Wishlist 1: unsolicited advice to the two leaders
This blog has consistently argued against a prolonged army presence in Bangladeshi politics. Whether in the form of a President Moeen, a National Security Council, a King’s Party created with the help of army intelligence, or the top brass getting involved in the corporate sector, prolonged army presence will set the country up for a long-drawn conflict that will not only hurt the prospect of a liberal society, it will also damage the country’s economic potentials. I believe the best possible way to avoid this is for one of the two main parties to win an absolute and unambiguous victory (over 160 seats by themselves) in a parliamentary election that is contested and accepted by everyone. Only with an unambiguously clear and credible majority can either of the two leaders stare down the ambitious generals and their bhadralok allies.
This post gives unsolicited advice to the two leaders on what they should do. If the government insists on it, then both leaders should abstain from participating in any election themselves. But they should both insist on being present in the country, and they should lead their respective parties in every election – upazilla, DCC, parliament – in any order the government presents. Their electoral platforms should clearly state the following:
– constitutional reforms are the sole prerogative of the new parliament, and no one else,
– the new parliament will form a constitutional reform commission that will tackle issues like the caretaker system etc,
– but things like NSC or altering the form of government (extra power for the president etc) are completely off limit.
There are more than one way of winning an election, and some are better – both for their parties as well as the country – than others. And whoever loses should accept the voters’ verdict and hold the winner accountable to the promise of ‘no deals with the generals’. I note my wishes from the BNP chairperson first, and then I write about what the AL chief should do.
What the BNP chief should do
Hers is not an easy task. Her party is divided and demoralised. Many of her senior advisors betrayed her after the coup. Even some of the apparent loylists have been suspected of being Trojan horses. And other loyalists have been accused of putting their ambition ahead of party unity. Even the jailed leaders are not beyond suspicion. Some of them signalled joining the regime after the coup, and others were involved with some of the worst decisions of the last government, decisions that were bad politics, and worse policy. Lutfuzzaman Babur or Moudud Ahmed are probably guilty on both counts.
And underlying all this is the leadership succession issue. At this point, let me condemn the torture of Tarique Rahman without any ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. But independent of all the ridiculous bazaar gossips and the torture, there is the undeniable fact of the bungled handover of BNP leadership from the last prime minister to her son. That bungling had, if not precipitated the coup, certainly made it easy. So whatever the BNP chairperson does, she must find a resolution to the leadership issue.
So what should she do?
Firstly, she should seek immediate release for herself and her son. Some might say that she gains the ‘image race’ by staying in jail. I don’t know if that is necessarily true – people who think so are already likely to be soft towards BNP brand of politics. And conversely, I don’t think many will switch their support away from BNP if she is released tomorrow. So she should seek immediate release, and have Tarique treated – it doesn’t benefit the cause of democracy if we have the army crippling political opponents.
She should then work towards rebuilding the party. In the immediate term, she should discard anyone who has remotely signalled working witht the regime. Incidentally, quite a few of the so-called Young Turks and Hawa Bhaban clique that so discredited the past government will be purged from the party if this happens. In the longer term, she should ensure the retirement of Tarique from politics along the lines suggested here.
Covering all these and then winning an election wouldn’t be easy. But it is not impossible. She should remember that BNP had lost only one of four credible elections it had participated in. There certainly are millions of silent voters across the country who are willing to trust her brand of politics. Even in last week’s local elections, beyond the headlines, her party made a competitive showing. And even if she loses, and has to stay in opposition for five years, that’s a price she must be willing to pay for cleansing the nationalist brand of politics and reviving democracy in Bangladesh.
Wishlist from the AL chief
The AL chief’s task is at one level relatively more straightforward. But it is at another level fraught with traps. So what would I want her to do?
I’d want her to return to Dhaka on 15 August. She should make it a big spectacle. She should announce it well in advance (well, it is probably a bit late to be well in advance – but better late than never). Party leaders should receive her in the airport. Then she should visit 32 Dhanmondi, then to Tungipara. And in both places, she should be received by hundreds of thousands of people. No hartal-oborodh-logi boitha business. Just lakhs of Awami grassroot and base receiving their leader on a day that is very special for the party.
She should remember that the goal of at least 160 or so seats in the next parliament is something more than anything AL has been able to achieve since 1975. To win a majority like that, one or more of these will have to happen in greater Dhaka, Comilla and surrounding areas (the so-called BNP bastion): anti-AL vote has to be divided; many anti-AL voters would have to stay home; or new voters will have to turn out heavily for AL.
The first one is not up to AL, but the second two can very much be affected by the candidates chosen and the campaign tactics used. And one could argue that at least some of these were behind the AL success last week. But she should be aware that the regime will try to do the utmost to prevent AL from getting an absolute majority.
Therefore, the party has to be united and disciplined behind the chosen candidate. This requires her presence in the field. But her return to Dhaka will be seen as a challenge to the regime. The way to resolve this is that she won’t run in the election herself. But she should be present in the country. In fact, she should travel the length and breadth of the country. I heard from an ex-BNP MP that in the month before the 1991 election, the party chairperson addressed over 3,000 meetings – that’s over 10 a day. This is what the AL chief should do. Instead of the rhetoric around historical emotionalism, she should campaign on the fact that the price of rice was 15 taka kg in 2001, 25 taka kg in 2006 and over 35 taka a kg now.
In short, she should return on 15 Aug and run a disciplined campaign to win an absolute majority. It is smart politics for her and the party. And it is also good for the country.
The best way to end the generals’ adventure is through an unambiguous win by an opposition party. One could argue whether an AL or BNP win is the best result. This blog welcomes either as long as the generals and their intellectual cheerleaders are kept out.
Is this kind of unpaid consultancy of any use? Perhaps not. Neither of the leaders are likely to read these scribbles. Nor do I have any idea what I suggest is even feasible. Nonetheless, these are what I wish the leaders to do. I believe these wishes are incentive compatible – that is, the leaders should do these if not for the country then for their own narrow partisan interests.
Of course, winning an election is not enough – they must also believe that stopping an army takeover in any shape or form is the most important task ahead. I am assuming this to be the case. I know that this assumption may well prove to be naive. But I am hoping that in the year or so of internment, both have reflected on the damage their revealed mutual antipathy has done to the nation. I am not suggesting that they join in a coalition. But I do hope they don’t ally with the generals and against each other.