BNP: Top leadership blamed for its failure in movement

A BNP procession in the capital's Naya Paltan area.Prothom Alo file photo

A large section of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is discussing mainly two issues after the failure of their one-point movement demanding the resignation of the government.

One is how right was the decision to boycott the polls or whether it is possible to change the regime through a mass movement. And the other is the BNP acting chairman Tarique Rahman’s ability as a leader and his image abroad.

Tarique Rahman’s image in the country and abroad is a highly discussed issue among the BNP leaders and activists. Many of the party feel that a significant quarter of the society has doubts over Tarique Rahman’s leadership. The neighbouring country doesn’t have a positive impression on Tarique Rahman. There are also questions regarding whether the West, including the USA, has a positive impression on him or not.

The BNP hasn’t split up despite different sorts of pressure from the government. However, the failure of the movement led to lack of trust among the BNP leaders. The party faced three types of situations following the incidents on 28 October. The party secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and thousands of party activists were imprisoned. A large portion of the central BNP and grassroots went into hiding. Only a few leaders and activists, including Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, were active in the scene.

In this situation, the future of the BNP depends on how much the BNP can utilise the political opportunities in the coming days by overcoming the weaknesses within the party and handling the external risks, according to pro-BNP intellectuals, leaders of the simultaneous movement and political analysts.

Weakness in leadership

BNP logo

According to concerned persons, although the BNP was able to show public support, they couldn’t achieve any success. The main reason behind this is the weakness in the party leadership. BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia is convicted in a corruption case. She has been staying at her home after her sentence was cancelled under an executive order of the government. She is no more active in politics due to her age and health complications. Tarique Rahman, who is the leader of the party in Khaleda Zia’s absence, is also out of the country. He is running the party from the UK. All the political activities of the party are accomplished in accordance with his order.

Many of the political analysts feel, BNP failed to overcome the weakness in the party leadership in the absence of two main leaders of the party. At the same time, the party depends on Tarique Rahman for all the decisions. Besides, a section of the BNP leadership feels they fail to turn their movement into a mass revolution due to people’s anti-political attitude. Although a large section of the people are not satisfied with the government, they didn’t play any active role.

People concerned say only BNP leaders and activists took part in its movements and programmes in recent times. Although BNP leaders urged people to join their movement, there wasn’t much response. People’s lack of confidence in BNP leadership is the reason behind that. Many of the party leaders and activists fear that if the party cannot solve this problem, then it can cause a disaster for the party in the future.

They (Awami League) have done mega projects, what will you (BNP) do? You have to disclose your dreams to engage the people in processions. You have to politically address issues like the economic crisis, corruption in development, and wealth inequality. It will be tough to maintain the party’s existence, by merely remaining out of the polls
Former Bangladesh Bank Governor Salehuddin Ahmed

Speaking to Prothom Alo, former Bangladesh Bank governor Salehuddin Ahmed said, “If the BNP’s plan ‘A’ was to boycott the polls, then what was their plan ‘B’. Even the BNP leaders probably don’t know about this yet. These issues are very important for any greater movement. The party must be disciplined everywhere, from centre to grassroots. The party must be strengthened at every level – students, workers and traders."

Disorderly party, questions over the capacity of party leadership

Khaleda Zia led the BNP in the mass-movement of the 90’s. BNP rose power thrice under her leadership. However, his son Tarique Rahman alone has been leading the party since Khaleda Zia’s imprisonment on 8 February 2018. As the acting chairman of the party, he controls everything, from policymaking to political programmes.

According to the sources in the BNP, Tarique Rahman has changed the organisational structure of the BNP a lot since taking over as the acting chairman of the party.

Khaleda Zia
Prothom Alo file photo

He brought changes in the leadership of BNP’s associate bodies, including Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, Jubo Dal, Swechchhasebak Dal Dal and Mahila Dal. He ousted the veterans from every city unit of the party, which was not the right decision in many cases, according to many of the party leaders and activists. Now the question arises as to how effective these changes have been during the past movements.

