The situation today in Bangladesh is set for five years. The government has carried out an election according to the constitution and with the implicit support of powers such as the administration, the army and the police. With its majority in parliament, the government and the Awami League are smugly looking forward to another full five-year period.
And why should it not? Civil society is impotent, Shahbagh is not an opposition, and the foreigners will eventually come around (Bangladesh is too unimportant for any foreign power to risk anything). The business society will want peace and calm in order to pursue business, the BNP is in tatters, and Jamaat is trapped.
The challenge facing Bangladesh is twofold, albeit we tend to mash them together: There is the challenge of having had a one-sided election and a lopsided parliament for five years. This is a problem because the country needs an effective opposition to check the autocratic tendencies that are already evident.
Another challenge faced by Bangladesh is its political culture. The general dissatisfaction with the AL might as well have been directed against the BNP. There is corruption in high and low places, nepotism, partisanship, and an unpleasant amount of violence. But in spite of what writers may wish, there is no force that can change anything. Except one.
This is a bit of a bold suggestion, but it appears that the only actor significant enough to create something new and face up to the country’s challenges is the BNP. The government will do nothing to rock the boat and the other forces are marginal or beaten down. But the BNP is a huge potential force, and its debacle has set it free to act, to reinvent itself, and think afresh.
True, it lost the battle with a clear margin and seems to be down with its back broken. But it has several sets of resources still.
It has a countrywide organisation of keenly energetic leaders, workers, and activists. As a former ruling party, it has a fair amount of legitimacy as a rightful claimant to power among voters.
And it has some credibility among foreign governments, among people in the civil society, and certainly among officers of the police, RAB, and the army. If it plays its cards right, it may even repair its relationship with India.
What it does not have is a program. So far, there is little sign of reform, of any new thinking and adjustment to the disasterous situation it has ended in. But in the situation it finds itself right now, the party has two possibilities: The small road and the big road.
The small road looks at the next election. The big road looks beyond the next election. The small road is more of the same, a recognisable form of Bangladeshi politics, only more clever and taking cognisance of the new situation. The BNP will have to start working in earnest to gain positions where it can, including the upcoming upazilla elections.
It will have to work in all its organisations – student wing, women’s wing, labour wing. The task is clear: It will work to lessen and reveal the abuses of the AL state, and to be known to do so. It will have to work to educate its activists and leaders to avoid mishaps.
It will work, as many of its cadres know how to, to assure future voters that the BNP and its activists will work alongside the people. This road will lead to hopes of winning the next election. Beyond that, this road has no aim.
The big road is the ambitious road. The BNP can establish an identity for itself which is clearer than now and one that is more appealing to voters. Today, the BNP is the party of people who for different reasons do not like the AL. It has no particular ideology, unless one counts hailing Ziaur Rahman and his family as ideology – which one should not.
There is room, though, for a new kind of party in Bangladeshi politics. In most democratic polities, there will be an ideological and real political difference between the main parties, especially between the two main parties. In much of the Euro-America, it is about being more or less pro-business or pro-state.
In India, it is about being more nationalist or more socialist. In Latin America, right vs left is an important dimension, but with a focus on values in addition to business. Thus there are three dimensions along which main parties locate themselves: Conservative vs radical values, business vs redistribution, and minimal state vs state intervention.
Often the difference is in rhetorics, but rhetorics and ideology do make a difference: They give identity and purpose. They may also force the hand at certain choices.
In a country such as Bangladesh, which has a radical elite but a somewhat conservative rural population, one might imagine that a conservative party will do pretty well in elections. An ideologically committed party in the country will have the added value of educating the voters, to make them understand that politics is about more than deciding which villain gets to pick the cherries this year.
In practice, the BNP is the conservative version of the AL, but not ideologically so, not committed to any sense of preservation of tradition for the sake of tradition itself, and hence rudderless, without a sense of purpose or direction beyond power – which may not hold the party together for another five years in the wilderness.
The choice the BNP may take is to represent itself as a clearly democratic non-radical party, conservative in social values, pro-business, and in favour of a limited but effective (value-for-money) state. Such a party would possibly argue against the government’s hijra initiative, which somehow comes across as a plump gesture to the radicals.
Can the BNP become a Bangladeshi conservative party? One rather doubts it. The party leadership is surprisingly weak and might not wish to venture any major recasting of the party. Besides, a lean state is not an attractive proposition to a party organisation manned to a considerable extent with people whose aim is to gain access to state resources.
The question also involves asking if there is room for a conservative party in Bangladesh, if indeed there is such a thing as Bangladeshi conservativism. It does sound contrary to so much in the country’s history, which is one of upheavals, revolutions, and protest. Another challenge will be to distinguish conservativism from backwardness, anti-progress, and fundamentalism.
And yet, if Bangladeshi political culture is the challenge to be addressed, then the moment might actually be here now.