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Ruminations often arise about differences between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chairperson Khaleda Zia and her son Tarique Rahman. These speculations are heard within the party too. But how do things actually stand?

This September, Salahuddin Ahmed was nominated by BNP for the Dhaka-5 by-election. He had been the party's Dhaka-4 candidate in the 2018 parliamentary election. Nabiullah had contested for the Dhaka-5 seat. He had been the choice of the party's acting chairman Tarique Rahman. This time however, Salahuddin Ahmed was selected as candidate at the behest of Khaleda Zia. Nabiullah was dropped.

This change in candidates for the Dhaka-5 by-election reportedly led to a tiff between mother and son. The senior leaders in the party are also facing such tiffs often. Ever since Khaleda Zia was sentenced in the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) case, Tarique Rahman has been taking important decisions in the party.

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Differences also emerged between Khaleda Zia and son Tarique over BNP's joining the present parliament, said party sources. After the party rejected the results of the 30 December election, BNP joined the parliament rather dramatically. This decision came from Tarique Zia in London. Khaleda Zia was not pleased.

The two were also at loggerheads over the decision to allow Jamaat-e-Islami candidates to contest under the 'sheaf of paddy' symbol in the 2018 election. Tarique Rahman and the standing committee were opposed to share the symbol with Jamaat-e-Islami since BNP had formed the Jatiya Oikya Front to keep Jamaat at a distance. But at the last minute, Khaleda Zia sent a message from prison to allow Jamaat to use the 'sheaf of paddy' symbol in the polls.

At a meeting of the standing committee in September, Tarique Rahman had reacted sharply to a statement of one of the members. The member was upset at his reaction and said he would not make any further statements about the party

Senior BNP leader Jamiruddin Sircar, speaking to Prothom Alo, offered an explanation, "There is pressure to drop Jamaat. There are certain elements within our party that want this and the government is backing them. But this is about political strategy. Jamaat was given the 'paddy sheaf' symbol for the sake of unity."

Then there is talk in the party that Khaleda Zia did not want conditional release on the government's executive orders. It was Khaleda Zia's family, including her brother and sister, who played a major role in reaching this understanding.

Sources within BNP said that Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman also had opposing views about Saiful Alam alias Nirob being made the central president of Jubo Dal. Khaleda Zia had wanted Shahid Uddin Chowdhury (Annie) in this post. But finally Tarique Rahman gave the post to Saiful Alam. There are now considerations of giving Saiful Alam an important position in BNP's city committee too.

Under the circumstances, various questions and reactions are emerging within the party. This is having an impact on the party's policy making too as well as at the grassroots.

Three members of BNP's standing committee talked to Prothom Alo about the matter. They rejected speculations about differences between Khaleda and Tarique as 'absolutely untrue'. Jamiruddin Sircar added, "There are many things which, after discussions in the standing committee, I tell the acting chairman to decide upon after discussing with his mother."

Vacancies and vitriol in the standing committee

Four of the 19 posts in BNP's policymaking standing committee remain vacant. These vacancies have also caused bitterness between the senior leaders and the party's top leadership. This was evident in the stern criticism of the party's top leadership recently made by three vice chairmen of the party, Shah Moazzem Hossain, Hafizuddin Ahmed and Shahjahan Omar.

Five senior leaders of the party, including the secretary general, spoke about the matter. They said that these leaders had vented their anger as they had not been accommodated in the standing committee.

BNP's central council meet was held in March 2016. Then 39 months after that, on 19 January last year Selima Rahman and Iqbal Hasan Mahmud were taken into the standing committee. This evoked mixed reaction within the party as many of the seniors had been bypassed. The rancour remains.

There are 15 members in the standing committee at present. Khaleda Zia is not free and Tarique Rahman is outside of the country. Rafiqul Islam Miah is seriously unwell. Salahuddin Ahmed is in India, faced with charges of illegal entry. Former army chief Mahbubur Rahman has tended in his resignation from the standing committee. No decision has been made as yet about accepting this resignation. So, at the most 11 persons attend the standing committee meeting when it is held.

There have been speculations about the standing committee ever since the party's sixth central council in 2016. It is often heard that vice chairmen Hafizuddin Ahmed, Abdullah Al Noman, Khandakar Mahbub Hossain, Abdul Awal Mintoo and Md Shahjahan are being brought into the standing committee. But the questions remains -- will these vacant posts be filled?

In the absence of Khaleda Zia, according to sources, Tarique Rahman wants to build up the standing committee to his liking. In keeping with this, Selima Rahman was taken on in the quota for women, and Iqbal Hasan Mahmud according to his own choice. Those to be accommodated in the future will be selected in this manner too.

The senior leaders are not pleased with this state of affairs. Of course, it has been no secret that the veteran leaders of the party are more comfortable to work alongside Khaleda Zia than with Tarique Rahman.

At a meeting of the standing committee in September, Tarique Rahman had reacted sharply to a statement of one of the members. The member was upset at his reaction and said he would not make any further statements about the party.

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Speaking to Prothom Alo, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said, "There can certainly be differences of opinion in the standing committee, but there are no differences over the leadership of the party."

He said, "The party chief is not free, the acting chief is out of the country. Even under such circumstances, the party remains united. We have contested in the election with alliances of two different polarities. Everyone knows what the results would have been if the people actually had been able to vote. These are no trivial matters."

