BNP’s call for ‘national unity’ in the lead-up to the election rings hollow
Following the arrest of BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, the party called for the forging of “national unity” with regard to holding free, fair, and credible elections. While there may not be a “politically structured nationwide unity” with respect to the format of the upcoming parliamentary elections, a general consensus surely exists in Bangladesh of the need to have a participatory and inclusive process in electing our next government.
That much Bangladeshis agree on.
In retrospect, what the BNP is calling for is a political unity on core national issues. On a theoretical level, this intention seems good to the naked eye, yet history shows us innumerable and severe failures and opportunistic mismanagements undertaken by our two major political parties under the umbrella of national unity.
Let us take a look back at the political scenario of the 1980s. Under the aegis of national unity, both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia joined hands in 1983 to tackle the authoritarian regime of General Hussein Mohammad Ershad.
The next few years saw ups and downs in the relational politics of both BNP and AL, and that much was to be expected.
All was forgotten when Sheikh Hasina made an iconic announcement at Lal Dighi Maidan prior to the 1986 general elections, an announcement which embodied the very spirit of national unity. She unequivocally suggested that she had “no plan to participate in the upcoming poll. (And) Those who will participate in this poll will be declared a national betrayer.”
The country felt a sense of trust in the symbolic agreement forged by the two parties back in 1983. Trust that two beacons of hope would guide them towards a path of democracy. Begum Zia was unrelenting in her stance of participating in the polls conducted by General Ershad, and was seemingly satisfied with the stance undertaken by Hasina. Yet, when Bangladesh’s current prime minister subsequently declared her intention to participate in the polls, a mere four days after her previous announcement, we received a glimpse of the politics of opportunism.
A political bomb had been dropped, and disseminated the political coalition. To her credit, Hasina realized her mistake in the following years, and with Begum Zia by her side, led the civic movement to oust General Ershad and restore parliamentary democracy in 1991.
Moving towards 2005-2006, however, we saw the demise of national unity, as a series of meetings between the then general secretaries of the two main parties yielded no results. An engulfing political crisis was set around the upcoming general elections, giving way to violence and agitation. On what was a move detrimental to democratic practices in our country, it is a well-known fact that the BNP had pressured its appointed president into appointing himself as the chief of a controversial caretaker government.
Khaleda Zia vehemently boasted the idea that the election -- under the Iajuddin Ahmed-led administration -- would carry on, that her party would participate irrespective of others, and that not doing so would be an insult to constitutionality in our country. AL refused to participate. Sadly, for the BNP chairperson, history repeated itself.
Begum Zia was left alone and directionless when AL instituted its own version of selective democracy in 2014. There was no national unity, and there was no intention to achieve national unity. The 2005-06 crisis resulted in an unconstitutional government, whereas the 2014 elections led to severe dampening of democratic values in the country.
The problem of political discord seeped its way into the very essence of our national narrative. We still fail to reach a national consensus regarding Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. For one, since the early 1990s, the BNP has repeated its desire to respect national leaders for who they are and what they did, the party’s chairperson simultaneously started celebrating her birthday on the date Bangabandhu was assassinated.
BNP went a step further when it pushed its veteran leader, AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury, from resigning from presidency in a catastrophic dent to democracy. And then there is the ignorant and somewhat distasteful statements made by many AL leaders, questioning the freedom fighter status of General Ziaur Rahman. Irrespective of the controversial politics of the BNP founder, it is harmful for us to question the status of one of our Sector Commanders during 1971.
The most recent and emblematically disheartening development is the division of Bangladesh into the pro-War Crimes versus anti-War Crimes trial group -- the development of Islamists versus secularists. The issue of trying those who committed crimes against humanity should not even be a contentious one. Like the Rohingya issue, Bangladeshis should have organically been united on this front.
The last time Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina spoke, let alone met, was in 2013. And we all know how that phone call went. Today, Begum Zia languishes in jail, at a time when questions surrounding the politicization of the former prime minister’s trial is the topic of debate amongst national and international stakeholders.
Our history sets a poor precedent for national unity, especially when it stems from our political leadership. Thereby, when the BNP calls for a national unity, we applaud the intent, yet we remain skeptical about the results. AL has refused any and all forms of accord with what they continuously perceive to be miscreants, thugs, “anti-liberation forces,” and, now, a convicted Begum Zia.
If the government considers a party which has always received more than 30% of the national vote in parliamentary elections as anti-Bangladeshi, then who is Bangladesh for?
We do not necessarily have to agree with someone or an ideology, in order to showcase basic respect.
There is a reason Bangladesh fares so poorly with respect to rule of law indicators. There is a reason that we continue belittling each other every single day -- because we have forgotten to practice the politics of ideology, and moved towards the politics of power.
It is imperative that we achieve a national consensus around core issues, but to what extent such will happen, remains to be seen.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate of Economics and International Relations from the University of Toronto.