The invisible force of coronavirus has exposed the many wounds and weaknesses in the country’s society, government and politics. People are floundering under the burden of livelihood and the need for healthcare. BNP feels that this state of helplessness will prove to be a catalyst for a change in the political scene.
Leaders of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have said that the people of the country are victims of the circumstances that have emerged due to coronavirus. No longer will they tolerate corruption, the prevalent trends in politics or corrupt politics.
The state of medical care has instilled alarm among the people. They are rushing from one hospital to the other in vain. And even in these dire circumstances, the national budget has failed to prioritise the health sector.
Coronavirus has changed people’s lifestyles and habits. The pandemic has brought both the economy and politics to a standstill in the country. And BNP leaders feel that if this situation is extended, the entire course of politics and political culture will undergo a significant change. They apprehend that taking advantage of the political vacuum in the coronavirus situation, those in power will grow even more authoritarian.
BNP leaders and its thinkers are now focused on the country’s economic trend. They feel that the pandemic-induced economic recession at home and abroad will usher in harder times ahead. As a fallout of the circumstances, social unrest is likely to grow along with changes in geopolitics. And the equations involving the interests of the big development partner countries will grow all the more complex.
The BNP leaders observe that the prevailing crisis has brought two matters to the attention of the public. One is the country’s health sector and medical treatment, and the other is food assistance for the poor. Both these matter have tarnished the government’s reputation.
The state of medical care has instilled alarm among the people. They are rushing from one hospital to the other in vain. And even in these dire circumstances, the national budget has failed to prioritise the health sector. Priority has been given to Padma bridge, the metrorail and other mega projects which are, to the government, akin to the ‘goose that lays golden eggs’.
Irate and frustrated, BNP’s Tangail district general secretary, Farhad Iqbal, told Prothom Alo, “An old district like Tangail doesn’t have a single PCR testing lab or any isolation centre. A massive movement could have arisen against all the mismanagement and pilferage in the health system, but we are unable to do anything due to lack of proper leadership.”
There are also widespread complaints about misappropriation of relief materials even during this pandemic. The law enforcement agencies have unearthed huge amounts of relief rice hoarded in the homes, and even buried underground, of local people’s representatives who are backed by the ruling party. The people’s reaction to all this, in their conversations and in the social media, indicate this will not be forgotten any time soon.
The government has completely destroyed the democratic environment, the civil society, the leadership and organisational structure of the political opposition, that is required for a welfare state to be established. The apprehension of authoritarian rulers becoming more empowered in the country and other parts of the world, is more realistic.
In his evaluation of the situation, BNP’s vice chairman and former business leader Abdul Awal Mintoo has said that the government and ruling party’s repression and corruption, the budget deficit and the economic crisis, coupled with the changes in global politics, will lead to unrest and dissent among the common people.
BNP leaders see dark days ahead for the economy. People of the low income bracket will be pitched into further need. The floods have exacerbated the crisis, said convenor of BNP’s Atpara upazila in Netrakona, Masum Chowdhury.
The party leaders said that in the first two months of the pandemic, the political party and its voluntary organisations stood by the poor and needy people, but the government’s one-sided actions have driven them from the field.
Migrant workers are losing their jobs and returning home. People, losing their means of income in the cities, are returning to the villages. This exodus from the cities itself is an indicator of the future.
BNP’s standing committee member Moudud Ahmed sees the prevailing situation as a challenge not only to the government but to the entire nation. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said that it will take a long time for the economy to recover from the damages caused by coronavirus. If the government fails to take up a pragmatic policy and simply favours its party people and businessmen, then the situation will not improve.
If the pandemic is not brought under control by December and if there is no effective vaccine by then, there will be vast changes in the global scenario, feel BNP senior leaders. With factory production shrinking, thousands of workers will lose their jobs and their work drive. This will have both an economic and social impact.
Former speaker and BNP senior leader Jamiruddin Sircar said, “United efforts are needed to overcome the circumstances. But we lack the leadership required for such united efforts. So it does not seem that the situation will be overcome anytime soon.”
Meanwhile, many local level BNP leaders feel that the coronavirus situation can be an opportunity for the political opposition. Faced with the crisis, the government may be weakened. BNP must take lessons from the prevailing situation and draw up a work plan immediately. Educated and bold leaders of the party must come forward and win the confidence of the people.
BNP’s Khulna division organising secretary Nazrul Islam Manju, speaking to Prothom Alo, said from people’s conversations and also their comments on social media, it is evident that there is a general consensus against the conventional trend of politics. People want new leadership imbibed with humanitarian qualities, leaders who are educated, meritorious and bold.
Coronavirus has changed the traditional functioning of political parties. There are no meetings and gathering as before. Everyone had resorted to technology in their attempts to remain relevant.
BNP holds its party meetings, press conferences, meetings among the leaders and such discussions, online, using various apps. Ten online discussion programmes were held to commemorate the 39th death anniversary of the party’s founder Ziaur Rahman. BNP leaders and members of the civil society took part in virtual discussions arranged by the Left Front and Nagorik Oikya.
The impact and use of technology will increase on politics in the coming days. There are questions as to whether people will ever again be motivated to join open public rallies. The response to virtual meetings has been impressive. Around one million viewers joined the virtual events for Ziaur Rahman’s death anniversary.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said, “We now use Zoom. We are using all sorts of new apps. If we hold a public meeting at Suhrawardy Uddyan, 100,000 or 200,000 people join. Using various apps, much more people join in the meetings.”
He said that the country is at crossroads and people’s way of thinking, political perceptions will all change in post-corona times. The concept of the government using the state machinery to run the country, will also change.
Political circles feel that the coronavirus situation has given the government scope to be more authoritarian and rash. This is evident in its rampant use of the digital security act to arrest journalists, political activists and people from all walks of life. BNP’s Khulna leader Nazrul Islam feels authoritarian governments are prospering under the coronavirus circumstances as there is no scope for any mass movement against them. However, he said, all indications point to the failure of the government. If the political parties can unite and create public confidence, then change can occur.
There are differences of opinion within the party as to how far the coronavirus situation will go in favour of the government. They say that even though people are not being able to express themselves and the media is not being able to speak out freely, the truth is coming out through various ways and means. The control and the repression is breeding anger in the public mind.
Certain political analysts have drawn a parallel between the likely post-corona situation and the possibilities and potential that cropped up after the two world wars. They say after World War II there was a rise in nationalism, colonial rule crumbled, new states emerged and there was an onset of liberal democracy and free market economy. These analysts see the possibility of welfare states emerging in the post-corona scenario.
Political scientist and former chairperson of Jahangirnagar University’s department of government and politics, Dilara Choudhury, however, sees it differently. Speaking to Prothom Alo, she said, “The government has completely destroyed the democratic environment, the civil society, as well as the leadership and organisational structure of the political opposition, that is required for the people to turn around and for a welfare state to be established. I think the apprehension of authoritarian rulers becoming more empowered in the country and other parts of the world, is more realistic.”
But Dilara Choudhury also feels that countries that have unity and patriotism, where political parties and the civil society will work together, will be the countries that can actually turn around.
* This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir