Over the last five years, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one of the two major political forces in Bangladesh, got a number of golden opportunities, which, if the party managed to count on properly, could have been enough to build a strong movement that might have led to the toppling of the government.
Apart from the inner strength of those issues, including the eviction of party Chief Khaleda Zia from her cantonment residence, share market scam, and the Padma Bridge graft allegations, the party had huge public support in favour of its cause as well.
After the massive defeat in the 2008 general election, the main challenge for BNP was to reorganise the grassroots, and gradually strengthen the anti-government movement in steps. The party council, held right before the elections, got the reorganisation work half done.
Although the results of the election never reflected it, the party managed to sufficiently reorganise its grassroots ahead of the elections, despite the alleged “depoliticisation” efforts by the army-backed caretaker government that stayed in power from 2007-08.
After the ninth parliamentary election in 2008, BNP formed several nuclear committees to rejuvenate the grassroots. Many of its top leaders were assigned with visiting the 75 organisational districts of the party structure. However, in most districts, the senior leaders failed to resolve the prevailing disputes among party ranks and dorm any effective committee.
In the first year of the Awami League-led government’s tenure, apart from the eviction issue, the then opposition party did not have anything big that could be used to wage tough street protests.
That issue too backfired for the party as the government cleverly chose the last days of the month of Ramadan for evicting Khaleda Zia, and the hartals that BNP enforced immediately after, caused severe misery to people heading for their out-of-Dhaka homes for the Eid-ul-Fitr vacations.
BNP eventually failed to build any massive momentum in favour of that movement against the eviction of Khaleda Zia from her cantonment residence. One reason could be that the party had to keep the movement on hold because of the Eid holidays. That break in the middle of a movement surrounding an emotional issue, eventually cooled it down.
In 2010, when the government initiated a move to annul the caretaker system, instead of going to parliament or the other forums to raise their voice in favour of the system, the party waged programmes like hartals, and staged series of demonstrations and hunger strikes to resist the move.
Simultaneously, the BNP-led four-party alliance became the 18-party alliance, incorporating some political parties that existed only on papers. The expansion of the alliance was largely seen as an attempt to gain a psychological upper hand because the previous four-party alliance sounded feeble compared to the ruling 14-party combine. Needless to mention though, the ruling combine too, consisted of a number of parties that existed only on papers.
In 2012, to rejuvenate the grassroots and mobilise public opinion, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia initiated programmes such as road-marches. Those programmes were quite successful because many identified themselves with the crisis that was created with the annulment of the caretaker system and the BNP ranks – starting from the grassroots to the top brass – participated in those programmes spontaneously.
Meanwhile, Khaleda Zia visited the United Kingdom and the United States of America to strengthen international ties. But her missions ultimately failed as she could not hold any high-profile meeting during the two-week long tour to the west.
Later, Khaleda also visited India, introducing a new chapter to BNP’s diplomacy by meeting top Indian politicians including its president, prime minister, and the opposition leader.
However, later it was Khaleda herself, who closed the doors that she had earlier opened as she decided not to meet the Dhaka-touring Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, citing security concerns during a hartal enforced by Jamaat-e-Islami, a key component of the opposition combine.
The BNP’s unforced silence over the war crimes trials – in which most of the top leaders of Jamaat were enclosed – also worked against its favour, especially considering the huge wave of mass opinion for bringing the criminals of 1971 to justice.
Jamaat waged massive and violent movements around the country, protesting the verdicts against some of its top leaders on war crimes charges. BNP remained silent, sometimes going as far as supporting these activities indirectly.
Extending support to the Hefazat-e-Islam was another decision that eventually backfired. Although Hefazat claimed that it was not a political organisation, the demands that it placed were mostly political. Moreover, there was quite a bit of public support too, especially because the highly sensitive issue of religion was projected.
Some pro-BNP intellectuals, mainly a former left-leaning individual, on the other hand, pursued Khaleda Zia to back the Hefazat, in an attempt to cash in on the public support and the Qawmi madrassa-based manpower that the Chittagong-based outfit amassed.
The violence centring Hefazat’s Motijheel rally reinforced the international community’s apprehensions about the BNP-Jamaat combine’s links to militancy. Although Khaleda called upon her party men and the residents of Dhaka to give all-out support to Hefazat, her calls remained largely unheeded.
Later on, whenever the BNP-led 18-party alliance waged streets protests, the central leaders rarely took to the street, especially those from the Dhaka city unit, giving rise to questions about the movement.
In the absence of the BNP leaders, Jamaat leaders and activists ran rampant – violently ravaging the streets, and inducing massive criticisms inside and outside the country as many were burnt alive, scores were injured, and the country’s economy was brought to a virtual standstill.
