The last time the party boycotted national elections during the rule of a military dictator, it got the upper hand to win the next. However, another boycott nearly three decades later, when there is democracy in the county, has done the exact opposite.
With a directionless movement, frustrated grassroots, ever worsening fund crunch and little democracy within, the BNP – one of the two most popular political parties in Bangladesh – is now heading towards an uncertain future, which is seen as the deepest crisis in 36 years of its existence.
Until the 2014 national election and except for the two-year tenure of the army-backed interim government in 2007-08, the BNP has never been out of parliament since the country returned to democracy in 1990.
The party has been in power thrice: in 1991-96; a very brief term following a controversial election that the Awami League boycotted in February 1996; and in 2001-06.
Following success in a number of local government elections in the past few years, many BNP leaders were hoping for another victory had it taken part in the January 5 election.
Since the provision for non-partisan polls-time government was scrapped through the 15th amendment to the constitution in 2011, the BNP and the Awami League have been at loggerheads.
While the Awami League was determined to hold the 2014 national election under a partisan arrangement, the BNP had been in the streets for more than two years, demanding restoration of the caretaker provision. The BNP claimed that a fair election was possible only under a non-partisan government.
BNP’s street movement took an extremely violent turn after it had failed to press home its demand and the Awami League government looked all set to hold the election.
The fruits of the decision to boycott the election were heavily dependent on the success of what the party called the “election resistance movement.”
Eventually, failing to resist the election and prevent Awami League from forming a government for the second time on the trot meant that the BNP, which had already been out of power for five years, was now out of the parliament because of the boycott.
In 1996, the Awami League, through a strong “non-cooperation” movement, toppled the BNP government soon after it had come to power through a “unilateral” election.
The situation might have been similar to that of 1996 to a large extent, but the BNP is in the middle of nowhere at the moment, especially in terms of the organisational strength required for staging a strong movement, let alone coming to power anytime soon by toppling the current government.
The failure of the so-called election resistance movement was largely attributed to the leaders and activists of the Dhaka city unit, who were scared to come out on the streets fearing arrest. Most of the top central leaders of the party, who were wanted in scores of political cases, were not on the streets either out of the same fear.
Many young leaders and activists of the BNP, who worked with dedication in the streets across the country over the past few years, got frustrated. Their family lives were in tatters because of the cases filed against them. Many of them had been put behind bars.
But the senior leaders were nowhere to be found. Most of them remained in safe hideouts when dedicated grassroots leaders and activists were facing the wrath of the law enforcers on the streets.
That especially hurt the momentum of the so-called election resistance movement because those on the streets lacked the guidance that the senior leaders could have given them.
All these coupled with the already existing frustration associated with being away from power for seven years. It is particularly frustrating for the supporters of a party that was formed when its founder Gen Ziaur Rahman was already in power.
BNP acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told the Dhaka Tribune: “It is true that the BNP is in the deepest crisis ever. More than anything else, it is due to the fascist behaviour of and the repression by the autocratic government.”
From Fakhrul’s point of view, the situation in 1986-88 and the situation now are completely different. Although it was a regime of a non-democratic ruler, the level of repression at that time was nowhere near what the current Awami League government is doing. “As of today, a total of 300,000 leaders and activists of the BNP have baseless cases against their names. Even I have 26 cases against my name.”
Little democracy within
For a political party, holding regular councils at all levels is not only an important indicator of its organisational strengths, but also a key to keeping up the morale of those at the grassroots.
The BNP held its last national council more than five years ago on December 8, 2009, contrary to its charter that stipulates holding of the councils every three years. Mirza Fakhrul has been serving as the acting secretary general of the party since his predecessor Khandakar Delwar Hossain died in March 2011. Because there has been no council, the party has not got the opportunity to elect a full-time secretary general.
The party has not held the councils of its local level committees such as those at the thana, upazila, district, divisional and city levels for many years. The Dhaka city unit has not seen a new committee in 17 years. Only recently, the party has formed a convening committee tasked with forming the full committee for the city unit.
Just like the central executive committee, those at the local levels have not seen the much needed change of leadership for years, giving rise to widespread grievances and organisational gridlocks. And because there has been no council, the grassroots have not got the opportunity to let the central leadership know about their complaints and suggestions.
That has eventually led to an ever widening gap between the top brass and the grassroots which can be detrimental to any organisation that calls itself democratic.
In March this year, BNP Vice-Chairman Hafizuddin Ahmed slammed leaders and activists for chanting anti-government slogans from inside an air-conditioned auditorium.
He said: “Why are you chanting slogans here inside the room against the arrest of BNP leaders? Have we arrested them? Why are you not going to the PM’s residence Ganabhaban? Do not shout slogans like ‘direct action’ from inside the room. You should go out on the streets and chant slogans there.
“I fervently request you, the young leaders and activists of the BNP, to take to the streets, show all your strength and enthusiasm there. The BNP should not wait for the Almighty’s wrath to descend upon the oppressive Sheikh Hasina government. Rather, the party should wage a movement to bring an end to the oppression.”
BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia has talked about forming a “legal aid committee” that would help leaders and activists from all levels to fight political cases. However, the committee has never been formed.
Besides, the noted lawyers associated with the BNP have been busy fighting cases for the stalwarts instead of the grassroots leaders, who need the help most.
Tareque Shamsur Rahman, professor of international relations at Jahangirnagar University, said: “[The lack of democratic practice] is seen virtually in all political parties. It is a fact that BNP’s politics revolves around Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman. The political parties in Bangladesh rarely practice democracy themselves.”
Dominance of ex-bureaucrats
Party chief Khaleda Zia, who is now 69 years old, stays ill most of the times and hence cannot regularly attend political programmes and gatherings. Most recently, she missed the BNP-led 20-party alliance’s rally in the capital’s Suhrawardy Udyan earlier last month.
BNP Senior Vice-Chairman Tarique Rahman, Khaleda’s eldest son, who is thought to be the next chief, has been away from the country for nearly seven years. He has several corruption and criminal cases against his name.
Party insiders said since the time Tarique surfaced strongly in politics about a decade ago, there appeared to be two centres of power within the party – Khaleda Zia and Tarique. His controversial political office Hawa Bhaban, which is said to have been the alternate centre of power during BNP’s 2001-06 rule, has been associated with many crimes and conspiracies in recent years.
This has allowed a section of ex-bureaucrats-turned-politicians to gain prominence in decision making, eclipsing some of the career politicians.
In recent times, the ex-bureaucrats, who are not hardened politicians, are surrounding the party chief and making her take imprudent decisions. Many have said Khaleda’s decision to not meet Indian President Pranab Mukherjee when he came to Dhaka before the January 5 election was motivated by these ex-bureaucrats.
Over the last few months, the BNP has been talking about a strong movement to press home its demand for non-partisan polls-time government.
Before Eid-ul-Fitr in July, the party leaders, including chief Khaleda Zia, said they would wage a strong movement after the vacations. However, it has been more than a month after Eid and the party is still to “wage a strong movement.”
After the vacations, leaders said they were still reorganising the party ranks from the top to the grassroots to gain the organisational strength for a so-called strong movement.
In the recent weeks, the BNP and its allies organised rallies and black-flag processions across the country to protest against the broadcast policy and the Israeli atrocities in Gaza, none of which are strong national political issues in true sense.
Analysts say the BNP is now trying to raise voice regarding genuine pro-people issues to regain its connections with the public.
Not that the party is failing to press strongly at the government only now; it failed to capitalise on many issues and mistakes made by the Awami League government over the past five years or so.
One such incident was in 2010 when the government evicted Khaleda Zia from her cantonment residence. The government cleverly timed the eviction right before an Eid vacation. The BNP stepped into that “trap” and its agitation programmes such as hartals backfired badly because they made homebound people suffer.
Professor Tareque Shamsur Rahman said: “The BNP should present a roadmap before the nation. More importantly, it should present a roadmap for its leaders and activists, telling them what they should do in the changed situation. This is because, only toppling a government through a movement is not good for politics. The BNP needs a vision for cheering up its leaders and activists.”
With prospects of coming to power again anytime soon looking bleak, the party is now faced with an acute fund crunch.
The BNP has recently submitted its yearly financial report to the Election Commission which showed that its expenditure was way more than its income.
Because the party has not been in power for many years, its income sources are gradually narrowing down. The expenditures associated with years of street protests have apparently had their toll on the party’s income statement.
Mirza Fakhrul told the Dhaka Tribune: “It is very normal for a democratic political party. Basically, our party is run by members’ subscription fees, donation from expatriates and proceeds from the sale of nomination papers. As we could not hold the national council [in time] and boycotted the national election, there is a little fund crisis; but it is not severe at all.”
BNP’s decision to form an election alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami – often accused of committing war crimes as an organisation during 1971 Liberation War – turned out to be a good one after the partnership won a landslide victory in the 2001 election.
But before the 2008 election, the Awami League banked on the war crimes trial issue in its campaign and the ties with Jamaat badly hurt BNP’s image. The result this time was a landslide defeat for the party.
The trial of top Jamaat leaders on war crime charges and the subsequent street violence staged by Jamaat-Shibir men did not help BNP’s cause either although it remained almost entirely silent on the issue.
Moreover, widespread allegations of corruption, patronising militancy and the role of Hawa Bhaban during its 2001-06 tenure earned the BNP huge bad names and it is still paying for it.
Much later in 2013, BNP’s decision to extend support to the fanatic Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam, which gave rise to massive anarchy in the capital, also did not go in its favour.
Months of street protest that preceded the January 5 election, in which scores of people were killed and hundreds of vehicles were destroyed in arson attacks, also had a massive contribution in further worsening its image.
A founding member of the BNP and now the chief of the Liberal Democratic Party, Col (retd) Oli Ahmed said: “After Ziaur Rahman’s death, the BNP saw both good and bad times under the leadership of Khaleda Zia. Things have been particularly tough for the party after 2007. But I believe the party will eventually come out of the crisis.”