BNP at 31
My family never particularly supported his politics, and yet I vividly remember when the news of the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman reached our house, it seemed as if a close family member had been killed. I was still a few years away from voting age in Feb 1991, but had cousins and neighbourhood cricket buddies who voted for the first time in that election. They mostly voted for dhaner sheesh. For those of us born in the 1970s middle class Bangladesh, Zia’s BNP was the natural party. Was. Perhaps not any more. Most of those cousins and friends had switched to nouka by Dec 2008.
BNP lost that election badly. Only the Muslim League’s defeats in 1954 or 1970 were worse than the drubbing it took. The party marked its 31st birthday earlier this week. Many once mighty parties — Krishak Sramik Party, National Awami Party or Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal — lasted much less than BNP has. And yet, one could be forgiven for thinking BNP is also going the way of ML/KSP/NAP/JSD.
However, I argue that things are not that bad for BNP. It has been showing enough signs for one to be hopeful about its future. However, a revival won’t be easy. And even if one opposes BNP’s politics, anyone who wants to see a democratic Bangladesh has a stake in BNP’s revival, because without constructive opposition committed to democracy, we risk repeating January 1975.
1. Things are not as bad for BNP as many believe.
In Dec 2008, BNP won 33.2% of all votes, compared with 30.8% it did in Feb 1991. That result alone should make one doubt any claims that ‘BNP is going the ML way’.
What happened in Dec 2008 not so much as ‘BNP lost’, it was ‘Awami League won’. As I argued in June, BNP’s main political rival did a superb job of consolidating its base and capturing the youth vote. In addition, after 1/11, going was decidedly tough for BNP (though it must also be noted that BNP deserves the lion’s share of responsibility for 1/11).
But when all is said and done, a party that has the support of a third of the country is hardly on death bed. At the time of its 31st birthday in 1980, AL had far less support.
Plus, BNP may have only 30 or so MPs, but in another 70 odd seats, it came within a striking distance of winning. That is, one can argue that with a better campaign strategy, it could have nearly 100 MPs in a 300 seat House. That hardly sounds like a party on death bed.
Most importantly, politics is like stock market. If the prices are low, people will buy as long as the brand has a good future. If we believe that the party has a good future, people with centrist views will naturally flock to BNP than AL — it ought to be much easier to get a senior role in the former than latter.
The key question is, what kind of future does BNP have?
2. Right of the left, left of the right.
I noted in January that BNP was at the crossroads. It could become a populist coalition of ‘all factions opposed to globalisation, economic and strategic ties with India and the West’. That article was written within days of the election, and on reflection, it portrays populist politics based on political Islam in a rather negative light. This is unfortunate, and need not be the case. Political Islam need not be a force of obscurantism and reaction. And it is certainly possible for BNP to become an Islamic democratic party.
The other option I noted in January was, for the lack of any better word, liberal nationalism that ’emphasises positive personal images of its iconic leaders and candidates, political tranquility and opposition in parliament, courts, and media rather than streets, reducing inequality through growth that generates employment, an open arms foreign and trade policy that avoids being entangled with other people’s conflicts, and a social policy that is pluralist if not secular‘.
I guess the BNP Chairperson has resolved which way BNP will go. As affirmed here, BNP promises to be at the centre of Bangladesh politics.
3. The 2 Ns
While the question of whither nationalist politics has been answered, how to put BNP back in centre is a trickier question that is yet to be resolved. Essentially, BNP faces a new crossroad. It can follow the Narendra way or the Nawaz way.
The Narendra way — after Indian BJP’s Narendra Modi — is one of whipping up the public passion, confront the government head on, build up an andolon, and ride on the tide of the andolon victory. I could have also dubbed it the Awami way — after all, this has been AL’s preferred mode of politics until recently.
The Nawaz way — after Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif — is one of focussing on a few specific areas where the government has lost the moral standing with the people, achieving a series of tactical victories that culminate in an election win in 2014.
The good news is, on balance, BNP has been showing signs of following the Nawaz way, or at least shunning the Narendra way. On the most controversial issue where the government is vulnerable — Tipaimukh and Indo-Bangla relations — there must have been temptations to call a hartal or long marches. Instead, BNP has done what any constructive opposition anywhere is expected to do.
The bad news is, many of its senior leaders are not interested in the Narendra way. Those who are too old to have any realistic chance of getting elected in 2014 don’t have any stake in the parliament. Those who are in parliament want to make sure that if they don’t sit next to the party chief, no one else does. Those who think they narrowly lost in December want an andolon.
As a result, BNP MPs do their job at the committees, but not at the floor of the House. That’s why Mrs Zia visits the PM at her time of personal loss, and still continues the farcical birthday celebration.
4. Why care?
Even if one doesn’t support BNP’s politics, how BNP resolves this dilemma should matter to anyone who wants a democratic Bangladesh. In the early 1970s, Awami League faced an irresponsible, adventurist opposition that pushed the nation into anarchy. JSD’s so called revolutionary politics was one major reason why Sheikh Mujib was pushed to one party dictatorship. No one wants a repeat of that. And a functional, democratic BNP is our best safeguard against that.