From Facebook status writers to TV talking heads via op ed columnists, everyone is talking about the BNP chief’s speech. Unsurprisingly, the BNP supporters are positive about it, while AL-ers find the speech not-so-positive, focussing on the number of former caretaker government advisors still alive in good health and with interest to serve in a potential new caretaker government.
All that minutiae discussion completely misses the forest for the trees. The best take on Mrs Zia’s speech that I have come across is David Bergman’s. His title sums it up —Smart with an eye on the international community.
Mr Bergman summarises the content of the speech into five topics: militancy, India, minorities, end of revenge, and election proposal. While there has been a lot of noise about the election proposal —it’s not constitutional, there aren’t enough old advisors, this isn’t a lasting solution, yadda yadda — election proposal is the last thing Mrs Zia mentioned, after four other major issues.
And her message is pretty consistent across all four issues —she is telling the people-who-matter, “Trust us, we won’t screw things up”.
And who are these people-who-matter? Certainly the ‘international community’, but also what can be called, for the lack of a better word, the ‘domestic establishment’. She is telling the Americans and the Indians that as far as terrorism/militancy/insurgency/extremism/communal violence is concerned, a future BNP government will do at least as well as, if not better, than the current government. And with the ‘no revenge’ message, she is telling the civil-military bureaucracy, local corporates, and the opinion makers in the media / NGO world that under a BNP government things will be stable and everyone will be safe.
The BNP chief knows that she does not head a radical revolutionary movement. She knows that to successfully govern Bangladesh, she will need active co-operation of the local and foreign players. At the very least, concerted opposition by these players will doom any government she might ever lead again, no matter how big the parliamentary majority is. She is waging a campaign for the minds, if not hearts, of these players.
The problem she faces is, there is nothing she can credibly do to convince these players.
Let me use an example to explain my point. When a young man courts a young woman for marriage, he buys her expensive gifts, with a diamond ring being the ultimate. He does not expect to get the diamond ring back in case the liaison does not work out. That is the whole point of the ring —it’s a signalling device to demonstrate commitment. With the ring, the guy says to the girl that he wants her so badly that he is ready to spend a lot of money on this piece of rock.
BNP is courting the people-who-matter? What is BNP’s diamond ring? Does it have any? Of course, BNP will say ‘trust us, we won’t screw up’ —who wouldn’t? What can BNP actually do to convince the doubters?
As it happens, BNP is not the only side with a credibility problem. If the Prime Minister is really determined to stay in office until (if not beyond) the election, she will also need the people-who-matter. At the very least, she will need the civil-military law enforcement mechanism —people with guns—thoroughly and unquestionably obeying her orders in case of political violence, while the bureaucracy will be needed to keep the machinery of the state going.
Can the PM be sure about such absolute loyalty?
Think about this carefully. In 2006-07, senior officers of the army —on their own or due to instigations from others —marched on to Bangabhaban and upset BNP’s game plan. In 1996, senior bureaucrats came out of the secretariat to topple the BNP government. In contrast, until November-December 1990, the civil-military bureaucracy —as well as the (then a lot more important) international community and the (then nascent) corporate sector —remained loyal to the Ershad regime.
Can the PM count on the police/RAB/BGB/army to commit mass murder across the country to prop her up? Can she count on the civil administration to stay loyal? Can she expect the money to keep flowing to the party coffers?
If the PM is committed to a path that is rejected by a majority of her own supporters, she will need the people-who-really-matter —people-with-guns. The thing is, if people-with-guns are involved, why would they not be involved directly?
One answer is —fear.
In the Star Wars Episode IV, fear of the Death Star is supposed to keep everyone loyal to the Empire. The Prime Minister does not have the Death Star, but she can remind the people-with-guns that their previous marches usually ended poorly: the 1970s coupmakers died violent death, first of them (15 August killers) under her watch; more recent ones, from Ershad to Moeen-Masud duo, are either political orphans or exiles. She can remind the people-with-guns that no one is safe from her wrath —not a Nobel laureate with international connection, not the opposition leader, no one.
Is the PM really that scary?
During this election, there will be the usual campaign across 300 seats, each with dozens of centres and local details. Countrywide opinion polls might suggest a BNP landslide, but local issues such as candidate selection and handling of party factions/dissidents will matter a lot, and could well produce an upset.
But before we even get to those campaigns, two major campaigns are playing out right now, where the two parties are wrestling with their own credibility problems. The constitutional details or pedantry about which 1996 advisor is still alive and not in hospital will be ignoring these two campaigns.
In the coming days and weeks, there will be a lot of latest developments —lights will appear and disappear at the end of tunnel, Ershad will join and leave alliances, there will be speeches and counter speeches, lifelong followers of Zia will find Bangabandhu and vice versa. But how these two major campaigns play out, and how the two parties resolve their credibility problem, will matter a lot more than any of those developments.
Dear pundits, pay attention.