Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lessons to Learn

Infuse fresh blood and clean your ranks or else face oblivion

The defeat that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has suffered in last month’s general elections is an ignominious one, the worst kind of humiliation that an outgoing ruling party has faced in the history of the South Asian sub-continent. In fact, the margin of defeat is staggering for the BNP, which won 193 seats in the general elections of 2001, has been reduced to 30 seats. What has added an extra pinch of salt to the party’s sore wound is that it has won only three more seats than Jatya Party, which was deposed in a mass upsurge in 1990.

Khaleda Zia, who is leading the party for the last 24 years, will be mistaken if she remains content, wrongly consoling herself by thinking that her party has fared so badly because there has been ‘digital rigging’ or ‘the previous administration was biased against’ the BNP. These remarks, preposterous that they are, will only isolate the masses from her party and will make a fool of someone who used to be known once for reticence. The BNP leadership has to delve deep into its last term in office to find out the causes of the defeat; and it will find the job gargantuan in nature.

From 2001-2006, the BNP, while in government, has ravaged the country, its politics and economy. To begin with, the party’s last term in office has created Hawa Bhaban, an alternative centre of power, which controlled government tender, created curtails that are behind the spiralling price hike of essentials like rice and baby food. The Bhaban, run by Tarique Rahman, Khaleda’s first-born, even handled the promotions of the civil servants in exchange for cash and kind, giving birth to a culture of misrule and impunity. Armed with the blessings of Tarique, who was made the BNP’s senior joint-secretary general, Hawa Bhaban boys, of whom the most notable is Giashuddin Al Mamun, ran amuck: For five long years ordinary Bangladeshis felt as though a clan of thugs had been ruling them.

Besides corruption and mismanagement of the BNP leaders, Khaleda’s term also witnessed the phenomenal rise of religious extremism. Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), a paramilitia vigilante outfit was formed, which butchered ordinary people in the northeastern districts in the name of hunting down Maoist insurgents. When national newspapers broke the news, along with quotes of police officers who said that they were taking the group’s help because Maoist insurgency was on the rise, Khaleda denied their presence; Matiur Rahman Nizami, leader of the JI, a junior partner of the BNP in the government, went one step further: he called the JMJB a figment of the media’s imagination. To make it even worse, numerous terrorist attacks were launched against the main opposition Awami League (AL), and the democratic progressive forces. Jamaat-ul-Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), a new terror outfit, launched a string of suicide attacks that left the country’s judiciary in tatters; grenades were hurled at a rally organised by the AL, assassination attempts were made on the life of its leader Sheikh Hasina. The patrons of the new terror were none other than ministers in Khaleda’s cabinet.

Khaleda’s unflinching infatuation with suspected war criminals made matters worse. People felt betrayed when two individuals who have abetted rape and murder during our Independence war were given two important portfolios in Khaleda’s cabinet. Bangladesh, a country that used to be known for peace and communal harmony, hit the headlines of international dailies for terrorism and suicide bombing.

While casting their votes on the fateful day of December 29, the citizens did not forget the corruption, price hike and extremism that marred their lives when Khaleda was in the helm. Her emotional election speeches, especially the one on state-run radio and television, did little to appease the voters who remained weary and sceptical of her apology, which she had offered a day before the elections.

The BNP is facing the worst political disaster in its history since its birth in the womb of military dictatorship in 1978. The party is at a crossroads now: while on one road lies a Muslim League-like wipeout, the other path, if the party leadership takes it, will lead the party to a clean democratic future. To begin with, the party must start practising democracy from the grass-root level; for a political party internal democracy is like fresh blood that must be infused time and again to keep the party alive and healthy. The party must come up with a neutral, in-depth analysis of its last term in office. Members with a corrupt past, no matter who they are or what position they hold in the party hierarchy, must be expelled.

The party has to get rid of those who harbour extremism or entertain extremist beliefs. The keenest of lessons that December 29 has taught us is perhaps that the ordinary Bangladeshis want the war criminals to be tried; the BNP can gain popular support by bowing before this popular demand and breaking ties with the JI, which has some infamous war criminals in its fold. In the coming five years, the party has to play a pro-people role when issues central to the lives of the masses are going to be discussed in the parliament.

Bangladesh is in need of a strong opposition. The old BNP, ridden with corruption, extremism and war criminal sympathisers, will find itself at bay in the parliament. The party and its leaders have to start cleaning its rank and democratising its polity. It is time to show political maturity and statesmanship; whether Khaleda has these qualities in her only time can tell.