Refusing to take the blame for the loss of lives and properties in the street violence, many BNP men said, Jamaat men could not have gone haywire had the senior BNP leaders, too, taken too the street.
Following the arrest of a number of party stalwarts, many others decided to go underground, and call action programmes through video messages, prompting people to label BNP’s methods: “Taliban style.” The continuous absence of senior leaders on the streets badly demoralised the grassroots in carrying on with the movement.
In addition, over dependence on foreign diplomats, and failures of the seasoned leaders in making the right decisions have not only organisationally weakened the BNP, but also led to a clear miscarriage of the much-hyped “March for Democracy” in late December last year, as a last resort to resist the January 5 national elections.
BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia has repeatedly called upon the party leaders, activists and the residents of Dhaka to take to the streets for ousting an “illegal government,” resisting the “farcical polls,” and compelling the government to bring back the provision for a non-partisan polls-time government.
However, neither the Dhaka residents nor the party leaders and activists heeded the party chief’s call. Opposition leaders and activists claimed that they could not come out on the capital’s streets because of the hard-line measures taken the law enforcers, and the armed attacks on them by the ruling party men.
The fact that party leaders and activists did not even try to break the shackles was unfortunate because it was the very same BNP that ruled the country twice since the end of quasi-military rule, and the dawn of democracy in 1991.
Why then, the same BNP that has always enjoyed huge public support, projected through the triumphs in the five city corporation polls, failed to cash in on anti-government public sentiment? Various party ranks, including the grassroots, have been looking for an answer to that question off late.
Firstly, the party relied heavily on foreign diplomats for resolving the prevailing political crisis, and paid little attention to getting organisationally strong. The leaders, who regularly maintain contact with the diplomats, have been lacking in political foresight. Most of the seasoned leaders remained absent in the meetings with diplomats, and as a result, their opinions and suggestions were hardly ever even considered.
Secondly, BNP’s key ally Jamaat-e-lslami waged violent movements only when issues were directly linked to them, such as the trial of some of their leaders for war crimes, came to the forefront. Jamaat, often blamed for committing war crimes as a party in 1971, hardly spent its energies for issues that cover the greater interest of the 18-party opposition alliance. Although Jamaat was the proponent of the caretaker government system in the 1980s, this time around, the party hardly ever raised a strong voice regarding the caretaker government issue.
However, whenever the International Crimes Tribunal pronounced a verdict against any of its leaders, strong presence of Jamaat leaders and activists could be seen on the streets.
After the death verdict against Delawar Hossain Syedee, and the execution of Abdul Quader Molla, many people were burnt alive, and scores were injured in arson attacks. By and large, Jamaat have been blamed for most of these attacks and the subsequent deaths.
The fact that these attacks and deaths continued during the opposition’s blockades, has heavily tarnished BNP’s image, and led to international apprehension that a rise of militancy was imminent in Bangladesh if the BNP-Jamaat-led combine returned to power.
Thirdly, the dedicated and experienced leaders were mostly ignored in the party decision-making process. Some former bureaucrats and like-minded intellectuals put up a fence around party Chief Khaleda Zia, silencing the voices of the seasoned leaders, who have often expressed their reservations about giving too much importance to what these “non-political” people said. There had been many cases where career politicians like Tariqul Islam and Moudud Ahmed were side-lined.
Party leaders believe that Khaleda Zia’s refusal to the prime minister’s invitation for talks, was a suicidal decision. They also believe that things would have been different had the experienced leaders been around her during that phone conversation.
Even before the January 5 election, the air inside the party was such that, if the top leaders came out on the streets, there were big chances that the election could be made to look even more controversial not only in the eyes of the countrymen, but also the international community.
But the leaders failed to triumph over their fear of “arrest” amid a strong government crackdown and kept themselves in their self-imposed exiles, and the much hyped movement for “resisting the polls” ended up in thoughtless violence. The arson attacks on the educational institutions used as polling centres might have scared away the voters, but the textbooks charred and schools burnt to ashes eventually worked against the party’s favour.
Although some top leaders have tried to give explanations otherwise, the recent conflicting statements, issued by party Chief Khaleda Zia and her son Tarique Rahman regarding the dialogue issue with the government, have only added colour to the picture that coordination among the party’s top ranks was badly dwindling.
The “March for Democracy” was the last big chance for BNP, because the leaders and activists from the grassroots, all became charged up at the prospect of the wonders that such a major political showdown could have done. Unfortunately, the party let the opportunity go begging due to their over-reliance on diplomacy instead of taking to the streets and staging it succesfully.
Source: Dhaka Tribune