Seven leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP are now under trial or detention or free on bail on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Liberation War in 1971. Khaleda Zia calls them “political prisoners” and demands their release. She has also vowed to “throw away” the Constitution. The BNP is evidently pursuing high-voltage politics while the Awami League is moving aggressively to perpetuate itself in power.
Yet, it is fashionable to maintain that there is no politics in the country and that the people are permanently condemned to suffer the “quarrels” of the “Two Ladies”, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. As if, Hasina and Khaleda are not mortals like any other person. This is a simplistic –– and vulgar –– view.
The obsession with the idiosyncrasies of Hasina and Khaleda obscures the intense political struggle of three decades since the Awami League and the BNP installed Hasina and Khaleda, respectively, in the leadership of the two parties.
Days of politics as usual gone: The country’s decades-long political journey since mid-1970s has reached a critical juncture with the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. No longer will politics be as usual.
Politics in the country is defined broadly by two factors: the War of Independence of 1971 formed a national consensus on Bengali secular-socialist polity and that consensus was broken by the counter-revolution of August 15, 1975 which imposed Bangladeshi Islam-pasand communal politics and laissez-faire capitalism. Though the Fifteenth Amendment has restored the pre-’75 polity –– albeit, in a truncated manner, a political consensus on the Fifteenth Amendment is yet to evolve. Country’s politics remains divisive.
The main protagonists in the battle of polities are the Awami League and the BNP, the former upholding the Spirit of ‘71 and the latter the post-’75 Islam-pasand polity.
There are many valid reasons for which one may detest the Awami League and the BNP or their leaders, but these two are the only parties that matter in the country’s politics at the present time. According to Election Commission statistics, the two parties together polled 82.2 per cent of votes cast in the 2008 general election –– the Awami League 49 per cent and the BNP 33.2 per cent.
This political matrix reflects the political reality of a period which ended with the Fifteenth Amendment. What standing the Awami League and the BNP will have by the time the next general election will be held in 2014 is anybody’s guess. The present article speculates on the conditions of the BNP.
A quiet burial: The BNP is handicapped by four developments. These are: a) the court judgment against the August 15, 1975 counter-revolution and the execution of the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; b) the court declaring the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution as unconstitutional; c) the court declaring, in the Fifth Amendment judgment, the government of General Ziaur Rahman, along with the governments of Khondaker Moshtaque Ahmed and Justice ASM Sayem, as unconstitutional; and d) the restoration of Bengali nationalism, secularism and socialism as Fundamental Principles of State Policy through the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
General Zia bestowed legal and constitutional basis on the Islam-pasand polity, the process of which began with the 1975 counter-revolution, through the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. An irony is that the Islam-pasand polity suffered the most fatal blow during Khaleda’s prime ministership, in 2005, when a High Court Division of the Supreme Court declared the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution as well as the Zia regime as unconstitutional.
The Islam-pasand counter-revolution has been quietly buried with the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment. The Fifteenth Amendment has though attempted a fusion of ideologies between Islam and secularism by retaining Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim and Islam as the state religion in the Constitution. The attempted ideological fusion has given Islam-pasand politics a new lease of life without the now-defunct Islam-pasand polity. (The secular-socialist polity, as originally envisaged in the 1972 version of the Constitution, has not been re-instituted. Secularism has been given an Islamic veneer. And the principle of socialism finds its place in the Constitution merely as a totem of the liberation struggle. But this is a different story.)
The Awami League sits pretty in power, reinforced by the Fifteenth Amendment which guarantees its politics and, more crucially, re-establishes the legacies of Sheikh Mujib with a vengeance.
Uphill task: But, the BNP’s day of reckoning has arrived with the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment. The party faces an uphill task of regrouping and retaining its position as an alternative to the Awami League as a ruling party while upholding Islam-pasand politics in a non-Islam-pasand polity.
