BNP rife with questions over failure in movement

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The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has actually failed in their one-point movement to oust the government and many of the party leaders and activists have been saying this since the Awami League formed the government for the fourth consecutive term after the 12th national polls held on 7 January.

At the same time, the party didn’t split up despite the mass arrest drive, pressure and lures and a large number of the voters refrained from casting votes. Many of the party leaders and activists are seeing this as a success of the party.

The BNP has been out of power for 17 years. The party spent more than a decade in the movement demanding a caretaker government system. The party held various programmes demanding the resignation of the government in the last one and a half years. BNP left power in 2006. Since then, the party has been engaged in a long term movement demanding the resignation of the government and election under a non-partisan caretaker government. However, the party held several peaceful programmes, including grand rallies, in different parts of the country. But, these movements didn’t yield any success.

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Despite having support and power across the country, how a major political party like the BNP could fail has become a burning question among the party leaders and activists. This correspondent spoke to several BNP activists and leaders at different levels over this. They have provided different analysis and observations.

The Awami League has brought the judiciary and law enforcement agencies under its influence through providing various facilities, including money. The dishonest officials fear that they will face problems in case the BNP comes to power. Therefore, they took the side of the government
Selima Rahman, BNP standing committee member and veteran politician

Most of them think that the main reasons behind the failure are suppressive actions of the government and administration, mass arrest and prison terms imposed on the party leaders and activists. At the same time, many have brought up issues like flaws in decisions taken up by the party leadership, organisational weakness and dependency on foreign countries during the movement. Many have also mentioned that the BNP failed to engage people from different professions in their movement.

Professor Amena Mohsin at the international relations department at the University of Dhaka feels that the weakness in the BNP leadership was the biggest reason behind the party’s failure. Besides, there are questions regarding how successful the BNP was in engaging people in their movement.

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Why did the movement fail?

The BNP leadership lacked the political foresight, planning and preparations required for a fruitful end of a movement. In particular, they didn’t have any counter plan against the strategy adopted by the government to thwart the movement.

Several leaders of the parties involved in BNP’s simultaneous movement also echoed the same. However, they said the most important reason behind the failure of their movement is the ‘deadly suppressive policy’ of the government.

The opposition parties, including the BNP have been subjected to inhumane torture, arrests and cases over the last 18 years. In this case, the entire state machinery, including the law enforcement agencies, has intermingled with the ruling Awami League, which is unprecedented in the history of this country.

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BNP standing committee member and veteran politician Selima Rahman told Prothom Alo, “The Awami League has brought the judiciary and law enforcement agencies under its influence through providing various facilities, including money. The dishonest officials fear that they will face problems in case the BNP comes to power. Therefore, they took the side of the government.”

According to the political analysts, the alternative to the suppressive policy of the government was an all-out movement to bring back neutrality in the state machinery. However, the BNP could not do that. They failed to establish any major contact within the state machinery in this long period of time either. The BNP leaders even failed to make the most of the chance to put the government under pressure following the declaration of the new visa policy by the USA.

The 12th parliamentary polls in Bangladesh heated up the international political arena to some extent. The difference in the stance of Russia, India and China with the West, including the USA, was clearly visible. This was the first time India openly took a stance in favour of political stability in Bangladesh. At the same time, China and Russia also supported the government led by Sheikh Hasina.

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However, political analyst and former chairman of the Department of the Government and Politics, Dilara Chowdhury sees the movement carried out by the opposition parties from a different point of view.

Mentioning the countering political stances between the US and India, China and Russia, she said, “The geopolitical situation is moving towards a complex situation over the Indo-pacific strategy. It seems the US has to maintain a good relation with India, until they reach a consensus with China. Apparently, the BNP’s movement and its future have fallen in this trap.”

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Dependency on foreign countries

Many of the BNP activists believe one of the main reasons behind the failure of their movement is their dependency on foreign countries. In particular, the BNP leadership was over-dependent on the western countries, including the US, throughout their movement. The BNP leaders and activists started to believe that the United Nations or the European Union or the US will take such actions that the government would not have any other ways than resigning.

They became even more hopeful after the statements from the UN, European Union and USA stressing on holding a free and fair election in Bangladesh.

Seeking anonymity, a mid-level BNP leader told Prothom Alo, “The leaders were acting in such a way as if they have a good understanding with Europe and USA. In reality, Europe and the USA took a strong stance against the government’s suppressive policies and violation of human rights. They never issued any statement supporting the BNP.”

However, the BNP leaders at the policymaking level deny the allegation of being dependent on foreign forces during their movement. They accuse the ruling Awami League of being over-dependent on neighbouring India.

The BNP leaders believe that India’s open support has given this government some special privileges.

Senior BNP leader Selima Rahman said that “India clearly intervened” in the recently held “one-sided” election.

We have seen in the past that the students, workers and wage earners played a key role in all the big movements or in the case of movements to change a regime. However, people from these three sections were absent from the BNP’s movement

However, professor Asif Nazrul of the law department at Dhaka University cited three specific reasons behind the BNP’s failure. First, no government retained power for such a long time ever before in the country. Such an ability and determination of the government to make the full use of the judiciary, the police force and the administration is also unprecedented. Second, the Ukraine and the Palestine war and the new relationship between China and Russia also worked against the movement of the opposition. Third, India has linked the ruling Awami League’s stay in power with protecting their own sovereignty. It won’t be prudent to seek the reasons behind the failure of the movement avoiding these three factors.

