Despite the BNP’s ill-advised priorities, the former prime minister remains a political force
In a 2005 leaked document which examined the actors in the erstwhile BNP government, US Embassy officials assessed the role of Begum Khaleda Zia and her party members.
Dubbed “the lady in charge,” the telegram suggested that Begum Zia was maligned by critics as insulated and susceptible to the last word whispered -- nevertheless, the BNP chairperson had good political instincts.
A lot has changed for the three-time former PM since 2005, but even in the darkest and most difficult period in her illustrious career, Khaleda Zia remains at the core of Bangladeshi politics.
Today, Khaleda Zia remains in jail -- awaiting bail in two out of the 36 cases lodged against her. Rather than looking deeply into the content of the cases, the BNP leadership has initiated a campaign to free their chairperson on the grounds of emotion and electoral politics. And this signifies an underlying factor in Bangladeshi politics -- where emotion, charisma, and personality trump facts or political prowess. And that is exactly how Begum Zia has carried on as the leader of her party for more than 35 years.
Begum Zia fits the profile of many female politicians from South Asia -- the likes of Sheikh Hasina, Benazir Bhutto, and Sonia Gandhi are all by-products of familial legacies. And like her contemporaries, Begum Zia’s legacy remains divisive to the populations which they represent. But let us look at the facts as they are.
Her political decisions have been questionable on many occasions -- from making formal alliances with the controversial Jamaat-e-Islami, to her government’s notorious track record of corruption.
Personally and politically, she has suffered from anointing her son as her sole successor, whilst celebrating her birthday on the very day when her adversary mourns the loss of her family to a brutal assassination, begs the question as to why politics has to be so tasteless in Bangladesh. But that is only part of the story with Begum Zia. In the 1980s, a recent entrant into the world of politics, General Ziaur Rahman’s widow defied expectations and led a strong movement to oust then President Ershad.
Along with Sheikh Hasina, she played a formidable role in re-establishing parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh. It was Begum Zia’s finest hour, and the people responded by electing her as the first female Muslim prime minister in the world.
It is also true that Khaleda Zia’s government, from 1991 to 1996, took important steps in building the education and remittance sectors of the economy. However, as has been the case on several occasions, Begum Zia has fallen prey to sycophantic advisers giving her bad advice, whether it be the 2006 caretaker government fiasco for which she must take responsibility, or her sympathy towards Jamaat-e-Islami.
At the end of the day, Khaleda Zia is the only factor, the only sense of symbolism, and the only person able to hold the BNP together -- and for that she deserves credit. But if the BNP is to move forward as a political entity and survive in an atmosphere where democracy is increasingly being sidelined, Khaleda Zia needs to rethink her strategy and adjust to the needs of the time.
Sitting in jail, and being stubborn about a caretaker system which seems completely off the radar for the current government will not bode well for her or her party -- but the expectation of a free, fair, inclusive and participatory election is not only justified, but the democratic right of the BNP.
One does not know whether the BNP chairperson will be able to participate in the upcoming elections. But the fact remains, even amidst this chaos, the only individual able to hold together the base, the so-called reformists in the party, and the senior leadership is Khaleda Zia and Khaleda Zia only. It will not bode well for the incumbent party to rule her influence out completely, especially given her popularity and her persona.
But a bigger question remains as to what the BNP is promising the people of this country in the future. The party has published its Vision 2030, but such has been sidelined due to the imprisonment of their chairperson. Beyond this, however, the BNP has categorically failed to promote or picture a Bangladesh with a vision for the future -- from a lack of specific policies to a format for the general elections, the absence of Khaleda Zia is seemingly making matters worse for this centre-right political party.
Therefore, the future of Begum Khaleda Zia is intertwined with what the BNP promises its voters and Bangladeshis through credible electoral platforms -- and without contesting in the elections, with or without Begum Zia, both the future of the party and the former PM remains bleak.
The BNP says that Tarique Rahman leads the party from London -- to an observer this is difficult to understand. The acting chairman of the BNP is not in Bangladesh, and there is little to no chance for him to be in the country, prior to the elections. Tarique has not led BNP to electoral victories, neither has he contested in a parliamentary seat, instead, each time Begum Zia has gone to the polls, the BNP chairperson has won each and every seat that she has contested for since 1991.
If not anything else, it shows an attachment that BNP supporters still have with their leader, and the party would do well to remember that the immediate survival of their party remains in the hands of a woman who is ailing, but remains the defiant spirit for which she received plaudits from her supporters during the course of the last 36 years.
To glorify Khaleda Zia as the “Mother of Democracy” is wrong and incorrect -- her government has, like others in this country, dented certain values of our constitutional architecture for which this country is paying dearly.
But to sideline her as an irrelevant and unpopular leader in Bangladesh is also incorrect. As the 2005 leaked document suggests, she is still very much the “lady in charge” for the BNP -- and even as she approaches the end of her political career, she responds to the wills and wishes of her supporters by accepting her mistakes and moves forward in the spirit of establishing a truly democratic Bangladesh.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate of Economics and International Relations from the University of Toronto.