Leadership crisis in BNP26 January 2023
Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed :
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been out of power for nearly one and a half decades, which is rare for the party. Their leaders and activists - more specifically, all the post-holders, including party chief Khaleda Zia - have been facing a number of cases and arrest warrants. The party has been alleging that around 600 political leaders and activists, members of civil society and labour leaders are victims of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. They claim their backs are against the wall and they have no option but to wage a movement. At BNP's first divisional rally in Chattogram, Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said, "It's a big and tough struggle for us, and we must win it. We have no alternative but to win this battle. We will either win or die." The other reason is the eternal anti-incumbency in the country that every political party that has ever been in power has had to deal with. Since democracy was restored in 1991, none of the political parties were able to stay in power for consecutive terms. However, the ruling party has in office for the third consecutive term, and anti-AL sentiments have been raging through much of the population for the past years.
In the last 14 years, BNP has tried two of the three known ways of putting pressure on their political rivals: waging violent street protests in 2014 and 2015, and peaceful tactical negotiations in 2018. None of those worked. This time around, the party seems to have learnt from past mistakes and adopted the difficult yet definitive third path - engaging with the general public by highlighting pro-people issues, strategically reviving its grassroots workers, slowly building up a peaceful movement through mass rallies, and most importantly, making sure that its top leaders are out there leading from the front and directly connecting with the people.
Tactically speaking, the party has never been in a worse situation. Nobody knows when their supreme leader Khaleda Zia, who is in her 70s and has been fighting potentially fatal ailments, will be able to come back to active politics. Their second-in-command Tarique Rahman, convicted for serious criminal offences, has been in exile in the UK for more than a decade. Many of their seasoned leaders have either died or have become inactive due to old age and other reasons, leaving it to only a handful of leaders at the top to run the show, some of whom do not have proven political prowess and administrative potential. Add to that the political cases hanging over virtually every important BNP member's head, and one can't help but wonder where the party is getting the organisational strength from to amass as many people as they are able to. There are several factors that are probably helping the BNP build up the emotional drive for its supporters to come and join the street protests. First is the death of at least three men from gunshots fired allegedly by law enforcement agencies during street protests in recent times. Second is the raging price hike of essentials such as food and fuel. Third is the news of many different kinds of corruption allegedly by ruling party politicians and government officials. And fourth is the eternal anti-incumbency emotion that every party in Bangladesh that has ever been in power has had to deal with.
The protest programmes that the BNP is currently holding are almost exclusively on issues such as price hike and corruption. Through these protests, the party is trying to attempt to correct its previous failures of not being able to portray itself as a pro-people party. In fact, this failure to address issues that affect people's lives directly is often seen as one of the many serious strategic mistakes the BNP has made in the past. But one thing is clear that so far the party's stance is to not join any election under the current Awami League government. Then again, one never knows with the BNP; they might decide to join the elections at the last minute like they did in 2018. They might be as popular and this might be the source of confidence to contest the polls.
It can be said that Khaleda Zia is an important person in BNP politics at the moment, but she is not essential, her political departure or permanent emigration will not have any big impact on BNP. Rather, now the senior leaders of BNP should radically reform the party and mold the party in the context of changing national politics and global politics. It should not be forgotten that the BNP's vote bank is basically the anti-Awami vote. Voter politics in Bangladesh is divided into two groups, Awami League and anti-Awami League. BNP may have exploited this anti-Awami League platform. If there is no BNP today, another party will occupy that place tomorrow. So Khaleda Zia has no obligation to always be active in politics. BNP should now move forward with post-Khaleda political policies and strategies.
Now the question is, how integrated or strong is BNP's position as a party? Again some other questions appear before us. How likely is it for BNP to gain peoples' trust in the coming days? How capable is BNP as a political party and in managing the country? How successful will be BNP in dealing with political transition and crisis? They have been in power in this country for several times before. However, the leadership crisis in BNP is seen by the people as a problem and weakness for BNP. Overcoming this crisis is also a big challenge for BNP. In order to face the challenges strategically, gaining the trust of the people has to take an active role and come to the path of participatory politics.
(The writer is former Deputy Director General Bangladesh Ansar & VDP).