It is now clear that the big winner in the first round of upzilla elections is Jamaat-e-Islami. The party contested in 23 seats and won in 12 in conjunction with or independently of its political ally BNP. This is a huge shot in the arm to Jamaat, which has been going through its most critical period since its revival in independent Bangladesh.
The party has been beleaguered from all fronts in the last few months. The bulk of its apex leadership is either behind bars, waiting in death row, or lying six feet under. The Awami League government and its foreign friend have been quite successful in branding Jamaat as a violent and extremist party. Even Western governments, on whose support BNP depended so much, have been hinting that they would like BNP to dissociate itself from Jamaat.
Moreover, Jamaat is barred from taking part in elections in the foreseeable future, and the court case of a complete political ban is hanging over its shoulder like a sword on a thread. I would argue that Jamaat must take this show of support and window of breathing space to preempt all sanctions by re-launching and re-branding itself as a new organisation.
There is no doubt that Jamaat has considerable direct and indirect support throughout the country. Poll
after poll conducted in the last few months have shown that although the people of Bangladesh disapproved of Jamaat’s rampant violence, a majority of them consistently supported its right to take part in politics and elections.
However, Jamaat must not mistake the extent of public toleration as validation of its legitimacy. Even in a democracy, right and wrong are not determined by majority vote – a convicted criminal does not get to be absolved of crimes even if he is elected in office by a thumping majority.
There is an indelible mark of Cain on Jamaat. It fought with the losing side in the War of Liberation and actively collaborated with foreign invaders in committing atrocities against fellow countrymen. Bangladesh has eminent right backed by widespread precedence to refuse continuance of such an organisation, even if that organisation is tolerated by a large number of citizens.
Jamaat must be aware of the peril awaiting them. The arc of history of the last couple of decades has shown that conservative-religious politics in a democratic framework has great prospects in developing nations. In this post-ideological age, religious values are often a source of conviction that other political ideals fail to muster.
Throughout the Muslim world, wherever democratic politics are taking hold, Islamic parties that adopted practices of participatory democracy are gaining influence. In Bangladesh too, there is a huge space for religious politics. If the two main parties in Bangladesh continue in their trajectory of dynastic reign and control by cronyism, the space for religious value-driven politics will only get wider.
Jamaat must see that the mainstream religious political space in Bangladesh is its to take, if it could only shed its criminal past. There is no other visible claimant, either from below or laterally. The wax and wane of Hefazat in 2013 has once again showed that subaltern politics in Bangladesh remains hopelessly inadequate to mount a serious challenge to affect leadership of a country that has 150 million people and an interconnected economy of $150bn.
Only a religious party that has a deep bench of career politicians, academics, experts, and thinkers, can get a permanent place in the top rungs of the power structure.
Prospects can turn very perilous for Jamaat. The seemingly ripple-less crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has shown that international community has little sympathy for religious organisations that veer to radicalism to some extent, even if they command generous public support.
In Bangladeshi politics, Jamaat’s fate is now largely dependent upon the jostling and maneuvering of the two contenders for power, AL and BNP. The business and professional class will demand a faster resolution to the maneuvers of balance of the two heavyweights, and it will increasingly see a decision on Jamaat as a quick way to downgrade the complexity and uncertainty of the political game.
We have read that Jamaat leadership has, from time to time, discussed overhauling and rebranding the organisation under a new name. Allegedly, the main stumbling block was that the old guard regarded such a move as a complete betrayal to hundreds of Jamaat activists (“martyrs” in its jargon) who have died for the organisation in political violence over the last three decades.
Jamaat members should know that the “blood of martyrs” is the most often used but also the most useless excuse. Every political side has martyrs dying every day of the year. It is only by giving lip service to martyrs’ memories, but going forward, that the world functions at all. If every organisation in the world stuck unrelenting with their martyrs causes, then the world would be a continuous free-form war.
Pragmatism is mostly a dirty word for religious political parties, because they often equate pragmatism with a compromise of core beliefs. But it is pragmatism that has enabled thousand-year-old religions to survive and prosper in an ever-changing world.
If Jamaat can recast itself into a new organisation and get rid of the fascistic components in its ideology, it will find that there is great prospect for them in Bangladesh political arena. If it fails to do so, few will mourn its disappearance, whichever way the end comes.