BNP leaders say, once politicians like Mirza Abbas and Sadeque Hossain Khoka used to lead Dhaka city BNP. Similarly Abdullah Al Noman and Mir Mohammad Nasir Uddin led Chattogram city BNP, Mizanur Rahman Minu, Nazrul Islam Manzu, Ariful Haque Chowdhury and Mojibor Rahman Sarwar used to lead BNP in Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet, and Barishal respectively. There are questions regarding the organisational competence and acceptability of the leaders who have replaced the veteran leaders mentioned above.

Many of them got the posts just for being on ‘good terms’ with Tarique Rahman or someone influential. They don’t have any prior experience in politics. Therefore, the leadership of the Chhatra Dal, Jubo Dal and Swechchhasebak Dal is on a downfall, BNP activists alleged.

Seeking anonymity, several BNP leaders from different areas said, the movement of 2023 was not as intensified as it was in 2013-14. The party has become weaker and running short of activists. The leadership doesn’t reflect the reality at the field level. The movement wasn’t successful as the party leadership is becoming weaker day after day.

Our movement has been going on for 15 years. There are many ups and downs in the movement. At times, the leaders and activists were disappointed, and it was Tarique Rahman who reorganised the party across the country. We hope the party will get the result. We might have to suffer a bit longer
BNP standing committee member Selima Rahman

However, the party’s senior joint secretary general, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, does not think that there is any failure of leadership in the BNP or any strategic weakness in the movement.

He told Prothom Alo that the government has used all the tools at its disposal to suppress the opposition parties. More than 30 leaders and activists were killed in the last one and half years, while ten people died while serving in prisons. The BNP is navigating through such a situation with the demand for the restoration of democracy.

Since 2008, Tarique Rahman has been in exile in London, while Khaleda Zia is still not free. She is receiving treatment at the hospital and home thanks to an executive order of the government. In the absence of the two main leaders, the party falls in a quandary while making immediate decisions on major policies. Many believe that the leadership crisis has an impact on the party’s movement.

BNP standing committee member Selima Rahman told Prothom Alo, “Our movement has been going on for 15 years. There are many ups and downs in the movement. At times, the leaders and activists were disappointed, and it was Tarique Rahman who reorganised the party across the country. We hope the party will get the result. We might have to suffer a bit longer.”

How many days to wait

The question of how much longer the wait will be has now become a concern even among the union-level leaders and activists. It has become more pressing after the elections. Before the polls, particularly after the arrest of the BNP secretary general, there were speculations in the political arena that different quarters of the government were in efforts to bring the BNP to elections. However, it did not succeed as Tarique Rahman did not agree.

Individuals concerned said some senior leaders of BNP were positive about participating in the polls. Since Tarique Rahman had an opposite view, the issue did not gain traction.

According to some, Tarique Rahman's stance is influenced by his desire not to allow someone to lead the party in the election and emerge as a leader, in his absence. His aim is to win the 2029 parliamentary elections and return to the country.

Another perspective is that the Awami League government will not be able to handle the current economic crisis in the country and the 'anarchic' situation in state institutions. If BNP comes to power, the party also may not be able to manage the situation. As per these considerations, Tarique Rahman was never interested in the election. However, no leaders of the party have agreed to make comments in public on the issues.

BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir on the CMM court premises in Dhaka.
Prothom Alo file photo

Risks, opportunities ahead

Some political analysts believe that the BNP may face risks on different grounds, including in keeping the partymen united. Leaders and activists did not leave the party in the hope of change before the elections. But the situation may change now.

The BNP leaders and activists are mostly facing different sabotage and violence cases. Adding more to the woes, the cases began to see judgments before the elections. Some leaders fear that a leadership crisis may arise if most leaders are jailed in the judgments. Against such a backdrop, there is a concern that many field-level leaders and workers may become inactive, and there are speculations that some may even go abroad.

Still, some leaders and political observers see ample opportunities and prospects for the BNP. They believe that a majority of the voters did not go to the polling stations in the 7 January elections and expressed their dissatisfaction with the government. The BNP says that the actual turnout is less than 10-15 per cent. The dissatisfaction may create an opportunity for another movement.

