When the western media uses the phrase ‘battling begums’ in context of Bangladesh’s politics, they are not referring to her. She is also invariably overlooked during official functions held for visiting heads of state or government. Any status and benefits that she receives, is all favours or at the mercy of the government. She has failed to create a niche of power even within her own party. So how is her regret assuaged? Certainly by the benevolence of the head of government or the prime minister.
This is none other than, as termed by the government, the head of the opposition in parliament, the senior co-chairman of Jatiya Party, Rowshan Ershad.
In an unprecedented manner, on 27 February, she begged for more munificence from the Prime Minister. I know of no other instance in the world where anyone begs the prime minister to restore the honour of the opposition in parliament. She asked the prime minister, “Are we of the Treasury Bench or of the opposition? I have no idea what to reply when asked about this abroad.”
Of course, before posing this question, she did not mention whether she had returned the allowance and benefits received as leader of the opposition. If she had returned all that, then the gravity of her self-torment would have been clear.
According to her, her party has 40 members in the parliament formed without any competitive elections. This includes ministers, state ministers and a special emissary of the prime minister. And she does not have the confidence in her husband and party colleagues that they will leave these positions if she asks them to do so.
Thus, helplessly, Rowshan appealed, “You (prime minister) can tell us to leave the cabinet. We cannot say so. If you tell us to do so, Jatiya Party would be saved. The party could exist with dignity. We have no respect now. There is another year to go. Look into this.”
Protesting Treasury Bench members’ assertion that the prime minister had asked them to leave the cabinet, Rowshan Ershad said “If you order, who will not obey? No, you have not ordered.” Then, almost in tones of a demand, she said, “Then make everyone a minister. Either they will be in the opposition or in the Treasury Bench. There is no need for an opposition.”
The question is, why did it take four years for this self-realisation to sink into the psyche of Rowshan Ershad, the opposition leader dependent on the PM’s mercy. Is this feeling hers alone or that of the party? There is no sign that others in Jatiya Party share her sentiment. Many have simply dismissed this as a mere sham. But the matter may not be as innocuous as it seems. From Rowshan’s words, it seems that Jatiya Party runs in accordance with the prime minister’s wishes.
It seems as if they can easily merge with Awami League if they want. However, for certain specific reasons, they have been kept as a separate entity. Everyone is aware that the strings of a puppet are in the hands of an invisible person. Rowshan Ershad’s words indicate that their party is manipulated not by an invisible entity, but someone very visible. So they really cannot be called puppets. After all, they render services for the government in exchange for specific benefits, the term for which needs no elaboration.
Perhaps the prime minister will heed Rowshan’s words. If BNP does not join the next election or BNP is not wanted, then there will be a need for an opposition. So in consideration of such future circumstances, it has become necessary to allow Jatiya Party to exercise its role as the opposition to a certain extent. Ershad’s recent statement that many from BNP will be joining Jatiya Party, indicates that they hang on to the hope that the government will continue to see them as the alternative to BNP.
Also, a dismissal of Jatiya Party will also highlight an enhanced self-confidence of Awami League. It is only natural for Awami League to wield this self-confidence after ascertaining the trial and imprisonment of its actual foe in national politics, BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia. Never in the past has it been made so difficult for anyone, as it has been made for Khaleda Zia, to be released from imprisonment and to return to active politics.
No matter how the ruling politicians may try to interpret it, the definition of an opposition in parliamentary terminology is clear and simple. In the British parliamentary lexicon, the opposition is the largest party in the House of Commons which is not in the government. In simpler terms, the party which is not in the government is an opposition. There is no scope for any part of the government to be dubbed as the opposition. Admittedly, we in the media too have failed to project that though the government describes her as the opposition, she is actually a representative of the government. Had the media been able to make this clear, then perhaps she wouldn’t have suffered from this identity crisis.
There are other aspects to this plea of Rowshan Ershad which are quite unfortunate for democracy. The admissions that emerge through her words are, broadly speaking: Firstly, it is undeniable that the tenth national parliament of Bangladesh has no opposition. Secondly, whatever has happened in this parliament in the name of the opposition, has happened at the will of the leader of parliament. Thirdly, identity as the leader of the opposition has been used as a smokescreen to dupe everyone.
It has been for some years now that the government has endeavoured to put Jatiya Party in the stead of BNP. Their participation in the last election was neither spontaneous nor wholehearted. In fact, the party chief General Ershad was opposed to joining the election. His being elected was shrouded in mystery. There are several murder and corruption cases pending against him, so it is hardly possible for him to exist freely without the government’s benevolence.
There remain doubts and apprehensions regarding his ability to take up the role of the opposition. He may be adept so far at concealing his age, but there are questions are to how far he will be able to remain active in politics. So it would hardly be farfetched to question the future of Jatiya Party.
BNP may be paying the price for its political coalition with Jamaat, its organisational weakness and the realities of international politics, but from the government’s statements and stand it is obvious that they still consider BNP as the main opposition. According to them, BNP’s misrule 12 years ago is the root of all problems and, even though it is not allowed to hold public meetings and rallies, it is the main obstacle to development. Even the internecine conflicts, killings and chaos within Awami League are also blamed upon purported infiltrators of BNP. Is it then realistic to imagine that such an opposition can be wiped out overnight and be easily replaced by Jatiya Party?
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.