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A delicate calm

With independence day on March 26, the public mood is upbeat across the country. And yet there cannot be room for complacence.

The elections of January 5 boosted the morale of secular forces in Bangladesh, given that the record of the BNP and its allies in office was never conducive to an upholding of the spirit of the 1971 liberation war. (C R sasikumar) The elections of January 5 boosted the morale of secular forces in Bangladesh, given that the record of the BNP and its allies in office was never conducive to an upholding of the spirit of the 1971 liberation war. (C R sasikumar)

BY: SYED BADRUL AHSAN

In Bangladesh, the BNP and its rightwing allies are at sea. But it is still not smooth sailing for the Sheikh Hasina government

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) appears to be descending into increasingly deeper chaos and uncertainty. With chairperson Khaleda Zia and her son, Tareque Rahman, now indicted by a court for their alleged involvement in a financial scam related to an orphanage trust named after the late military ruler Ziaur Rahman, the party finds itself straitjacketed. Add to the troubles of the Begum and her elder child the reality of some of the party’s senior leaders already being imprisoned on various charges. What you are then confronted with is the question of whether the BNP will be able to wriggle out of its predicament anytime soon.

The reasons behind the BNP’s difficulties have a lot to do with the flawed strategy the party has followed, especially over the past couple of years, in terms of its pursuit of politics. It was unable or unwilling to adopt a clear position on the trials of Bangladesh’s war criminals, one reason being that the party’s founder and later his widow were both instrumental in the rehabilitation of the notorious 1971 collaborators of the Pakistani occupation army. If General Zia made it possible for the country’s anti-liberation elements to engage in open politics in a country they tried aborting at birth, Khaleda Zia gave them fresh respectability by inducting some of the most infamous among their number into her cabinet.

The BNP’s failure to disown the war criminals or to state emphatically its support for the war crimes trials has alienated many, including some die-hard supporters. Public support for Zia and her party has eroded somewhat around the issue. But what caused consternation among broad sections of the population has been the party’s unqualified support for such a medievalism-driven group of religious fanatics as the Hefazat-e-Islam. Despite the fact that the Hefazat — which sprang to life as a fundamentalist organisation determined to undermine the secular Shahbagh movement of youths calling for justice to be done to war criminals — openly espoused an anti-women and anti-development political programme in May last year, Zia saw hardly anything wrong in supporting the outfit. Of course, the truth was not lost on her followers or detractors — in her overall goal of pushing the Awami League-led government out of power and replacing it with a caretaker administration in the run-up to the general elections, she was willing to go to any length.

The BNP’s support for the Hefazat, together with its refusal to de-link itself from the Jamaat-e-Islami, sliced away at its support base in the period leading up to the elections. Yet Zia’s belief that the government would capitulate, that violent street agitation coupled with pressure from Western diplomats based in Dhaka would lead to the government’s fall, remained till the end. The BNP and its friends were thus taken by surprise when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government actually went through the election and took charge again for a new term in office. In the months since the elections of January 5, the BNP has been muddling through. The government is hardly in the mood to take it seriously, at least for now.

The country is calm, in that political sense of the meaning. With the elections over — and it really does not matter that a majority of lawmakers were elected unopposed — the BNP is at sea. That, however, does not imply that everything looks like smooth sailing for the prime minister and her government. The re-elected government needs to demonstrate the skills and governance necessary to tide over the criticism that the elections, owing to the absence of the BNP and low voter turnout, were flawed. Hasina has already given signs of what she feels should be done.

A number of ministers and ministers of state, including the much-travelling former foreign minister Dipu Moni, have been kept out of the new cabinet. In a curious move, Hasina has also taken into her cabinet leading politicians from the officially designated opposition Jatiyo Party of erstwhile military ruler Hussein Muhammad Ershad. The former dictator, famous for his flip-flops on the eve of the elections, has officially been appointed as a special envoy of the prime minister. One is not quite sure though as to what his responsibilities will be, since there is already Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali and the PM’s international affairs advisor, Gowher Rizvi, in the government.

It will now be for the government to ensure that the BNP and the rest of the rightwing opposition are not given any excuse for a fresh movement on the streets. And with the BNP putting up a strong fight at local elections, proper, good governance on the part of the PM and her colleagues is called for. Ministers, who had earlier indicated that fresh elections might be held in two years or so, now confidently predict that the administration will be in office for a full five-year term. That depends, of course, on the degree to which the government can avoid making big mistakes.

The elections of January 5 boosted the morale of secular forces in Bangladesh, given that the record of the BNP and its allies in office was never conducive to an upholding of the spirit of the 1971 liberation war. With independence day on March 26, the public mood is upbeat across the country. And yet there cannot be room for complacence. No one understands this truth more than the nation’s prime minister.

The writer is executive editor,‘The Daily Star’, Dhaka.

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