Something for everyone

Jyoti Rahman

Voters of Dhaka and Chittagong are supposed to exercise their democratic right on 28 April.  These elections are hardly going to change the political status quo that is Mrs Wajed’s one-person rule over Bangladesh.  And yet, there is something for everyone in these elections.

In Dhaka North — where yours truly spent a part of his life — there really is a choice.  Towards the end of this post, you will find the preference of this blog.

To begin with an obvious statement — these elections ended BNP’s andolon.  Arguably, BNP was going nowhere in the streets.  A post-mortem really deserves its own post (and I hesitate to even signal one might be in the offing).  For now, there is no argument that this round went to the League.

Okay, so here is a contentious point — with these elections, the Prime Minister has given Mrs Zia an exit.

Pause, and think about this.

There is no denying that she can be brutally ruthless when she chooses to, and there must have been huge temptation to go for the opposition’s jugular.  So, why did the PM hold back?

I’d argue that by holding back, and allowing her much weakened opponent a way out, the PM strengthens her hold over the establishment — the business sector, the civil-military bureaucracy, and foreign powers.  Remember, the Awami-establishment bargain is based on stability.  Mrs Wajed’s best and only real selling point is that she alone can provide stability.  For a few weeks in January, that proposition was tested.  Driving BNP underground isn’t going to do anything for stability.  Allowing BNP a breathing space through local government election, on the other hand, does help with stabilisation.

Now, make no mistake that BNP is much weakened.  Scores of its grass root activists (and indeed mid-level leadership) have been abducted or killed, and much of its senior leadership is in either jail or exile.  Also, make no mistake that the elections are on a level playing field.  But for BNP, it’s hard to see an alternative to taking the exit offered.  It gives the party a chance to live for another day — there is nothing else.  And even if it doesn’t fight another day, life is something.

I have no idea which way the voters will choose.  It’s entirely possible that BNP will lose all three, fairly or otherwise.  It’s hard to see what the ruling regime can achieve by blatant poll-day rigging (as opposed to pre-poll machinations).  Plus, I am not sure BNP actually has enough strength to get-out-the-vote or maintain adequate presence in the centres on the day.  That is, it is quite possible that BNP will lose a seemingly peaceful semi-decent election.  Should that happen, its rank-and-file will be further demoralised, limiting the chance of another winter flair-up.

But it is also entirely possible that BNP might win all three, or two, or one.

The thing is, even if BNP wins all three, and gets a morale boost, there might still be a lot for the regime.  If BNP were to win on the 28th, on the morning of the 29th, the Prime Minister will claim ‘see, fair election possible under us’, invite the mayors-elect to Ganabhaban and promise full co-operation.  The editorials on the 30th will then be full of praise for Mrs Wajed’s statesmanship, and BNP’s pettiness and idiocy.

Of course, as things stand, the mayors and their councils have no power over anything substantial.  In fact, by allowing these local government elections, the PM is following in the footsteps of the military regimes of HM Ershad or Ayub Khan, or the Raj going back a century — they too allowed elections of local bodies with limited powers to pacify restive subjects.  As such, it’s easy to think about sitting out these elections.

Such cynicism would be wrong.

For one thing, just as was the case under the Raj or the generals, these elections provide an avenue for new politicians to emerge.  Indeed, anyone who claims to be tired of the two netris or politics-as-usual must take these elections seriously.  If not through elections, how else do they propose new leadership will emerge?

Dhaka North is particularly important.  A directly elected mayor of the richest and most educated part of the country — one can think of far worse ways of nurturing new leadership.  The mayor-elect of Dhaka North might have little power on paper.  But he will have tremendous symbolic and moral authority, which may well provide seed capital for a bright political future.

Further, there really is a choice in Dhaka North.  Annisul Huq, Zonayed Saki, Mahi B Chowdhury, Tabith Awal — each of them offer different things, and you should think carefully before exercising your right (if you can) on the 28th.

Take Annisul Huq, the Prime Minister’s choice.  If you believe the PM is doing a helluva job, then clearly you should vote for Mr Huq.  And by the same token, a vote for Mr Huq would mean this is what you really think.

If you fancy yourself as one of the left, if you like railing against ‘neoliberalism’, if you went to Shahbag and then soured on Awami League, then Mr Saki is your man.  Now, my politics is decidedly not of the left.  I think Marx was right about many things but was wrong about the most important matters, and I have a very dim view of non-Marxist populism.  But this post is not a critique of the left.  Relevant thing for us is that by joining the hustings, Mr Saki is signalling that he takes the hard work of politics seriously.  That is to be commended.  If you are serious about the left, then you should vote for him, not Mr Huq.

