Political comic opera or tragedy at work?

Afsan Chowdhury
Published : 16 May 2015, 11:22 AM
Updated : 16 May 2015, 11:22 AM

The  Salahuddin-in-a-Shillong-mental asylum-episode would have provided much needed comic relief  had it not been such a sad  description of our political scene. Here was a man who was a top leader of a major political party walking around in a daze on a neighbouring country's street, unable to walk and talk properly. He couldn't even recollect how he had arrived there.

It's funny to some, but it's unfortunately also an apt metaphor for the party he belongs to as well. BNP is hanging around aimlessly and unable to function properly, or quite frankly, challenge in any way the party in power. To say the situation is in a mess is a gross underestimation. We have become like the puzzled politician of Bangladesh walking aimlessly on the streets of north-east India: a bunch of unidentified nuts.

This particular event began a couple of months ago when the BNP leader went missing.  Since he was supposed to be leading the party from hiding, and since the Awami League (AL) is hell-bent on crushing BNP and its leaders, people feared the worst. Fuel was fed to the anxiety when one remembers that this is not the first case of a disappearing BNP leader.

Iliyas Ali was picked up and never heard from again so the fear was justified. Most BNP leaders are inside jail, so sending Salahuddin "far away" made sense to many. When his family also pleaded for him, this anxiety mounted. It was capped by the BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia claiming that Salahuddin was in the custody of RAB. As she demanded that the leader be released, Salahuddin appeared himself claiming to be unsure how he arrived there, but did remember that he was an ex-Bangladeshi cabinet minister with no other recollections. It's only fair that he should be taken to a mental hospital.

Indian doctors and treatment once again proved to be excellent and he made a quick recovery, and like ET "called home." Although the entire situation was quite absurd and frankly outlandish, people were relieved. Nobody wants extra-judicial activities, which is what it looked like, and given our present and past history, there are many such instances.

One only wishes the sigh of comic relief could be a little less mixed with the enormous potential of tragedy as well.

If anyone has been damaged by this event, it's Khaleda Zia. Her recent political life is a record of one disaster after another and she seems to be keenly interested in making an embarrassment of herself.

She failed to mobilise public opinion, failed to topple AL with her hartals and oborodhs, failed to develop the organisational structure necessary to fight back against AL, failed to move international and national support for her cause, and now stands to damage her own credibility to the point of no return.

It's possible that the BNP's death began when they tried to manipulate the caretaker system under Iyazuddin in 2007, and ended up in a violent confrontation with AL which they lost, ushering in the military backed government. While AL made political hay, BNP was thrust into the shadows and lost the 2008 elections.

BNP made a mess in 2014 when they fell into the AL trap produced by the 15th amendment. Not only were they left out, but they failed to mobilise any significant field-level opposition. The subsequent failure during their extreme militant phase is another example when BNP failed to read itself. The result is their rival AL has almost cut off their wings. They are still the main political party after AL but their position is far far away. They are increasingly reminding everyone that their status is similar to that of Salahuddin, frail, lonely, and no longer to be taken seriously.

Such words are probably hurting and angering BNP supporters and making AL ones gloat. Yet one has to step aside and look at what we have in hand as far as politics goes. In Bangladesh, politics of conventional parties are not part of the mainstream attention anymore.

Our attention is drawn to the conflict between the bloggers and Islamic extremists. While no full scale war is going on, the smaller level skirmishes are escalating and the space for the extremists is rising.

They operate with impunity and while the slogan-giving middle-class has taken to Facebook to register protest or stand at corners to register the anguish, the extremists are killing as per a list, one by one.

The statement by the PM's son that it won't or can't side with the bloggers says much about the cleavage between politics and law & order. The refusal by the government to protect the bloggers may be read as cynical, but more than that, it comes across as the state of politics where power dominates, not accountability and responsibility.

The true victim of the situation is neither AL nor BNP. It is politics, and by extension those who have a right to participate in it.

Politics must, and does uphold moderation, as it operates within the confines of law and order and is framed by the principles of accountability. When that collapses, we are left only with the potential for extremism.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher. He has worked for the Dhaka Courier, the Daily Star, and BBC among many others. He has also worked as a Human Rights specialist with the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.