A Lear’s Fool to King Tarique

Lear's Fool

There is no shortage of punditry along the line of BNP-is-in-trouble, most being pretty vacuous like this.  Shuvo Kibria had a better attempt a few weeks ago:

সরকার ….. নিজের আস্থাহীনতার সঙ্কট আছে।….. জনব্যালটে তার ভরসা নেই। …..সরকার চাইবে রাজনৈতিক শক্তি হিসেবে বিএনপিকে সমূলে উৎপাটিত করতে। বিএনপির চ্যালেঞ্জ হচ্ছে, রাজনৈতিক শক্তি হিসেবে নিজেকে পুনঃপ্রতিষ্ঠা করা।  (The government has its own crisis of confidence…. It doesn’t rely on public ballot…. The governent will want to uproot BNP as a political force.  BNP’s challenge is to re-establish itself as a political force).

I think the above is in on the whole correct.  And there may be a degree of validity in this as well:

বিএনপির প্রথম সারির নেতাকর্মীদের মাঠে নেমে প্রমাণ করতে হবে দলের স্বার্থে তারা যেকোনো ঝুঁকি নিতে প্রস্তুত।  (BNP’s front row leaders and workers will need to prove their willingness to take any risk for the party by getting into the field).

But I think even Kibria misses some key nuances.

Let’s start with a few observations.

First, on BNP’s failure in the streets.  By all accounts, BNP rank-and-file gave it a pretty good shot this time last year.  And they came short.  They could not stop the government from ramming through a one-sided election as a result of which Hasina Wajed continues to be the prime minister.  But BNP’s failure is not qualitatively different from MK Gandhi’s in the early 1920s, or Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s in the mid-1960s.  Our history is full of failed street movements.  The historical reality is, most andolons fail, just like BNP’s did.

The past is not always an accurate guide to the future.  But I am quite skeptical of any analysis that concludes with ‘BNP must launch a vigorous andolon that will lead to a mass upsurge’.  Even if BNP could mount one, in and of itself, what would another round of street protests, blockades and hartals achieve?

Second, BNP failed to win over the bastions of power that ultimately matter Bangladesh.  Above everything else, powers-that-be want a stable Bangladesh.  And BNP failed to convince the civil-military bureaucracy, corporate sector and foreign stakeholders that it could provide stability.  Of course, in a two-horse race, one doesn’t have to be particularly good — simply being just not as bad as the other side makes one win such races.  It’s not that everyone is inspired by the Prime Minister.  It’s just that when all is said and done, sufficiently large number of key stakeholders simply didn’t respond to BNP, and accepted Mrs Wajed.

Third, from BNP leadership’s actions, we can deduce something about its self-assessment.  Recall, we can summarise BNP’s travails as one of either marketing or management or product.  By making it abundantly clear that Tarique Rahman is the party’s future, BNP is signalling that it believes the problem is not management.  Therefore, it must believe the focus should either be marketing or product or a combination.

As would be clear by the end of the piece, I do not necessarily agree with BNP’s choice (and that’s putting it mildly).  But it matters little what I think.  Leaving my views aside, let’s accept for now that BNP has got it right — Mr Rahman is the best it has got.  Fine.  So, how should he try to win over the powers-that-be?

If we assume that BNP’s middle-of-the-road, don’t-rock-the-boat pragmatic Burkean conservatism is the appropriate ‘product’ for Bangladesh — full disclosure: I personally do — then the challenge before Mr Rahman is simple: he needs to establish himself as acceptable to the establishment.  Currently, he patently is not.  Believing that the establishment will choose him over the Prime Minister is like claiming the earth is flat.  Railing against the establishment for its alleged hypocrisy on this count is futile.  Bottomline: senior state functionaries, big shot businessmen, and interested foreigners don’t think much of Mr Rahman.

They didn’t think much of him last winter.  And since then, sporadic forays in our pathetic history wars have done nothing to improve his standing.  They create media buzz, senior Awami League leaders end up looking quite stupid, and BNP rank-and-file feel fired up for a while.  But what do they do to alleviate Mr Rahman’s extremely negative image?

To ask is to answer.

Right.  So, what should Tarique Rahman do?

In the first instance, he should stop appearing in silly videos with stupid titles like Deshnayak, or never, ever, indulge in the circus of cutting supersized birthday cakes.  As it happens, it is quite rational for even a sensible and erudite person like Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir to engage in these acts.  After all, in a party that is by design bereft of any strong ideological mooring but the politics of synthesis of centrist, pragmatic nationalism, if there is no internal organisational rejuvenation, how else are the party workers and leaders to signal their allegiance but to foster a personality cult?  Of course, by doubling down with Mr Rahman, organisation rejuvenation has been made just that much harder.

That is, BNP — or rather, Tarique Rahman — has created a vicious cycle. Its current senior leaders — and note the word senior, these are old men and women — have no alternative to engaging in obscene Tarique-mania, which puts off otherwise sympathetic elements of the establishment, which compounds BNP’s problems, which creates further distrust among its leaders, who must then engage in further sycophancy, and so it goes.

If Tarique Rahman ever wants to govern Bangladesh, he must end this now.  If he doesn’t get the irony of being called a deshnayak while living in bidesh, if he thinks he is the embodiment of youth at 50 — an age by which his father had been president for nearly four years, or Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was already hailed as Bangabandhu — he will never make it.

