A VIDEO recently went viral on the internet depicting a fierce attack on the BNP’s secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir for his alleged failures in the December 2018 elections. The attacker’s words matched his body language that saddened many. Mirza was attacked, first, for his statement to journalists on the morning of the election day and, second, for the failure of the BNP/Oikya Front to call a general strike to protest the deeply flawed elections.
Mirza Alamgir told journalists on the election day that the voting was being held in a peaceful manner soon after he had voted in his constituency in Thakurgaon. That, of course, was the picture only in his own polling booth stage-managed to trick him. The picture in the rest of the country was different where the election authorities completed the voting process the previous evening and night. Mirza Alamgir thus committed a major faux pas but one that did not have even the slightest impact on the election results.
Dr Kamal Hossain led the Oikya Front-BNP alliance in the last elections. Therefore, he should have been considered principally responsible for the alliance’s failure in imposing general strikes. Dr Hossain, in fact, expressed a disinclination for general strike at a time when many expected that general strikes were coming. The BNP avoided general strieks for reasons that were no secret. The law enforcement agencies put the fear of the gravest consequences on the BNP if they dared to come out onto the streets to impose general strikes.
The BNP allied with the Oikya Front before the elections. Before that happened, the BNP had created the feeling among the people that if the elections were free and fair where voters could vote without fear or favour, they could win and form the government. That things happened otherwise is a different story. The Oikya Front played no part in the BNP’s efforts. It happened because of the painstaking and courageous efforts of the BNP’s chairperson Khaleda Zia and Mirza Alamgir.
Mirza came to major significance in the BNP around the 2014 elections, (having been named as the acting secretary general in 2011) during which the ruling party turned Bangladesh’s democratic credentials on its head to return to power by what was a non-election with no contest in 153 seats. The ruling party gave the BNP the label of a terrorist party that many diplomatic missions in Dhaka accepted without proper verification to make its predicament worse. Mirza Alamgir was forced to deal with these predicaments with his hands tied as the party’s acting secretary general.
Mirza Alamgir led the party nevertheless with a firm commitment to liberal democracy. Khaleda Zia and he pursued liberal politics at its best in the face of the ruling party’s uncompromising resolve not to allow the BNP an iota of democratic space. Any major political party in the BNP’s predicament and position would have been tempted and perhaps opted for violence Khaleda Zia and Mirza did not allow to happen. Instead, Khaleda Zia embraced incarceration to unite her party and the people trusting that the laws would protect her. Mirza Alamgir kept the party committed to constitutional and liberal politics against the pressure from the party’s rank and file to force the issue while Khaleda Zia was in jail.
Mirza Fakhrul also submitted to the law like his leader while the authorities submerged him with court cases galore, one for torching a garbage truck, that attending to the cases against him, all political, became his full-time occupation. In between, he spent almost a year in jail pending bail. He kept his own party united raising the hopes of not just BNP supporters but also those who wanted a democratic change in the country through free, fair and inclusive elections. And through it all, he emerged leading to the elections as a leader that the people could trust to regain their democratic rights.
Mirza had hoped that the people would stand up to defend their right to vote in the spirit that they had in the past against the forces that tried to take it away from them. He had faith in the people from his experience as a left student leader and further experience gained in fighting oppressive forces in Bangladesh. Mirza Fakhrul had shown leadership qualities through all these movements to put him in the same bracket with the best in the country’s history leading to the December elections.
Unfortunately, times are vastly different. Opposition politics was never as difficult in the country’s history as it is now with fear of court cases, enforced disappearances, ‘crossfire’ deaths, etcetera, hanging like the sword of Damocles over those who dare the authorities. The obstacles and difficulties caused for Mirza Fakhrul by his own party are an open secret like the long years he was kept as the acting secretary general that was totally unfair. Yet he carried on with the task at hand and kept the party leaders united in the face of major lures for them to defect. No party leader in Bangladesh’s history faced the dangers and the obstacles that Mirza Fakhrul had to confront while leading the BNP.
Most leaders of the BNP have been serious baggage for Mirza. They contributed little yet availed every opportunity to create problems for him. The party’s foreign affairs committee is an example of the ineffectiveness of the BNP’s central leaders/structures. The committee kept itself busy writing letters to diplomats in Dhaka, oblivious of the sea change at the grass roots in the BNP’s favour because of Khaleda Zia’s courage and Mirza’s unrelenting efforts. The committee was also blissfully unaware that many of the diplomats that they were pampering represented the countries that had wrongly accused it in 2014 for supporting terrorism. These diplomats were in denial of the fact that the BNP had been the quintessential democratic party despite serious provocations to the contrary leading to the 2018 elections. They ignored the letters.
The committee failed to comprehend that only India and China mattered in the 2018 Bangladesh elections while it was barking up the wrong tree. The committee also failed to realise that the BJP-led government of India had no intention of playing in the 2018 Bangladesh election the sort of role the Congress-led government had played in 2014. It also further failed to realise that China had crept into the strategic space that India had unwittingly yielded. The BNP was not even vaguely aware of these developments. If it had, it would not have included individuals in the committee unacceptable to both, unless its intention was to upset them.
The activities of the foreign affairs committee underlined how removed the BNP’s central leaders were from reality that did not make Mirza’s work easy. There were many other obstacles in the party leadership and structure for Mirza. While Mirza Alamgir was putting his own life on the line (he suffers from serious ailments), his colleagues in Dhaka showed little inclination to follow him. They were inclined to remain in Dhaka doing very little.
The BNP’s major failure was, however, the fact that it did not realise its own strength and popularity. The Oikya Front added little to its strength. Their leaders were of the same mentality as the BNP’s senior leaders. The 2 Oikya Front member showed their true colours immediately after they won riding on the BNP’s back. Dr Kamal Hossain did little to take forward the great work of the BNP led by Mirza. His importance to the Oikya Front has now been left to the pep talk like the one he gave most recently that he would see the ruling party fall in his lifetime.
Mirza Alamgir incurred anger as seen in the video because of his implicit faith in a liberal democracy. That belief encouraged him to support his party’s decision to allow the 5 BNP members of parliament to join the parliament that they would have joined anyway because of nothing else but greed. His explanation that these five with the two Oikya Front members would keep the voice of the opposition alive is a defeatist mentality given the fact that with courage, support from its central leaders and a little of the spirit of 1971, the BNP would not only have been in the parliament but leading the government as well. Finally, why then did he vacate his seat? And to make his decision incomprehensible and funny, why is the party contesting in the bye-election to win his seat back?
The anger in the viral video notwithstanding, the BNP must now go back to the drawing board and revisit the mistakes to take lessons. The country needs the BNP because without it, liberal democracy would have no chance to return. The Oikya Front elements can now take leave for they have done very little to the opposition’s cause for they never had the ability.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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