With Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s chairperson Khaleda Zia in jail since February and her son and political heir, Tarique, living in London, a bespectacled 70-year-old man enters the party office in Gulshan neighbourhood, Dhaka’s most posh locality as everyone stands in attention.
Dressed in a maroon sweater, stylish checked muffler and black coat, the man has a hoarse voice since he has given more than 200 speeches in the last two months of campaign. He asks for a warm water and settles down in one of the sofas.
“There is no campaign, it’s a reign of terror, that too State terror,” says Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of the BNP, the main opposition party, in an exclusive conversation with The Indian Express. He is the man running the party, in the absence of the Zia family, and will play a leadership role — if they win the elections.
A few months ago, he stitched up the Opposition alliance as he approached veteran secular icon, Kamal Hossain, and is challenging the Awami League-led ruling alliance under incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the upcoming parliamentary elections on December 30.
A self-confessed spartan eater and of medium built, he is not a tall man. But, he is right now the tallest leader among BNP leaders, who is leading the party’s election campaign.
His first complaint are about how the police is being used by the ruling party. “bhoyaboho obostha (it’s a dangerous situation),” he says, with an air of resignation, as he narrates how his wife and daughter, a 32-year-old teacher, were also stopped by the police while campaigning. “I can’t conceive that such a situation can happen,” he says.
Lodged in a 19th century rundown jail in old Dhaka, Zia is allowed to meet her family and party leaders once in 15 days. While her sister Selina Islam, brother Shamim Iskander and sister-in-law Kaniz meet her and give her fresh set of clothes, Fakhrul has been able to meet her three times since February.
“We took her permission before announcing our entry into elections,” he says. He confers with Tarique, who also faces corruption charges and lives in London for a decade now, over encrypted apps. Tarique interviewed the candidates being given tickets for the polls from London over Skype.
So, in the absence of the Zia family, he is the face of the party. Zia is apparently suffering from multiple ailments, including joint pain, diabetes, and has been allowed an attendant in the jail.
“I represent people of Bangladesh, We are a liberal democratic political party.” “We look forward to economic development, and social and economic progress,” he says.
But, most importantly, he says, “We believe in democracy”. He adds that the BNP re-introduced multiparty democracy in 1991, when Gen H M Ershad’s regime ended.
“We tried to meet Indian leaders outside the country. We sought appointment from the Indian High Commissioner, sought and met three times, it’s not the other way around,” he says, but feels that Indian diplomats are not keen to meet and engage with the BNP leaders since they don’t want to upset the incumbent government led by Hasina.
“We seek friendship with India. And contrary to the perception in India, we don’t believe in communalism, fundamentalism,” he says emphatically. “That’s a totally a false perception that we are anti-India, this is part of Awami League’s concerted propaganda,” he says.
But, many in Bangladesh remember the last BNP regime led by Khaleda Zia, from 2001 to 2006, when there were attacks against minorities in 2001 and subsequent anti-India activities.
Indian diplomats in Dhaka feel that BNP has lot to “atone” for what they did, when they were in power. But, Fakhrul is a pragmatic leader. “We have been reaching out to India, including our Chairperson Begum Zia’s visit to Delhi in 2012. We thought with BJP in power in 2014, things will improve. She had a very good meeting with Modi, but nothing happened after that. There was no follow up.”
“We were disappointed. We tried to fix up a meeting with BJP’s general secretary Ram Madhav in Bangkok in August this year, but the Indian side chickened out,” he told The Indian Express.
The BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami alliance between 2001 and 2006 has been a baggage for him, and he is trying hard to shed that image. “When we are questioned about Jamaat, I tell you, See BNP is not Jamaat. BNP doesn’t believe in Islamic laws, it doesn’t believe in fundamentalism. We have no fascination for Jamaat,” he says, but he realises that he has to walk the talk when they come to power.
While Jamaat-e-Islami is de-registered as a political outfit by the Bangladesh election commission, 22 leaders — who were with Jamaat — are contesting the elections on BNP’s ticket.
“The tie-up with Jamaat is a strategic tie up. With them, we have an advantage in 50 seats where the margin is thin and the fight is tough. Without us, they are reduced to just three seats,” he says, with complete real politik in his mind. But, will they be part of a future government. “No way”, he says. During the 2001-2006 regime, the Jamaat-e-Islami, as a party, had been extremely vitriolic towards India, which Delhi is mindful of.
“BJP is a right-wing political party, RSS is also there. But we don’t have a problem engaging with them,” he says, without bringing in equivalence. “Unfortunately, I don’t know why India ignores the misdeeds of the Awami League government which includes torture, disappearances etc. India is being blamed by the common people, there is a perception that India is helping Awami League. Awami League is a hated political party. But, just because of India, it has survived, it’s India which has strengthened Awami League,” he said. He goes on to say that Bangladesh’s police and bureaucracy have “good connections” with the Indian High Commission.
Fakhrul says that his main agenda is the “right to vote” and “live freely”, so that no one is picked up by the police. Hailing from a political family, he entered student politics, and was part of progressive, left leaning East Pakistan students’ Union, which played a role in the liberation war.
After studying economics in college, he said that during the liberation war, he crossed over and went to India to mobilise people. After liberation, he joined the education service in government and taught economics in college. After 18 years of teaching, he quit and joined politics. “It is impossible to imagine BNP without the Zia family,” he says, swearing his allegiance, and attributes it to the family’s “belief in Bangladeshi nationalism”.
“She is a real charismatic leader,” he gushes, as his colleagues nod. He says that one of the first things will be to get her out of jail, if the BNP comes to power. So, will there be same treatment meted out to the Hasina family. He says, “There won’t be a politics of vengeance.”
In his free time, the septuagenarian loves to watch movies, especially Bangla classics starring Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. Filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s movies are his favourites, and he picks “Apur Sansar” as his most favourite, as well as Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghey Dhaka Tara. He also likes Govind Nihalani’s movies, “I loved Tamas.” He also lists
Gautam Ghosh and Nandita Das, as some of his favourites.
As he sits in office, with a painting of a paddy field behind him, the BNP’s topmost leader in Bangladesh, says, “I never aspire to be PM. I will do whatever my party’s leaders asked me to do.”