Dramatically cutting off the circus would be a good first step, and a low hanging fruit.  Mr Rahman will need to follow that up with more speeches and public appearances, and not just to the choir in East London about Sheikh Mujib’s Pakistani passport (do we really need to replace Hasina Wajed with someone who seriously thinks Mujib needed a passport in Heathrow airport in January 1972?).

This is not to say he should shy away from hitting hard on the haloed Mujib myth.   Like it or not, history wars is a key part of our politics that BNP cannot shy away from.  Apparently Tarique paid respect at Mujib’s grave several times when BNP was in power.  Why on earth did they keep that a secret?  Why not talk about it now?  And then, the respect for Mujib-the-nationalist-hero notwithstanding, draw the parallel between 1974-75 and the present day, maybe in a frank series of interviews with Zafar Sobhan — now, wouldn’t that be something?

And yet, that would not be enough.  Even if he is humanised and shown to be a normal, decent person, to the establishment there are grave doubts about his associates.  The establishment wants to feel comfortable that Tarique Rahman’s associates are their own.  On this, Mr Rahman will do well to learn from, wait-for-it, Mrs Wajed.

Yes, believe it or not, once upon a not too distant past, the establishment did not trust the Prime Minister and her party.  Even in the early 1990s, the stereotype was that those few Awami Leaguers qualified enough to govern were unreconstructed socialists, while most AL-ers were simply not fit for office.  This changed in the lead up to 1996 election, when Mrs Wajed made it clear that people like the late SAMS Kibria or AHSK Sadeq were in her inner sanctum.  This paved the way for a rapprochement between the League and the establishment.

Tarique Rahman needs to do something similar for his party.  Appointing a fresh-faced PhD in marketing, I’m afraid, simply doesn’t do that.

Therein lies the rub.  Mr Rahman needs people who are already established in their fields — business, professions, academia, at home and abroad — by his side.  But such people simply don’t like him much.  Why would they put their trust in someone whose only claim to fame is his parents (and infamy from his lifelong friends)?  Dynasty didn’t do it for a dud like Rahul Gandhi.  Why should Tarique be any different?

Mr Rahman has odds stacked against him.  Therefore, it follows that he has to shake things up.

Two acts come to mind, neither easy, and one carry high risks.

Firstly, Tarique Rahman must produce a game-changing idea.  Not nice ideas like how to improve agricultural yield as he did in an early London speech in 2013 — that kind of stuff can go well with his little chinwag with Mr Sobhan.  But that won’t shake things up.  No, he needs to do what Mujib did in 1966 by presenting Six-Points.

Back then, Ayub Khan dominated over Pakistan.  Grand old men like HS Suhrawardy were either dead or marginalised.  Younger, leftist firebrands were beginning to turn on each other, taking their cue from Beijing and Moscow.  Mujib’s peers like Ataur Rahman Khan looked tired with their calls for restoration of democracy.  Ayub could simply ignore them.  But Mujib with his Six-Points was different.  Here was a paradigm shift.  Fiscal autonomy.  Monetary autonomy.  East Pakistan’s own oreign trade missions and paramilitary.  Mujib called for an end to not just Ayub regime, but Pakistan-as-it-existed.  Ayub knew he had to use the ‘language of weapon’.  So he did.  Mujib went to jail, and came out after the regime collapsed.

It’s very important to understand that the 1968-69 uprising that led to Ayub’s fall was not a step-by-step escalation of any andolon programme by Mujib or his party.  An urban uprising started in West Pakistan from a clash between students and army jawans in the beginning of winter 1968, and by the end of the winter, both wings of erstwhile Pakistan was aflame.  At the centre of the uprising was Maolana Bhashani.  But not only was Bhashani without a party, he was also a man without any compelling ideas for the post-Ayub world, and zero support among the establishment.  When the Pakistani establishment had turned on Ayub, the emergent East Bengali establishment squarely stood with Mujib.

That’s the act Tarique has to emulate.  He has to produce a coherent vision that the current Bangladeshi establishment could rally behind when, rather than if, Mrs Wajed’s regime unravels.  And unravel the current regime will, sooner or later — let me quote myself from January:

….. she stands on the precipice of chaos, for the simple reason that Bangladesh — a super-densely populated humid swamp — is always at the edge of chaos.  Usually, mandate from a democratic election, or the prospect of the next one, keeps us from falling over the cliff.  By taking away the option of a democratic election, the Prime Minister has effectively put a ticking time bomb on herself.

Tarique has to make sure that when the time comes, he is not brushed aside like the old Maolana.  And for that, a compelling vision for a post-Hasina Bangladesh — hard as that might be to conjure — is not necessary, but not sufficient for Tarique.  He still needs to demonstrate that he as an individual has what it takes.  He must demonstrate his grit.  His sickly, elderly mother does that every time she goes out to one of those rallies.  Mrs Wajed did that in 2007 when she defied the 1/11 regime and returned home, or in 2004 as the subject of an assassination attempt, or in 1988 when police open fired on her rally.  His father demonstrated grit in the battlefields in 1965 and 1971, and every day between 3 November 1975 and 30 May 1981.  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman demonstrated grit by never compromising with the Pakistanis despite spending much of the 1950s and 1960s in jail.

That’s the standard Tarique Rahman has to live up to.  A London exile simply doesn’t cut it.  He has to return home, embrace a prison sentence, and possible threat to his life.

That’s the bottomline for him.

As things stand, with Tarique Rahman in his current avatar as BNP’s chosen future, I am afraid the future is bleak, and we might soon be discussing BNP’s past.

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