No one imagined a new political party riding on the coattails of a military dictator would survive after his death, because the essence of such new parties is the power behind it. It may not be an over-exaggeration, but the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was a single-handed venture of the party’s founder and ideologue -- General Ziaur Rahman. He himself was a political neophyte thrown into the vortex of national politics after the bloody upheaval of August 1975, when the country’s founder was killed by some members of his own Army.
General Zia was the eventual beneficiary of the coup, even though it may or may not have happened with his tacit knowledge. But this is a fact, had there been no August upheaval, Ziaur Rahman could very well have been like many other army generals of his time - retired, unseen, and unsung.
When Ziaur Rahman came into power, he had acquired an army badly mauled by bloody coups from August through November. It would take more than two years since then for Zia to turn to active politics. He started his foray into politics tentatively, first with sending feelers to the politicians and political parties in existence at that time, including the former ruling party stalwarts. He would, at the same time, test his own popularity with his now infamous referendum in 1977.
Once Zia secured his place as president, he launched his politics -- directly aiding the formation of Jatiya Ganatantrik Dal (Jagodol), a political group of like-minded politicians drawn from a wide array of old political parties in February 1977. He would soon follow this with the formation of Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Front, a grand coalition of political parties with Jagodol leading the pack to assist his presidential election campaign in May that year.
Zia would later dismantle this new coalition and form his own Bangladesh Nationalist Party in September that year, the core leadership of which came from Jagodol.
Since its formation, Zia guided BNP in every step, from drafting party constitution to organizing structure to establishing its leadership. He was the party’s founder, dreamer, visionary and chief executive. He used his charisma and popularity to attract politicians from both ends of the spectrum, from extreme left to extreme right, without caring for their past politics or conduct in the Liberation War. He became a darling to the forces who were unable to rejoin the country’s politics before.
The ground fell off from under the party’s feet after Zia’s tragic assassination in May 1981. The party would almost have succumbed to infighting and ceased to exist as a political force but for the mass upheaval against Ershad and combined opposition to his regime.
Again, the juxtaposition of disparate forces that had once supported General Zia would coalesce behind his widow and adopt her as their new leader. Khaleda Zia has held on to the party stewardship since then without any interruption.
The sole reason why BNP loyalists gave her the stewardship was the absence of any credible leadership in the rest of the party organization. In the last 25 years or so, there has not been any evidence that the leadership will change any time soon. This is not because there is really a dearth of leadership in the party. It is because the party has been accustomed to a management style that is derived from the time when it was founded by General Ziaur Rahman.
A party that was foisted from above instead of growing from below can only be sustained by a leadership that glows in the reflection of its founder, which is provided by Khaleda Zia or her son. But given the likelihood that none of these two will have a free hand in the politics of the country anytime soon, the road for BNP ahead seems to be thorny. Without Khaleda Zia or her son at the helm, the party is likely to fall apart, and that seems to be the operative strategy of BNP’s opposition.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US