What the BNP-bashers won’t tell you
Bangladesh’s main opposition party usually gets a pretty poor wrap from pundits. In its early years, a joke had it as ‘BNP = basically no party’ — apparently it was just a bunch of political opportunists riding on Gen Ziaur Rahman’s personal popularity. In the 1980s, Awami League was considered to be the main opposition to Gen Ershad. When the BNP won the country’s first competitive general election in 1991, the entire political punditry class was surprised. And since then there has been repeated criticisms of BNP’s stance on everything under the sun, and pessimistic predictions of its impending demise.
After BNP was reduced to around 30 seats in the 300 seat parliament in December 2008, the chorus of ‘BNP is finished’ reached record pitch. Hardly anyone noticed that BNP received proportionately more votes in that election than in 1991. And since then, the opinionmaking class in Bangladesh has seen few positives in BNP’s politics, highlighting only the negatives.
Well, what the BNP-bashers won’t tell you — either because they genuinely don’t see it or they are afraid to own up to their biases — is that BNP as an opposition has actually done reasonably well under very difficult circumstances.
The commonest anti-BNP refrain is: it’s not interested in parliamentary politics. The typical ‘advice’ is: please return to parliament to state your case.
Well, BNP’s participation in the parliament has actually been much better than portrayed by these pundits.
Start with the idea that BNP has a leadership hierarchy problem that’s behind the absence from the parliament. I too used to think there is something to this. But there really isn’t. The real hierarchy is Mrs Zia and Mrs Zia alone. And inside the parliament, it is pretty clear that after her is Moudud, Jamiruddin, Anwar, and Salahuddin Quader; and outside, it’s Mirza Fakhrul that is the de facto party number 2 until Tarique returns. Anyone still banging on about BNP having a hierarchy dilemma isn’t paying attention.
The criticism that then follows is that the BNP chief doesn’t attend parliament.
In the traditional westminister system (and its offshoots such as Australia, India etc), opposition leaders get to directly debate with the Prime Minister in parliament. We don’t allow that. With the current state of affairs, it’s pointless for the opposition leader to sit in the parliament for the entire session. Could she attend a bit more? A lot more? How much is enough?
This seems to me to be at best a side discussion. To the extent that there is a problem, it is much broader than what Khaleda Zia does or doesn’t do. The real problem here is that most MPs aren’t interested in parliamentary deliberations, as evident from repeated quorum shortages. So we need some institutional reforms — but that’s a separate debate than the mindless criticism of ‘BNP chief should be at parliament more often’.
Meanwhile, let’s focus on what happened in the parliament when BNP attended an entire session. Government MPs kept talking about Zia’s corpse. Next time they attend, these same people will talk about Zia being a Pakistani spy and Khaleda being a war criminal.
How often do you hear the criticism of these meaningless, mindless vulgarity?
And even here, we often miss the whole picture.
While BNP boycotted the House most of 2009, they actually attended most Committee meetings. In some cases, their suggested amendments were included in the final legislation. In other cases — foreign affairs, particularly — their notes of dissent are recorded in deliberations. When they attended the House, they asked for discussions on treaties signed with India and the parliamentary delegation’s finding on Tipaimukh. They called for parliamentary inquiry on issues such as media freedom. (Yours truly suggested a number of these, but I am sure Moudud-Jamir-Anwar could think of these without my help).
Outside parliament, there was a lot of outcries when a hartal was called. But hardly anyone noticed the fact that BNP made two strong contributions that could have strengthened our democracy had the government reciprocated.
On Tipaimukh, BNP could have taken the populist road of road marches and street protests. Its hardline anti-Indian base would have been energised at the expense of the public discourse. Instead, BNP did what any responsible opposition anywhere would do — provide conditional support to the government initiative. And the condition, that one of the 5 experts be included in the parliamentary delegation, was actually a sensible and mature one.
Much bloviation has been made about BNP trying to ride on old school anti-India bigotry. An honest punditry would have appreciated that BNP played a lot more nuanced role.
And by producing an alternate budget proposal and making specific criticisms of the national budget, BNP showed that it is capable of thinking about governing, not just winning street battles and elections.
How did the government react to the alternate budget? They labelled it unconstitutional. One half expect Mrs Zia to be tried for treason — wouldn’t that make it difficult for our BNP-bashing punditry?
Finally, so far BNP has participated in by-elections and local government elections — something that past oppositions had not always done.
The BNP-bashers won’t tell you any of these. But BNP is actually doing far better than many realise.