BNP’s secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, in an interview with Prothom Alo, talks about the party’s internal politics, the opposition alliance and the government. He also speaks about BNP’s future programmes and demands for a mid-term election.
Why is BNP demanding mid-term elections? You all accepted the election results and joined the parliament.
We are not demanding mid-term elections, we are demanding fresh elections. The elections of 2018 were not really elections. We say that the elections must be held under a non-partisan caretaker government. And the present election commission must be cancelled and a new commission formed in its stead. It has already been proven that this commission has failed to hold any fair election and is incapable of doing so.
What will you do if the government does not comply with the demand for a fresh election or the formation of a new election commission?
We will hold discussions with all political parties. The present context must be taken into consideration. Given the prevailing circumstances, it is not possible for one party to singularly launch a movement for its demands. That is why we are talking about a national consensus. We have done so in the past too, for the sake of free and fair elections. We will create an even larger alliance in the future. We are working to that end. We have talked to many quarters. There may be all sorts of differences among the parties, but everyone is in consensus about free and fair elections. We are trying to overcome the problems.
You all have been talking about launching a movement for a long time, but are not visible on the streets. Ruling party leaders say you all don’t have the strength for a movement.
Those who are in power are not bothered about democratic values or norms. But that was the basic spirit of our independence. The country is not really being governed by any political party or politics. The law enforcement agencies are being given priority. Non-political civil-military forces are becoming more powerful than political forces. During 1/11, it was about minus two. Now it is about minus one. It was during 1/11 (referring to the military-backed caretaker government) that efforts were made to eliminate BNP.
Meetings and rallies cannot be held now because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even before that, we were not allowed to carry out our normal organisational programmes. There are over 100,000 cases against our party men. BNP is not a revolutionary or underground party. Our politics are open. We are now organising ourselves and working towards a concerted movement with others.
Have you given the government a deadline to meet your demands?
We have not given any deadline. Our party chairperson is unwell. The acting chairman is abroad. Under such circumstances it is difficult to carry out a movement alone, but we believe if we can launch a unified movement, it will be possible to achieve our demands. Elections are not fair under a partisan government and that is why we are calling for a caretaker government. It was Awami League that had rallied for a caretaker government. Jamaat-e-Islami was their friend at the time. Jatiya Party was also their friend. But in 2010-11 when they fared poorly in the election, they then abolished the caretaker system. They had even been in favour of retaining it when the 15th amendment was being discussed in the parliamentary committee. But then they moved away from that position.
Awami League leaders are saying there is no political crisis in the country, the crisis is in BNP.
Fair elections are not being held. Is that BNP’s crisis? The political crisis in Bangladesh began with the abolition of the caretaker government. Prior to that, a two-party system had emerged in the country, as in the US. BNP would come to power after Awami League and Awami League would come to power after BNP.
But BNP destroyed the caretaker government system when it tried to hold a unilateral election in 2007.
I feel that the caretaker government should have been allowed to run as it had been running. We were not in the government at the time, the caretaker government had been in place. They failed to run properly. There was also national and international conspiracy involved in that election. There was a campaign against BNP at the time, accusing it of corruption, fundamentalism and militancy. It is true that elements like Bangla Bhai has risen up then, but at the same time, it was BNP who arrested and tried them. At one stage it was said that a letter has been issued saying that unless the election was halted, the UN peacekeeping-mission’s doors would close for Bangladesh. Later it was seen that there had actually been no such letter.
What do you have to say about the 21 August grenade attack?
The 21 August grenade attack was a condemnable and despicable incident. It is unfortunate that the intelligence agencies at the time were a failure. But their failure does not mean that BNP was involved in the attack.
Despite the government’s oppression and repression, the BNP grassroots leaders and activists remained loyal to the party’s principles. However, the leadership has failed to guide them.
The grassroots leaders and activists are our strength. They remain steadfast despite the government’s oppression. The government wanted to wipe them out. But it is not true that the central leadership failed to launch a movement or to guide them. In 2013-14 we had a strong movement. There were problems in Dhaka, but the movement was strong in the rest of the country.
Had the programme not be withdrawn immediately after the 2014 election, the results may have been different. There was a reason for that. Before the 2014 election, the UN representative Fernandez-Taranco came to Dhaka and held talks with Awami League and BNP leaders. The Awami League leaders said they were simply holding the election for constitutional obligations and they promised us that another election would be held within three months. They referred to the 15 February 1996 election in this regard, but Awami League did not keep its word.
Recently three powerful leaders of BNP on a private television channel declared no-confidence in the party’s acting chairman Tarique Rahman. They said they would not remain in the party if Khaleda Zia was not in leadership. Does that mean there will be no BNP without Khaleda Zia?
Perhaps they said that out of frustration. They are elderly leaders. Some want to be members of the standing committee. Immediately after the incident, Shah Moazzem Hossain issued a letter to the party, apologising. And Hafizuddin Ahmed’s statement was nothing about no-confidence.
The standing committee is the party’s highest policymaking forum, but there is no evidence of them making any policies. There is clearly difference of opinion among the standing committee members on various issues.
It is only natural for there to be differences of opinion in a democratic party. Our standing committee meeting is held every Saturday. The acting chairman joins too, virtually. Before the election we took all decisions on consensus. Only Gaeswar Chandra Roy differed in opinion about the election. A democratic party has no alternative but to join elections.
You all said that you were joining the elections as part of the movement to release Khaleda Zia, but you have failed to release her. She was released on executive order. Hasn’t this been detrimental for the party?
The movement didn’t succeed due to the government’s policy of oppression. BNP wanted her unconditional release and carried out the movement to that end. We did not appeal for her release on executive order. Her family made that appeal. They felt it was imperative for her to come out of jail, given her physical condition. This has not been detrimental for the party.
The government says that even though Khaleda Zia has been freed, she cannot go out of the country for medical treatment. She cannot even undergo treatment at any private hospital in the country. Due to Covid, she can’t even leave her house. But we believe if Khaleda Zia recovers and takes up the movement, the situation will change. The student uprising of 1969 led to the mass uprising. You cannot rule out something like that happening now.
The ruling party says they want a strong opposition. What is your response?
Their actions belie their words. There was a cocktail blast in front of the High Court and I was made the main accused. There are cases against all of our central leaders. There are 86 cases against me, 35 of which are suspended in the High Court. I have to appear in the lower courts for the remaining ones. There are 36 cases against Khaleda Zia. Even when she was incarcerated, they charged her for bomb blasts in six places.
You all talk about a movement, but BNP leaders are nowhere to be seen on the streets.
We are vocal against the injustice and wrongdoings of the government, but our words do not appear prominently in the media. Some media is bent on criticising BNP and rake up the past. The crisis today is that there is no democracy in the country, the people do not have voting rights. Everyone should speak out about this. The problem is not BNP's, it is of the entire country. The country is not being run by a political government. Some other force is running it.
At a gathering of Dhaka Reporters Unity, you praised the news media for its role in establishing political rights. But what proof is there that you will not forget this if you come to power again? Even during your government journalists were oppressed and killed.
It is not true that we curbed press freedom. Newspapers had been shut down during the BKSAL government. Ziaur Rahman introduced multi-party democracy. He reopened all newspapers that had been shut down. When we came to power in 1991, the international media BBC and CNN began broadcasting here. Many newspapers were published and none of these was closed down. Unfortunately, whenever Awami League comes to the helm, newspapers are shut down.
But there were closures in 2001-2006. A case was filed against ETV and it was shut down.
I wouldn't rule out any closures absolutely, but it was very rare. At present many TV channels have changed hands. The government has closed the newspaper Amar Desh.