KHALEDA ZIA, THE TRAGIC PROTAGONIST
A critical appreciation of the pre-election politics
The decline and fall of Khaleda Zia, the former two-time prime minister and the former leader of the opposition, has an element of Greek and Shakespearian tragedy. Khaleda Zia’s defeat in her desperate fight against Sheikh Hasina for the restoration of the caretaker government to oversee free, fair, and inclusive general election, has a truly tragic character.
The Awami League has won the January 5 elections, and has since cobbled together a 49-member cabinet along with a few rag tag minor parties. The BNP boycott of the elections has stripped Khaleda Zia of all her clout, authority, power, and privileges as the leader of the opposition: this is a pathetic sight.
The bitter power struggle between the two leaders was stained with motiveless malignity. Sheikh Hasina avenged the humiliation and discomfiture she suffered on the eve of the 2006 National Elections due to Khaleda Zia’s subterfuges to manipulate election results in her favour: raising the retirement-age of the chief justice of the Supreme Court to have the choicest chief adviser of the caretaker government. Foiled in her effort, Khaleda managed to make the then president, Iajuddin Ahmud, wear the hat of chief adviser in addition to his high office.
Appointment of a chief election commissioner of her choosing, and preparation of a dubious voter list were other contrivances of the BNP, to win the elections. These attempts were thwarted by the subsequent army-backed backed government, precipitated by wild rampage, chaos, and disorder by the Awami League.
The tragic flaw in the character of Begum Zia was her ambition, and her pride that was wounded in the ignominious defeat by the AL in 2008, and her resultant failure to go to power. She could never reconcile such reversals of her fortune.
She and her party boycotted the 9th Jatiya Sangsad for almost the entire tenure (she attended only 10 days), and was non-cooperative with the government on every issue, including the parliamentary committee set up to review the Supreme Court verdict declaring the caretaker government as unconstitutional. The boycott of the parliament was a mistake, which deprived them of the opportunity to criticise the anti-democratic policies and practices of the government.
Her campaign strategy of protest, demonstration, and political unrest to oust the Awami League government was potentially flawed. The BNP was denied of permission to protest on the street and hold public meetings to expose various government failures.
To rise up to the aspiration of the people, and to provide a democratic dispensation for a just, corruption free, egalitarian society, her party in tandem with Jamaat-Shibir cadres unleashed a year-long vicious terror campaign: arson, killing innocent people, burning buses, trucks, and cars by petrol bombs, shut downs and blockade of roads, rivers, and trains that paralysed normal life, and adversely affected the economy by shattering internal and external trade and commerce.
These were not mass based political agitations, but criminal acts of violence – skewed movements to derive restricted dividends. The only agenda of her campaign was to go to power by the ouster of a government elected by a massively popular mandate. The campaign seriously eroded BNPs popularity, and alienated people’s sympathy towards the BNP. People deplored that Khaleda Zia, at least for once, had not visited the burn unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital to see the burnt patients, or condemn these acts of killing and burning innocent people.
It was a serious mistake by BNP to support Jamaat-Shibir’s destructive movements aimed at stopping the on-going trial of their leaders charged with collaborating with Pakistani occupation army’s acts of atrocities and genocide during liberation war. It is not understood why BNP, whose leader Ziaur Rahman was a valiant freedom fighter, should have taken upon itself the burden of atoning Jamaat’s sins in the form of the crimes against humanity during the liberation war.
She should have been more forthright and less reticent in supporting the ongoing trial of Jamaat leaders by the International war crimes tribunal. BNP’s support to Jamaat and Hefazat-e-Islam was immoral, a tactical mistake, and was affront to modern liberal sensitivities of people. Bangladeshis fought and sacrificed their lives during the war for liberal democracy, secularism, progress, an exploitation free, just society, and not for foisting a rule by an oligarchy of religious fanatics, obscurantists for introduction of the Sharia and blasphemy laws, and disclaimer of women’s progress and empowerment.