Professor Asif Nazrul said, “I want to term this as the win for the government’s suppressive policy rather than the failure of the BNP.”

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Absence of significant quarters

We have seen in the past that the students, workers and wage earners played a key role in all the big movements or in the case of movements to change a regime. However, people from these three sections were absent from the BNP’s movement mostly. The impact of this was greatly felt in Dhaka.

Apart from this another issue came up that whether the BNP has moved away from its idealistic standpoint. The question was also raised among the political analysts and observers.

People concerned say that the BNP's political stance - right to the left leaning politicians and left to the rightist politicians - was absent in their recent activities. In this case, the BNP has followed the path of their political rival Awami League. More specifically, in terms of developing relationships with India. The BNP leadership tried hard to gain the trust of India. However, they failed in the end.

Besides, the votes of Islamists or like minded people were considered the basis of BNP’s popularity. However, there has been a gap between the BNP and Islamists political parties. In these circumstances, many of the Islamist parties left the BNP-led alliance. In some cases, BNP split up the alliance to include some specific parties. On the contrary, Awami League developed relationships with several Islamist parties. As a result, although the BNP said to enforce a greater movement, the movement didn’t take a holistic form.

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People concerned say, the BNP didn’t want to involve the Islamists that much to gain the confidence of the West, in particular India. However, that strategy didn’t work. Rather, it created a lack of trust between the BNP and the Islamist parties.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, political analyst professor Dilara Chowdhury said there is a section of so-called progressive minded people within the BNP. They won’t let the BNP make it clear that it is a ‘centre right’ party. They don’t know which path to take either. The idealistic clash within the BNP leadership becomes visible very often, which is a big problem for the BNP.

Movement stumbled thrice

The BNP has been engaged in movements and programmes for one and a half years since July 2022, and a lack of coordination prevailed in their programmes at least three times. The first blow came on 10 December 2022 over the party’s divisional rally in Dhaka’s Naya Paltan. At that time, the BNP held large gatherings at divisional levels across the country amid many barriers, obstacles and attacks. The party then insisted on holding a rally at Naya Paltan. As BNP and the police faced off in Naya Paltan, a leader of Swechchhasebak Dal was killed and scores of party leaders and activists were injured in the police firing. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and standing committee member Mirza Abbas were detained on the night of 7 December. At that time, about four hundred leaders and activists were detained from the party’s Naya Paltan central office and sent to jail. Finally, the BNP held the rally in the capital’s Golapbagh ground.  The movement of the BNP became weak effectively following this event.

BNP took seven more months to revive its movement. The party observed fresh programmes across the country in the second phase and held a grand rally in Dhaka on 28 July 2023. At the rally, the party declared they would observe sit-in programmes at the four entry points of Dhaka on 29 July. A lack of coordination prevailed for the first time. The party gathered thousands of people at its grand rally the previous day, but could not bring several thousand leaders and activists to the sit-in programmes on the next day. It was learned later that the decision on this programme came from London without consultation with the party policymakers staying in the country.

Several leaders of the party told Prothom Alo that to overcome the 29 July setback, they had to start the movement anew by holding different programmes from the union parishad to the central level for three months. A grand rally was convened in Dhaka on 28 October to take the movement to the peak. But that was foiled due to the police action over violence and clash. After the foil of the rally, there were discussions and criticism among the BNP and the alliance partners. They alleged the BNP leadership did not have any specific plan of action over the grand rally.

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The concerned people also said the BNP standing committee discussed the apprehensions that the government might foil the 28 October mass rally but the party did not employ any volunteers at any spot to ensure security of the rally. BNP and the alliance leaders raised questions about this.

After 28 October, the police started drives against the BNP and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami activists across the country. In separate accounts, the two parties said the police started arresting their leaders and activists three-four days before the 28 October rally. Until 12 January, the number of arrested activists was around 27,000 (23,500 of BNP and 3,466 of Jamaat), they added.

Several leaders of BNP and the like-minded parties stated that one of the coordinators of this movement was BNP standing committee member Salahuddin Ahmed, who has been in India for more than eight years. Many people have raised questions on his carrying out the responsibilities staying outside of the country.

When contacted on Tuesday night, Salahuddin Ahmed declined to say anything about the movement.

The last allegation is a lack of coordination over making a call of ‘noncooperation’ with the government. Tarique Rahman from London made the call to the people for noncooperation with the government by not paying any utility bills including water, electricity and gas. The alliance leaders said even many top BNP leaders inside the country did not know about this movement. The party leaders raised questions as to who suggested this ‘noncooperation’ strategy when the series of blockades and strikes were slackening.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Zonayed Saki, one of the top leaders of Ganatantra Mancha and chief coordinator of Gana Samhati Andolan, said any movement is bound to have some weaknesses. But the state power has been made a certain party’s power and this is being used indiscriminately. This is a new reality. The opposition parties will have to think out a plan of actions to face this situation. Democratic activities must be continued on the streets by any means, he stressed.

The BNP leaders do not have any dispute with this statement. But it is unclear how the party would move ahead in this context considering their organisational weakness.

*This report, originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu, Hasanul Banna and Shameem Reza