Why is Bangladesh's leading opposition party, the BNP, reluctant to fight the parliament elections? Why is it that the BNP leaders are threatening to launch an agitation to oust the Hasina government?
At the root of this is a serious leadership crisis facing the BNP. Their chairperson and former prime minister Khaleda Zia is ailing and stands discredited after her conviction in a corruption case for siphoning off money meant for orphans.
Her son and acting chief Tarique Rahman is leading a fugitive life in London, convicted of planning a failed assassination of Sheikh Hasina with his complicity in planning the 2004 grenade attack on an Awami League rally established in court. Tarique runs the BNP by remote control from London, much to the chagrin of several senior leaders who cannot accept his arrogance. Many feel he is out of touch with ground realities in Bangladesh.
According to a Deutsche Welle report last year, the party is “in a disarray” is further evident in its reliance on Dr Kamal Hossain, an Awami League turncoat, to lead the alliance against Hasina in the 2018 election where Jamaat-e-Islami candidates were also allowed to contest with the BNP’s symbol. As they rejected the results with the hope of resounding public support to oust Hasina, their plan was dealt with heavy blows with the Awami League largely credited for changing the course of national progress under Hasina’s leadership.
The BNP's self-contradiction surfaced when the party's top leaders praised the current Election Commission but they refused to participate in the next elections.
Mirza Abbas, a senior BNP leader, appreciated Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal for inviting their party to talks, but he said they will not participate in any dialogue unless there is a change in the government, without offering any explanation for their pull-out.
This BNP stance comes months after the chief of the party’s volunteer wing threatened “another 1975”, referring to the Aug 15 massacre, in which Hasina’s father and the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman died with most of his family members.
The threat to “create another 1975" was a blatant pointer to a possible attempt to overthrow the Hasina government through bloodbath instead of trying to defeat her party in an election.
The BNP is a party born in the barracks mid-wifed by the country's first military dictator General Ziaur Rahman. They inherited his authoritarian tendencies and a penchant for the use of force. The 2004 grenade attack on Hasina's rally was an attempted repeat of 1975 because it aimed at liquidating the entire Awami League top leadership in one stroke. So Tarique was walking in the footsteps of his father who had played a key behind-the-scenes role in the 1975 coup.
A US diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks describes Tarique as the symbol of “kleptocratic government and violent politics” in Bangladesh.
According to the leaked cable, the US Embassy in Dhaka even recommended blocking Tarique's entry to the United States. Now he stands discredited after his conviction in the 2004 grenade attack case, like his mother after her conviction in the graft case.
BNP's key ally the Jamaat has launched an extensive outreach at the grassroots level by forming committees in villages across the country. The Jamaat, many feel, perpetrated the widespread violence against minorities during Durga Puja last year.
The BNP did not join the 2014 parliament polls because it wanted the polls held under the former caretaker system. The Awami League refused to bring back the caretaker system because it had been grossly misused. Instead of fulfilling its constitutional responsibility of holding the elections, the military-backed caretaker persisted from 2006 to 2008 with a political agenda popularly called Minus Two, meaning the removal of Hasina and Khaleda from the country’s politics.
Since the caretaker targeted both BNP and Awami League leadership, it was inexplicable why the BNP wanted to bring back the caretaker system. Many described the BNP's decision as a blunder.
BNP’s 2014 poll boycott might have been influenced by its ally Jamaat, many of whose senior leaders were up on the dock in the 1971 war crimes trials for perpetrating horrible atrocities on Bengali civilians during the Liberation War.
But following the poll boycott, the BNP unleashed a wave of violent attacks on law enforcement agencies and civilians, especially its brutal firebombing of passenger buses left scores dead, maimed or mutilated. All when UN representatives were present in Bangladesh.
Even a Canadian court verdict in 2017 put a “terrorist tag” on the BNP for its violent activities.
The BNP's string of blunders culminated in the flip-flop in 2018 when it rejected the results at the last moment, citing allegations of rigging in the parliament elections.
A decade of blunders has led to the BNP's growing loss of influence and the lack of confidence is manifest in avoiding electoral battles. Infighting is also costing the party. Two BNP leaders, who were expelled by the party, contested in the election and both lost as the party’s votes were divided.
A decade of terrific performance in economic growth and human development has reinforced the Awami League's grip on the country’s politics. Despite the obvious anti-incumbency and some factionalism, the Awami League can cash in on the pro-people image of Hasina.
The BNP is thus clinging to straws like getting to play on Western diplomats who raise the human rights bogey or taking inspiration from Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, little realising the difference between ground realities.