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The BNP claims that the democratic nations across the world considered the election as a farce and the countries supporting the government have received a message about the level of public support for this government.

Apart from this, almost all political parties that participated in the polls through negotiations with the Awami League are now in despair. The Jatiya Party faced an electoral disaster and is now mired in internal feud. There are questions within the party if they have emerged as a betrayer before the nation for joining the elections.

Along with these political issues, economists indicate that the economic crisis will increase in the future, leading to higher prices for daily commodities. The government is expected to raise the prices of fuel oil, gas, electricity, and water. Some Jatiya Party leaders believe that these issues can pave the way for a big platform against the government on the streets.

Shahadat Hossain, secretary general of Bangladesh LDP and spokesperson of the 12-party alliance, which is in the simultaneous movement with the BNP, told Prothom Alo that it has been established that the people did not go to vote in this election. The matter has made the Jatiya Party difficult for its survival. Permanent feuds have been created in Awami League in at least 100 constituencies. Some 22-23 small parties were wiped out. Every event that happened in this election has given a great opportunity for the future movement and politics of the BNP.

Ways of a fresh movement

According to multiple sources within the BNP, the party is planning a new movement, keeping the partymen and allies united. In this regard, formal discussions have begun with allies, including the Ganatantra Mancha, 12-Party Alliance, Jatiyatabadi Samamana Jote, LDP, Gana Forum, and Gana Adhikar Parishad.

The BNP is planning a new programme through consultations with all. However, before taking to the streets with any programme, the party’s policy making forum is putting focus on the release of imprisoned leaders and activists, including the secretary general.

The BNP leaders say that they are still in the movement and will continue it until restoration of the people’s voting rights and departure of the government. However, there is concern among the policymakers about the 'fatigue' from a prolonged movement. Another concern is how to reorganise and motivate leaders and activists who have been 'disappointed' after the election. Individuals concerned said it might be tough to engage the leaders and supporters in new movements if there is no hope for change.

However, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, senior joint secretary general of BNP, dissented from the view, saying, “If we see the liberation movements of the subcontinent, it took 100 to 150 years to secure victory. We are fighting for the people’s voting rights, democracy, and freedom of speech. The fight might be disrupted in crackdowns, but the ultimate struggle never fades away.”

Responsible leaders said they were consistently peaceful and systematic in their movement, despite the barrage of hindrances, attacks, and lawsuits. They consider the people's response to their call for peaceful boycott of the elections as a significant victory in the movement.

Some of the root-level leaders expressed their ambiguity over the party’s target and action plan. While talking to Prothom Alo, they said there are no internal discussions or instructions in the party regarding the strategies for the coming days. It will really be tough to turn around without any specific goal.

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Salehuddin Ahmed, former governor of Bangladesh Bank, advised the BNP to share its vision and goals to attract people to the movement.

“They (Awami League) have done mega projects, what will you (BNP) do? You have to disclose your dreams to engage the people in processions. You have to politically address issues like the economic crisis, corruption in development, and wealth inequality. It will be tough to maintain the party’s existence, by merely remaining out of the polls,” he said.

Individuals concerned said the BNP needs to take some urgent organisational steps. They suggest selecting acceptable leadership within the party, including the sub-ordinate entities. It is crucial to ensure that the selection or nomination of leaders is not influenced by any external privileges or issues. The party needs to continue its democratic movement. Since the strategy of boycotting elections did not bear fruits, it may consider participating in the impending local government elections. It should adopt strategies of boycott and participation as per the level of movement.

However, political analysts argued that without a mass movement or uprising, it is quite impossible to remove the government or arrange a fair election. But the question arises about how mentally prepared the people are for a mass uprising. The BNP leaders claimed that the people have silently protested against the government by abstaining from voting in response to opposition parties' calls for a boycott.

Mahbub Ullah, a political analyst and former economics department professor at Dhaka University, told Prothom Alo, “What is going on in the country today is a situation like passive resistance. Hence, the voters didn't turn out in large numbers. It needs to work on how to convert this passive resistance into active resistance. It is a tough job, and I think the BNP should take up the job of turning people from passive to active.”