BNP should have realised that such a skewed agenda does not have mass appeal, and is not a reason for mass uprising and upheaval to topple the government. No wonder, none of her trusted men responded to her call to come to her rescue from her house detention, barricaded by loads of sand, disabling her to attend the proposed BNP rally in Dhaka.
Hers was a cry in wilderness – a disaster. She felt betrayed, abandoned, forlorn, and cast adrift. The curtains of the tragic drama was drawn. People watching the scene on television went through an emotional catharsis, of pity and terror, to her grim tragedy.
It was clear that her political agitation was no popular uprising which forced abdication of power by Hosni Mobarak, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Soeharto, or Ershad.
BNP now seems to be thoroughly demoralised and disorganised. It is in complete disarray with most of its leaders arrested, or in hiding. It needs thorough reorganisation, reforms, and renewals at the grassroots-level and central-level youth leadership – strengthened not by muscle and money, but by character and integrity, modern education, sacrifice, vision for development efforts, dedication to serve society and the people from a moral high ground.
Look at the structure of young political leadership in Europe and Asia where most old leaders have been discarded. What BNP needs is not violence to overthrow the government, but a programme, a think tank to systematically collect and collate misdeeds of the government and mobilise public opinion. The alternative is for the party to wither in the vines.
Cloistered in splendid isolation in her Gulshan office, flanked by opportunists waiting for the spoils of victory, should she win the election, she seems to be out of touch with reality and people to trust to advise her correctly. It is intriguing why she kept the sincere, competent, and liberal Mirza Fakhrul Islam as an acting secretary general without confirming and reinforcing his position.
This inevitably disabled his operational effectiveness, and made him play second fiddle. She hardly called more than one party conference of workers. Her son, Tareq Rahman, unilaterally elected as the vice president of the party, is considered a liability for his infamous associations with much reviled Hawa Bhaban, seen as alternate levers of power and dictats by a wide spectrum of opinion.
Khaleda Zia committed the worst blunder by stubbornly refusing to participate in the polls without a caretaker government, when various opinion polls in newspapers predicted a clear majority win by the BNP. The Awami League government was severely discredited with the sufferings of people, the perceived failure to provide efficient governance free from corruption, the cronyism, and the crippling politicisation of every layer of society.
It was a risky gamble worth taking, in view of the wins of the five mayoral elections, even under the threat, real or assumed, of election engineering. Chances were, they would have won. Also, she should not have wavered and balked in grasping the opportunity for dialogue when offered.
Khaleda Zia’s mistakes and blunders, nevertheless, does not make AL infallible in holding a one-sided election without BNP’s participation. January 5 elections may be constitutionally correct, as clamed by AL, but in popular perception at home and abroad, it was flawed and illegitimate – lacking popular acceptance and credibility.
Out of the 300-member parliament, 153 seats were uncontested, denying half of the voters their right of franchise. The rest of the seats were fought essentially between Awami League candidates in different forms. The question of voter turnout was thus irrelevant. It was deeply frustrating. There is no glory, grace, or grandeur in such a tarnished and truncated victory.
It was immoral of the AL to eliminate the caretaker government, their own brainchild, for whom they fought relentlessly till the then prime minister, Khaleda Zia, herself, was forced to incorporate it in the constitution in 2006. Sheikh Hasina also ignored, obviously for political expediency, the rider clause in the Supreme Court verdict that recommended that the next two elections be conducted under a caretaker government if necessary.
Ershad’s Jatiya Party’s eleventh hour somersault to participate in the polls and bargain a position both in the cabinet and in the opposition will be considered the worst political treachery and aberration in history. BNP was left out in the cold.
To forestall the potential of fresh eruption of a long running conflict and turmoil, it is imperative to hold an inclusive mid-term election sooner or later, under a caretaker government, to bring about much needed national unity and reconciliation, a participatory democracy, peace, and stability.
FEBRUARY 10. 2014