The ‘battling Begums’ Khaleda Zia and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (R).
Snapshot
  • There’s a bitter battle unfolding, as it has for long now, between the ruling Awami League and the rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party ahead of the general election in January.

    An assessment of the factors influencing the election suggests that the Awami League might return to power.

Bangladesh is headed for its eleventh parliamentary election this month-end, and the polls promise to be rancorous with the two embittered major parties, the ruling Awami League (AL) and the rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), engaging in a highly acrimonious, no-holds-barred skirmish. The stage has already been set for the battle, with the Election Commission rejecting 786 of the 3,065 nominations filed for the 300 seats of the Jatiya Sangsad, the country’s parliament; most of the rejected were candidates of the BNP and other Opposition parties, thus triggering allegations of bias against the Election Commission.

Politics in Bangladesh is defined and driven by the acute acrimony between the ‘battling Begums’, as Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina (the incumbent prime minister) and her arch rival, BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia are often referred to as. The rivalry – bordering on enmity – between the two go back a long way. BNP’s founder, General (Retd) Ziaur Rahman (Khaleda Zia’s husband) was a close associate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Later, in 1977, he found himself catapulted to the post of President of Bangladesh after a series of military coups and counter-coups that followed the assassination of Mujib in August 1975. Ziaur Rahman, as head of the Bangladesh Army, became the chief martial law administrator when the country came under military rule, but he hung up his army boots and became the civilian president of the country in April 1977.

The next year, Ziaur Rahman held a presidential election and he was voted to power with an overwhelming majority. Though he facilitated the return of Sheikh Hasina (who was out of the country when her father was assassinated and had not returned, fearing for her life) to Bangladesh in 1981, he took the country away from the secular and liberal ideals of its founding fathers and made Bangladesh an Islamic republic. Rahman also reversed his country’s close ties with India and established relations with Pakistan, besides aligning with the radical Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist groups that had sided with West Pakistan and opposed the Bangladesh independence war.

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Ziaur Rahman also gave indemnity from prosecution to many involved in the assassination of Mujib. Rahman also freed from prisons and rehabilitated many who had aided in the 1971 genocide by the Pakistani Army, who killed an estimated 30,000 Bengalis (Muslims and Hindus) and raped an estimated four lakh women. He provided plum posts, including diplomatic positions, to many such people who Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League consider criminals and enemies of the nation.

The enmity between the AL and BNP, which started with the reversal of Sheikh Mujib’s policies and rewarding those responsible for his assassination as well as those who opposed the Bangladesh war of independence and sided with the (Pakistani) enemy in 1971, deepened when Ziaur Rahman’s widow (he was assassinated in May 1981) became the prime minister in March 1991 and then again in October 2001 for the second time. Zia deepened ties with the Jamaat and Islamist groups who the Awami League considered to be enemies of Bangladesh and proxies of Pakistan.

During her two tenures, Zia launched a witch hunt against AL leaders and workers, imprisoning many of them on allegedly false cases. Activists of the BNP, the Jamaat, and other Islamist groups patronised by the BNP also carried out alleged systematic attacks on AL leaders and cadres, killing and maiming many of them. Zia also provided safe shelter to anti-India forces and militant outfits of the North East, like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO).

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But what cemented the deep animosity between the two principal political players in Bangladesh was the 2004 grenade attack on a rally addressed by Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka. She narrowly escaped death, and her bodyguards and a close aide died in the ghastly attacks. The attack was allegedly masterminded by Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, and some BNP ministers. Tarique and a few BNP leaders, as well as senior police officials, were subsequently convicted after a fresh enquiry was instituted when the AL came to power in 2009. Rehman, who is in exile in London, has also been charged in a few corruption cases. Zia herself has been convicted in corruption cases and is now in prison.

The BNP alleges that all the cases against Zia, her son, and leaders and activists of the party are fabricated. The AL had also made the same allegation when its leaders were being hounded by the earlier BNP regimes. This cycle of seeking revenge and counter-revenge against and by political rivals has characterised politics in the country and hobbled the country’s development. Ever since Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009, her government has pursued the collaborators of the Pakistani army (in 1971) and Islamists, putting many of them to death. Apart from Zia, many leaders of the BNP and other opposition parties have also been jailed in charges of alleged corruption.

Coming back to the forthcoming polls: the BNP and the 20-party Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front) that it is a part of, has made Hasina’s “authoritarian rule” and alleged “corruption at high places” the primary agenda of their vituperative election campaign. They have vowed to bring Hasina and her ministers and party colleagues to book for alleged corruption and misgovernance, thus indicating that the politics of vendetta would continue if they were to come to power. But the BNP is critically handicapped in the absence of its chairperson, Zia, and with most of its top leaders being disqualified from contesting the forthcoming polls.

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The party also lacks adequate resources to campaign effectively. The BNP has nominated as many as 20 top Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, all of them Islamist radicals, anti-Indian and pro-Pakistani, to contest under its (BNP’s) symbol. This has alienated large sections of the electorate who are somewhat disillusioned with the Hasina government and would have voted for the BNP had the latter not associated itself closely with the Jamaat. Large sections of Bangladeshis consider themselves to be liberal and are against the Jamaat’s religious fundamentalism.

Apart from the BNP, the other partners of the Oikya Front are political lightweights who have never had much success at the hustings. The BNP and the opposition parties, though, hold a lot in store for eminent jurist and Bangladesh’s first law minister, Kamal Hossain, who heads the Front. Hossain was a close associate of Mujib and helped draft the Bangladesh Constitution. But his recent association with the BNP, which is closely aligned with the Jamaat, has eroded his credentials. Sheikh Hasina has been highlighting Hossain’s “betrayal” of the ideals of the country’s founder (Sheikh Mujib) “by joining hands with the killers of Bangabandhu (as Mujib is popularly called) and collaborators of Pakistan”.

Hasina, however, is also facing strong anti-incumbency after two terms in power. Her image also took a beating after the controversial election in 2014 that was boycotted by the BNP and other opposition parties. The election was criticised by the Western countries, though China and India stoutly backed Hasina and helped her resist attempts by the United States and the European Union to call for fresh polls under a caretaker regime.

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Bangladesh had the arrangement of holding elections under a caretaker regime to ensure fair polls between 1996 and 2008, but the arrangement was jettisoned by amending the Constitution in 2011 after the army took control of such a caretaker government in 2007 and ran the country unconstitutionally for two years before bowing to international pressure and calling for elections in end-2008 that brought the AL to power. The AL subsequently abolished the arrangement to pre-empt the military from playing mischief in future. But the BNP has been demanding restoration of the arrangement, and boycotted the last election in 2014 over the AL’s refusal to hand over power to a neutral caretaker government to conduct the election.

This time, too, the BNP had indicated it would boycott the election if it were not held under a caretaker government. But not wanting to give a walkover to the AL, it subsequently decided to contest the polls. The BNP feels that the strong anti-incumbency against Sheikh Hasina, the corruption charges that buffett the present government, and people’s anger over the witch hunt against the opposition as well as Hasina’s alleged authoritarian manner of functioning will bring about a regime change.

While a lot of this may be true, what hobbles the BNP is its alliance with the Jamaat and other Islamist as well as pro-Pakistan elements, and the incarceration of its top leadership. The BNP is a divided house and is handicapped by the lack of resources. These factors will benefit the AL, which could return to power for the third consecutive term in January next year.

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