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Recently a social gathering picked the contemporary political issues for discussion. Participating in the random chitchatting, one popped up saying the ruling Awami League has made the politics tough for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Rest of the participants stared at him. They thought that the gentleman’s statement might be a reflection of BNP’s allegation that its activists have been subjected to torture by the government.

When the listeners gave him a curious look, the gentleman replied that BNP was not challenged by the bar on its political activities actually. There might be another reason. Differences in political practices between Awami League and BNP were narrowing down over the days. Now only the political speech and slogans can differentiate the two parties, not their principles. Precisely, Awami League is hijacking politics of BNP.

The gentleman further explained, Awami League and BNP used to do distinctive politics in the past. There was a thick line separating the two supporters’ groups. Awami League was the flag bearer of Bangalee nationalism while the later the Bangladeshi nationalism. Awami League organisers used to uphold the four pillars of the state’s fundamental principles–Bangalee nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism. They boldly blamed BNP of undermining the fundamental principles by revoking secularism, and twisting the meaning of socialism. They would allege that BNP had become dependent on bureaucracy rather than a pro-people party as it emerged in the state-operating incubator.

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This is true that after the 1975 political turmoil, the constitution was dissected by BNP in many times. But the party didn’t show courage to introduce state religion in the constitution. It was done by Hussein Muhammad Ershad who overthrew BNP by force. By the Eighth Amendment of the constitution, Ershad demoted all the religious minority people to the second-class citizens.

After 21 years, Awami League regained state power in 1996. But it didn’t bring any change in the constitution, showing lack of majority in the House. But Awami League didn’t revoke the Eighth amendment even after its landslide election victory in 2009. It means that Awami League too kept the state’s communal character intact. Then another trick was applied in the Fifteenth Amendment. Secularism was reinstated. Meanwhile, Islam remained as the state religion.

The difference between Awami League and BNP refers that the first one believes in Bengali nationalism and the later the Bangladeshi nationalism. BNP stressed for establishing religious spirits with Bangladeshi nationalism. On the other hand, Awami League’s Bangalee nationalism was evolved by Bangalee culture. Awami League’s ally Jatiya Party also upholds Bangladeshi nationalism and Islamic values as its political principles. Awami League, though, harshly criticises BNP but tolerates Jatiya Party. Awami League organisers do not understand that the strategy of motivating people by Bangalee nationalism is now invalid after the 50 years of independence. We solved the debate over nationalism in the Liberation War of 1971. The issues like economic crisis, lack of democracy and good-governance now become more burning than the debates over nationalism.

Practically no political parties have tried to implement socialism that is inscribed in the constitution. Presently, there is no difference in economic policy upholding by Awami League, BNP and Jatiya Party. All the three parties are core supporters of free-economy. Once there was gossip that BNP and Jatiya Party were comprised of businesses, retired military and civilian bureaucrats. Now, Awami League too endorses such elites not only in the parliament but also in the organisation. Once the pro-people party (Bangabandhu used to term Awami Leauge as a pro-poor party) now becomes a pro-businesses party. Sixty two per cent of the existing lawmakers are business people.

Another difference between Awami League and BNP was the use of religion in politics. The colonial Pakistani rulers used religion as a tool to deprive Bangalees. That was why Bangabandhu-led government banned religion-based politics. Often Awami League organisers blame Ziaur Rahman and BNP of introducing religion-based politics in the country. The allegation is not false. But BNP remains out of state power since the last 14 years. Who are then patronising the religion-based politics now?

We saw in the past that both Awami League and BNP allied with religion-based political parties and groups to hold or gain the state power. The parities still do. BNP refrained from participating in the 1986 national election under the Ershad-led government. But Awami League allying with Jamaat-e-Islami took charge as the opposition party.

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Awami League found Jatiya Party and Jamaat-e-Islami as its partners in its 1995-96 movement for caretaker government. Prior to the 22 January 2007 national election, Awami League partnered with Khelafat Majlish on five-point agreement. (Although the election was not held due to BNP’s strong opposition, Awami League cancelled its agreement with Khelafat).

Hefazat-e-Islam, a qawmi madrassa-centric political group, was established while protesting against Awami League’s stance for women development and secularism. The Hefazat members launched mayhem in Dhaka in the name of grand rally on 5 May 2013. That time, Awami League alleged that BNP incited Hefazat to create the chaos. Not only BNP but also ruling party ally Jatiya Party provoked the Hefazat members. Later, Awami League, surrendering to Hefazat’s demand, had recognized qawmi education and dropped secular contents from the national curriculum.

One junior minister said that time that the government had endorsed the Hefazat’s demands because of its popularity. He added that the government would consider criticism of Hefazat if the opposition parties had popularity too. Then what was the Awami League’s principle?

In the past, BNP was considered as an ally of religion-based groups and Awami League of the centrists and leftists. Recently, the equation has been changed. According to Prothom Alo report, Awami League bagged direct or indirect supports from most of the religion-based groups prior to the 2018 national elections. Sammilito Islamic Jote and Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA) extended their support to Awami League (Prothom Alo, 15 November 2018). The groups of Bangalee settlers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts also have support from the local BNP, Jatiya Party, Jamaat-e-Islami and Awami League activists. Surprisingly all the pro-and-anti-parties of the CHT Peace Accord are coexisted there.

There was an allegation against BNP that the party was dependent on administration and different armed forces rather than relying on activists. The 2018 election time example set by the public administration and law enforcement agencies proved that Awami League was no longer dependent on mass people. It means that Awami League is thoroughly treading the path of BNP.

*This Op-ed appeared in Prothom Alo print and online edition, and has been rewritten in English by Sadiqur Rahman

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