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Dhaka Tribune

What awaits Khaleda Zia?

Update : 21 Dec 2021, 09:43 AM

Begum Khaleda Zia is but a shadow of her former defiant self as she lies in a private hospital in Dhaka and fights a lonesome battle against numerous medical complications -- the destiny of which is perhaps out of her hands.

Today, the former prime minister is a victim of the very same dangerous and unhealthy political climate that she has played a leading role in cultivating over the past 31 years.

While the question of allowing Begum Zia to go abroad for treatment in theory lies within the purview of legal instruments and constitutional parameters, beyond the understanding of average citizens -- public perception puts the keys to her future squarely in the hands of her arch political opponent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Therefore, we ask ourselves: What awaits Khaleda Zia?

How did we get here?

Let us start by taking a walk down memory lane and reflecting on those moments that made Begum Zia a political stalwart in Bangladesh.

Following her husband President Ziaur Rahman’s assassination, a discreet and timid Mrs Zia entered Bangladeshi politics at the request of the erstwhile BNP leadership.

For a decade, and to the surprise of many, together with Sheikh Hasina she successfully took on a mighty autocrat in General Ershad.

In the face of confinement and political harassment at the hands of the general’s law enforcement agencies, Ziaur Rahman’s widow developed herself into an astute leader of the masses, whose drive, passion, and persistence to rekindle the flames of democracy gave her an unquestioned place in Bangladeshi history.

The collective ability of Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia to foster partnerships between anti-Ershad student activists, the major opposition parties, and civil society members with the aim of restoring democracy was critical in establishing both their respective legacies as two of the most influential leaders in South Asia -- transitioning themselves beyond the shadows of Bangabandhu and General Zia.

In 1991, the BNP was elected to power in what continues to be Bangladesh’s most credible parliamentary elections till date.

Khaleda had pulled off a masterclass to the surprise of those (which is to say most) who had expected a landslide victory for the Awami League.

Reinstating parliamentary practices, a policy-driven focus on female empowerment through the lens of rural education, and liberalizing the economy formed key tenets of Khaleda Zia’s premiership.

Beginning of the end

But sadly this was only one side of the story.

It was during Khaleda Zia’s second term as prime minister when the infamous August 21 attacks on Sheikh Hasina and her party took place. The erstwhile prime minister’s son and senior members of her party and government have been found guilty for instrumentalizing this heinous attack. Begum Zia cannot escape responsibility by implication. 

Following the attacks, the then prime minister did not mince words in parliament when she suggested -- absurdly -- that it was in fact Hasina herself carrying the grenades in her vanity bag -- a form of distasteful political posturing at a time when her government should have held itself to account.

To make matters worse, Mrs Zia had made politics even more personal when she started celebrating her birthday on August 15 each year -- the very day in which Bangabandhu and his family were brutally gunned down in 1975.

Irrespective of how one judges Sheikh Hasina, there can be no question about the importance of the events of August 1975 in defining the current prime minister’s political and personal philosophy.

Therefore, Khaleda Zia’s symbolic contempt towards Bangabandhu, and her implicit association with the August 21 attacks, were directly influential in extending the distance between the BNP and the AL. Politics became personal. Respect was lost. The opportunity for cooperation died. This, in my opinion, signaled the beginning of the end of the two-party system in Bangladesh.

Since 2006

Ever since leaving power in 2006, things have only gone downhill for the BNP. The military-backed caretaker government targeted politicians from both sides of the aisle. Subsequently, the AL government of today took on Khaleda Zia both politically and legally -- firstly ousting her from the Cantonment-residence where she had been living since her husband’s ascent to power, and secondly by mobilizing a series of existing and new legal battles, which ultimately saw Begum Zia land in prison prior to the 2018 elections. 

In this past decade, Bangladesh has also gone through a concerning period relating to the relative absence of healthy, competitive, and democratic electoral exercises and independent political activities -- that too in a parallel environment of shrinking freedom of speech and harassment against political opponents. 

The 2014 and 2018 parliamentary elections were anything but celebrations of democracy -- with the Awami League systematically monopolizing a fragile two-party political space to make it their very own. 

When it came to polls in the past, Begum Zia had been the singular factor in holding the BNP together and the source of much of the party’s popularity -- individually, she has never lost an electoral challenge in Bangladeshi history, winning in over 20 seats across parliamentary contests, an impressive record. Therefore, having their chairperson engulfed in judicial convictions meant that the BNP as a party became holistically weaker, and its relevance has indeed decayed.

Khaleda’s decisions -- particularly her party’s dangerous ploy to tacitly endorse Bangabandhu’s killers via the provision of various ambassadorial and state-approved postings since the days of General Zia -- created room for the coldness between Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina to grow and spiral out of control. 

The reality is that these two women have been fundamental in shaping the journey of modern Bangladesh -- politically, one is perhaps incomplete without the latter. 

Two options

But more importantly and beyond simply memorializing the careers of two politicians -- the government has two options today: Facilitate the treatment of Khaleda Zia abroad by finding a legal mechanism to do so -- or on the other hand, do nothing. 

Doing nothing, however, runs the risk of creating further space where the culture of healthy politics and democracy in general would be at severe risk of spiraling downwards towards a vengeful and dark path -- especially if something untoward happens to Khaleda Zia.

One may think that the expectation for the AL to show further magnanimity against a convicted political opponent is unrealistic and that the PM has already shown sufficient humanity towards her political nemesis by tapping into Section 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which grants wide ranging extrajudicial authority to the government when it comes to convicted individuals. 

Yet the reality is that the interdependence between today’s political regime and the judiciary, and the constitutional system of unyielding executive authority for the prime minister, and of course, Begum Zia being the AL’s principal political opponent, suggests that the future of the BNP chairperson remains at the hands of the government, at least in popular perception. 

Therefore, if the AL should choose to do what many, if not most in the country, seem to want -- let Begum Zia, a senior citizen and an important political figure with a mass following, go abroad for treatment on humanitarian grounds -- then Bangabandhu’s party may actually help both itself and the nation by helping to keep Bangladesh away from what might occur otherwise: A dark political era. 

The multiplier effects of the decisions taken by the government regarding Khaleda Zia may be fundamental in determining the very future of democracy in the country. 

Therefore one hopes that they take decisions keeping in mind the future of a young country, and not by reflecting on what were undeniably unforgivable mistakes of the past -- not for the sake of Begum Zia -- but for their own and the country's sake. 

It is certainly worth considering.

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a Toronto-based banking professional and a regular columnist for Bangladeshi media outlets. He can be reached at [email protected]

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