In Bangladesh, the liberal media, intelligentsia, most of civil society, and minorities -- who are still reasonably sizable -- find it hard to be sympathetic to Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
In sheer count of vote, all these segments barring the minorities may not hold a big voting number, but media, intelligentsia, and the civil society are important not for their voting numbers, but for the key link roles they play among the power centres in the social and political power spectrum.
Although some of them hold some ideological ground, many of them are flexible in evaluating and projecting a political entity based on its merit. But these are the norms of, at least, a stable democratic polity.
In a sense, it’s quite strange that BNP, despite having durable and big political base, fails to attract enough positive assessment from the respected public intellectuals, liberal media, and civil society. Comparatively, its main rival, the incumbent Awami League, clearly gets a much bigger chunk of appreciation, in spite of the average quality of many governance services they render to the citizenry.
BNP neither realises this isolation properly, nor has it ever tried to find out the causality of it. This disconnect between BNP and the civil society and intelligentsia also have other ramifications.
The international community relies on public intellectuals and civil society organisations (CSOs) for assessment and information, and gets an unimpressive feedback of the party.
All these perceptions matter. The international stake-holders also have their own assessment mechanism in addition, and it was observed that their assessment largely confirm the analysis of these reputed local experts and CSOs; neither of whom is too enthusiastic about BNP.
The pitfalls of the party
What are the reasons for this apparent distaste for a reasonably modern-looking party with a woman as its chairperson?
It’s true that BNP, by and large, has followed and operated in a modern politico-economic system, including adhering to capitalist free-market policies and electoral democracy. It won two fairly contested elections in the post-1990 democratic era in Bangladesh.
Yet, that unease about the party lingers, and the party fails to draw enough support and sympathy from these vital quarters. Domestically, liberals are apprehensive about BNP for five main reasons. One is its made-up ideology of Bangladeshi nationalism. Second is its past, and particularly, its refusal to break from that past. The third is its distorted view of the history of Bangladesh, especially 1971 and the build-up to that.
Fourth is its inclination to Islamism, including its opportunistic alliance with controversial Jamaat-e-Islami, which the liberals fear might become hardcore Islamism for any future political gain.
Fifth and final is its dubious role in 2004 grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina and in the subsequent handling of the inquiry. Liberals demand BNP must come clean of any sort of role at any level with regards to the 2004 attack. Politics of killing and democracy can’t go hand-in-hand. This is something fundamental.
There’s still hope
BNP can broadly be categorised as a centre-right political force, both in terms of economic policies and social conservatism. It is possible for it to correct its follies and still have this centre-right base intact by and large.
It is possible for it to have soft Islamism without Jamaat, but that should be at least with an open and honest commitment of not moving further right. A ban on Jamaat appears to be looming, and with its controversial leadership almost gone, there is a possibility that it will dissolve and re-emerge with a new Islamist banner sans the tainted leaders.
BNP’s practice of pathological lying about AL’s role in 1971 and before has resulted in its distortion of the nation’s history as well. In a democracy, ideally political parties ought to operate basing on its own ideology, which is ought to be modern and which, in fact, can be to some degree, conservative.
BNP will be out of power for more than a decade in 2019. It’s about time for the party to do some serious introspection
And a party should have its stand on major and current political, economic, and social issues. BNP’s anti-AL existence is in itself a problem. The party should have moved away with the passage of time from that initial premise on which it was cobbled together with politicians of disparate genre by its founder. Ground reality has changed, and that premise became irrelevant long ago.
The party needs a break from its initial messy conception of state when its founder toyed with the hard-earned modern constitution of the country and its fundamental principles, and it’s better for the party to adhere to some sort of secularist norm. Also, it should accept the true history of Bangladesh, including that of Awami League and Bangabandhu. It can very well thrive without trying to tweak the truth.
The common people of Bangladesh are more concerned about their own livelihoods than the past. BNP won’t lose much if it corrects its view of the past and political tactic of allying with controversial Jamaat.
The small percentage of Jamaat votes will come to BNP anyway because of its Islamism -- although soft -- coupled by its status of a major broad-based party.
The party must openly commit no relation with any radical outfit, orthodox social forces etc including the promise of quelling such outfits if they come to power. This is important both domestically and internationally.
Smarten up for survival
The liberal intellectuals, media, and civil society are desperately looking for a moderate alternative to the increasingly dictatorial AL, and so are the minorities who are often subjected to persecution by so-called friendly ruling clique. They have their key clout on things and a moderated BNP can benefit from them.
It can also have a lasting fair relation with the intelligentsia and civil society. It may be good for the political system and stability of the country, as the metamorphosed BNP can contribute in a big way in graduating these to the next level.
Obviously, both AL, BNP, and other political parties will, at some stage, have to agree to some basic civilised rules of the game, and start a fresh political culture.
A responsible political party doesn’t always tap into populist sentiment of the electorate. At a time of need, it leads the society towards greater good, even if that good isn’t instantly perceived by commoners.
A neutral intelligentsia, liberal media, and civil society work for a progressive and stable society. They are the foretellers of sanity.
Better affiliation with the civil society and intelligentsia will help BNP immensely to better itself. It can perform a better role as a political party and for the people. BNP should remove the barriers between itself and these important interlocutory entities.
Attaining political power, at least at regular intervals, is critical for survival of any major political party. BNP will be out of power for more than a decade in 2019. It’s about time for the party to do some serious introspection in line with these key highlights and undertake reform accordingly.
The forthcoming election and the period building up to that is in fact a golden opportunity for BNP to change itself, benefit, and render its service to the people as a major political force of Bangladesh, and for the greater good of the society and the country.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a freelance commentator on politics, society, and international relations. He currently works at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).