith in Jamaat and the West, specially the US. Though global, especially Western, opinion is still very much against this one-sided election and some countries are crying foul, Hasina could always turn back at them and say Khaleda is to be blamed for the violence and poll boycott for elections to be so one-sided. On paper, it is difficult to hold Hasina responsible for one-sided elections. She only wanted to hold them in keeping with the Constitution two and a half years after the caretaker provision had been scrapped. When Fernandez-Taranco came to mediate, he also ruled out the caretaker because it was not in the Constitution anymore.
So after having got Fernandez-Taranco and the UN involved and partly internationalised the issue, Khaleda’s best bet was to accept an election under multi-party caretaker after ensuring a huge UN oversight to prevent possible rigging. That is what the UN envoy would be too happy to accept. So in December, all she would have to do was to get the UN to agree on a huge deployment of observers (and scores would come down from all Western countries) and ensure the release of her leaders and activists.
Then she could go to polls joining the all-party cabinet – or even by staying out of it. A sudden announcement that she was joining the polls would have caught Hasina and the Awami League off the guard.
The other key point that Khaleda missed out on was she did not realise many in the country was willing to vote for her just to ensure the same party is not in power again. But they had no reason to be enamoured by her track record to be motivated enough to come out and hit the streets for a mass agitation that would revive memories of the anti-Ershad campaign in the late 1980s. To get the best out of the popular mood, she had to peacefully join the polls at a crucial time and if the surprise was complete, the result would have been the best for her.
Tagore had once asked about someone – does he know when to stop? (thamte jane to?). For successful politicians, it is more important to know when to stop or still better when to change gears.
Hasina however will have no good reason to be complacent. The threat of having to hold another election fairly soon will hang over her new government like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. She may not have to worry about UN sanctions with Russia in Security Council ready to veto any such move. But she may have to brace for tough Western measures at various stages until she has reached a consensus with the Opposition on how to hold fresh elections. But she was surely managed to get a breather and stay ahead in the first round.
Syed Bashir is a bdnews24.com columnist.