The BNP is an Islam-pasand party with a difference. In the political vacuum created by the 1975 counter-revolution, General Zia conjured up the party with the help of the Cantonment as an anti-Awami League platform. Central to this party is not Islamic theology or Sharia laws but the political legacies of Zia: he is the father of Bangladeshi i.e. Bengali Muslim nationalism and founder of the post-’75 Islam-pasand polity. The BNP claims Zia is the “proclaimer of independence” which is, however, historically false.
The Fifteenth Amendment has nullified and smeared all the political legacies of Zia. There is no sign yet that the BNP has undertaken an active review of its politics in response to the Fifteenth Amendment.
Apart from the issues of politics, the BNP faces an impending leadership crisis. Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman, as the inheritors and custodians of General Zia’s politics and legacies, hold the BNP together. Tarique is practically in self-exile since 2008. Both the mother and son face a large number of court cases on charges of corruption, criminal offences or money laundering. Does a deluge await the BNP if Khaleda and Tarique are handicapped or become unable because of the cases to lead the party from the front –– particularly in election politics? For a power-centric party, as the BNP is, mass agitation, mass mobilisation or mass movements are a means to an end, which is winning elections and power. Success in street agitation does not necessarily translate into electoral victories or power.
The BNP will have to fight the cases against Khaleda, Tarique and other party leaders in the court and in the streets –– in an attempt to turn the cases into a political issue. In the recent past, Khaleda and the BNP failed miserably in their manoeuvres in politicising the issue of Khaleda’s eviction from her Dhaka Cantonment residence.
The siren call of mass upsurge: In the midst of daunting political and organisational challenges, Khaleda, true to her image of a street-smart politician, has gone for a total offensive against the government. She has asked the government to resign, called for a mass upsurge and demanded mid-term election along with the restoration of the system of non-party caretaker government which was abolished by the Fifteenth Amendment.
Mass upsurge, as distinct from a revolution or an insurrection, can neither be ordered to happen nor can it be organised by a political party though the activities of political parties may contribute towards an upsurge. Mass upsurge is unstructured spontaneous manifestation of popular discontent against the authorities which a political party may sometimes find handy to advance its own causes.
Khaleda is itching for a precipitate bout in power struggle through insurrection, euphemistically described as mass upsurge. This is a sign of desperation rather than astute leadership for the BNP is a party of elections.
There is nothing revolutionary about the demand for the restoration of non-party caretaker system. More than two years to pass before the next general election, this is at the moment an academic issue and may become a critical political issue only at the time of election, depending on the BNP’s political strength. With the rhetoric of insurrection, Khaleda has actually launched, wittingly or unwittingly, an unseasonal election campaign.
Caretaker issue may soon be overshadowed and overtaken by court events like the war crimes trial, trial of the cases of grenade attack on Hasina and 10-truck arms haul and the cases against Khaleda Zia, Tarique Rahman and Arafat Rahman Koko.
An uncertain future: Mass upsurge or election, the BNP will be as robust or as weak as is its politics.
* Will the BNP re-furbish its politics in the light of the restored fundamental principles of state policies and reconcile with Bengali nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism? If it does so, what political ideals and principles will differentiate it from the Awami League and other parties upholding secularism and socialism? And what will then be its equation with other Islam-pasand parties?
* If the BNP does not reform and persists with its Muslim communal politics of Bangladeshi nationalism variety and its strategic alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, what political sympathy can it expect from a nation which is trying the war criminals?
* How will the BNP respond to the constitutional version of the freedom struggle which trashes its partisan narrative of the birth of Bangladesh in which Zia is the central figure?
* Most importantly, the distinctiveness of the BNP is that it is the party of the Islam-pasand polity Zia fabricated through martial law proclamations in a unique national, regional and global environment of the Cold War of yesteryear. There is no way of re-inventing that environment and restoring that particular variety of polity. Will the BNP then meet the fate of the Muslim League without Pakistan, Bakshal without the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution or the JSD without “scientific socialism” and Gano Bahini?
NM Harun, now retired, was a journalist by profession.