Reorganising the party

After the movement to thwart the 5 January 2014 election fell through, Khaleda Zia told a press briefing on 4 February that year that they would reorganise the party and launch a movement again. The party held its council in 2016 and the responsibility to reorganise the party changed thrice, but with no visible change.

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BNP has 81 organisational units in 64 districts and cities. There are only 39 full-fledged committees at present. Of the 23 convening committees, 16 are partial committees. One unit committee has been dissolved, that is the Lakshmipur district committee. And the terms have expired of 52 committees, including full-fledged and convening committees. The term of only 10 committees are valid. These are the district committee of Lalmonirhat, Joypurhat, Sirajganj, Kushtia, Jamalpur, Sherpur, Dhaka, Narayanganj, Sunamganj and Moulvibazar.

A three-month time limit was imposed to hold councils and formed full-fledged committees one the convening committees were announced. But none of these councils was held. There are committees whose terms ended in 2011-2012, but these are still intact. The Cumilla South district committee was formed in 2009 for two years under the leadership of Begum Rabeya Chowdhury and Aminur Rashid Yasin. The committee's term ended on 29 November 2011, but the committee remains intact.

One cannot lead from such a distance. Being a leader means being on the streets, by the people. BNP leaders and activists are not getting that leadership. Given Khaleda Zia's physical condition, as far as I hear, there is little chance of her returning to politics or party leadership
Dilara Chowdhury, political analyst

Tarique Rahman took up the task of reorganising the party after the 11th parliament election in 2018. Prior to that, after the 5 January 2014 election, the party's former joint secretary general Salahuddin Ahmed (presently a standing committee member), was given the responsibility of reorganising the party. He dissolved 11 district committees and only formed the Netrakona district committee. Then the movement began and Salahuddin Ahmed went into hiding. After than he disappeared and was detained on the other side of the Sylhet border.

In September 2015, another joint secretary general, Md Shahjahan (presently a vice chairman) was given the responsibility of reorganising the party. He formed two convening committees, 24 full-fledged committees and 25 partial committees, that is, 51 unit committees in total. He had this responsibility till February 2018, until Khaleda Zia went to jail.

Several important leaders of BNP have said that, as in the past, various quarters are active in their efforts to split BNP. That is why reorganisation at the grassroots is commencing at a slow pace. Tarique Rahman is forming committees with leaders whom he trusts. These include leaders coming from Chhatra Dal and Jubo Dal. These steps are being taken so that the party does not go out of control even in dire circumstances. Senior leaders of the party, former members of parliament and MP candidates are displeased with this reorganisation process.

Standing committee member Moudud Ahmed admits that there are some grievances in this regard. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said, "We have also advised him (Tarique Rahman) to discuss with leaders of the relevant areas, those who have been candidates four or five times or who aspire to be candidates, when forming the committees. I think he is doing so."

It is quite clear that BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir is not involved in the reorganising of the party and its front organisations. He simply signs his approval for the committees. This too has given rise to criticism. However, Mirza Fakhrul told Prothom Alo, "Such criticism comes from those who have long controlled the party. The power was in the hands of individuals in many areas, but now the power is within the organisation." He expressed his support of the ongoing reoganisation process.

Three organisations in focus

Tarique Rahman at the present is focussed in reorganising Chhatra Dal, Jubo Dal and Swechhasebok Dal, the fronts considered to be BNP's backbone. Those aspiring to join these organisations were given forms to fill up this time, detailing their families' political affiliations, their commitment to the party, their role in past movements and so on.

Eleven divisional and city teams of Jubo Dal, 11 teams of Chhatra Dal and 12 of Swechhasebok Dal have formed committees at the thana level. Jubo Dal and Chhatra Dal have formed over half the committees at the thana level. Jubo Dal central general secretary Sultan Salahuddin told Prothom Alo that the forms have been scrutinised and evaluated in forming the committee and this will bode well for the party. Swechhasebok Dal central general secretary Abdul Quadir echoed this view.

Khaleda Zia relinquishes party control

Weighed down by age, ill health and physical ailments, along with imprisonment and cases, Khaleda Zia has unofficially relinquished control of the party and handed the reins over to Tarique Rahman. She is chairperson of the party, but that is about all. Ever since her imprisonment of 8 February 2018 in the Zia Orphanage Fund corruption case, Tarique has been in the party's driving seat.

BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir admitted that Khaleda Zia does not interfere in party affairs and had handed over all responsibility to the acting chairperson.

The 71-year-old Khaleda Zia has been released on bail by executive order of the government on three conditions -- that she will not practice politics, not leave the country and will receive medical treatment at home. However, party leaders say that this does not mean she will never return to politics. She will certain play a role if the political circumstances change.

Political analysts say that Khaleda Zia is not free. She cannot return to politics even if she wants. So Tarique Zia is the main leader of the party, leading BNP from London.

"One cannot lead from such a distance," however remarked political analyst and former chairperson of Jahangirnagar University's department of government and politics, Dilara Chowdhury. She told Prothom Alo, "Being a leader means being on the streets, by the people. BNP leaders and activists are not getting that leadership. Given Khaleda Zia's physical condition, as far as I hear, there is little chance of her returning to politics or party leadership."

* This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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