I am not really sure I see anything commendable in Mr Chowdhury.  I understand he is media-savvy.  He portrays himself as a face of the youth.  I guess in Bangladesh a 46 year old can pass for young.  But Mr Chowdhury is not a new face.  He has been in politics for a decade and half.  He has had plenty of chance to show his acumen.  And he has delivered nought.  Nought is also what he has achieved outside politics.  A vote for him is a lazy choice, a thoughtless choice, symbolising nothing but the voter’s unwillingness to take things seriously.  As it happens, I doubt Mr Chowdhury will get far.  And just as well, for a good showing by Mr Chowdhury would mean worse for future for our politics than a resounding win for Mr Huq.

And that leaves us with Mr Awal.  At 36, he would be considered young for politics anywhere in the world.  He is a genuinely new face in politics.  The politically apathetic might dismiss him as being a parachuted candidate with a silver spoon.  Dismissing Tabith Awal out of such cynicism, however, would be a bad mistake.  Mr Awal is no more a parachuted candidate than Mr Huq.  He is far less a dynastic scion than Mr Chowdhury.  And at least by one measure, he has shown greater commitment to people’s rights than Mr Saki — in late 2013, when the most fundamental of democratic rights, the right to choose one’s government, was being snatched, Mr Awal courted arrest.  Indeed, by that measure, Tabith Awal has shown greater political courage than any of his opponents.

There is a lot of things wrong with BNP.  But endorsing Mr Awal’s candidacy is not one of them.  If you take your rights seriously, if you want the 6% growth and associated social development to continue, if you want to heal the fissure of Shahbag and Shapla Chattar, you must welcome men and women like Mr Awal into politics.

Tabith Awal may be the youngest candidate in Dhaka North, but a vote for him is the mature thing to do.

First Published at

A Lear’s Fool to King Tarique

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.

How to lose the history wars

by Jyoti Rahman

I said in the previous post:

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?

Obviously, I don’t approve of the way Tarique Rahman is engaging in the ‘history wars’.  It occurs to me that I should elaborate and clarify.  Hence this post.  I don’t agree with Mr Rahman’s interpretation of history.  More importantly, from a partisan political perspective, I think they cause more harm than good for BNP.  And most frustratingly, a few solid points that BNP could make very usefully are utterly wasted.

Let’s start with the claim made about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — that he was a Pakistani collaborator who compromised with the Yahya regime because he was after personal power.  I paraphrase, but this is the gist.  And this is about as sensible as the claim that Ziaur Rahman was a Pakistani spy.

Let me refer to GW Chowdhury, Abul Mansur Ahmed, and Moudud Ahmed.  Hardly disciples of the cult of Mujib, any of these men.  And yet, all three write how Mujib might have compromised on the Six Points at any time between the winter of 1968-69 and the summer of 1971, and become Pakistan’s prime minister.  Ayub and Yahya offered him the job in February 1969.  There was a general expectation that the Six Points were Mujib’s ambit claim, and he would compromise after the election.  ZA Bhutto calculated that.  Yahya Khan calculated that.

But Mujib did not.

In fact, by officiating a public ceremony where he led the Awami League legislators-elect to swear an oath on the Quran to never compromise on the Six Points, Mujib left himself little wiggle room to compromise even if he had wanted to.  What Mujib stood for in 1970 elections was abundantly clear, and he did not compromise from that.

Mujib wanted to compromise for personal gain — is Tarique Rahman trying to become the jatiyatabadi Omi Rahman Pial?

Of course, it gets worse.  What does one make of the claim that Mujib traveled on a Pakistani passport in January 1972?  I am sure Shafiq Rehman can conjure a brilliant political satire about the Heathrow immigration officer asking ‘Right, Sheikh eh, since when Pakis had Sheikhs’.  But the joke here is at the expense of anyone who believes Mujib would have needed a passport to pass through Heathrow that January.

And in this comedy, BNP loses a chance to score a sound political point.  No, Mujib wasn’t a Pakistani collaborator.  That’s nonsense.  What’s not nonsense, what’s undeniable, is that he did not prepare for an armed resistance, that he was absent from the war.  Now, it is possible to argue that Mujib did not want to lead a war of national liberation, and he had good reasons for taking the course he did — I have made that argument myself, and I stand by it.

But that’s just my interpretation of events.  And even if I am right, it’s legitimate to say that Mujib got it wrong big time.  Politically, the potent argument here is — the nation trusted Mujib with its future, and Mujib failed the nation in the dark night of 25 March 1971, not because Mujib was a bad guy, not because he was a collaborator, not because he was greedy or coward or anything, but far worse, he made the wrong judgment.

Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury once (in)famously made that point.  Repeatedly made, that would be a killer punch against the haloed Mujib myth.  What Tarique Rahman offers is not worth more than infantile facebook banter.

So, why does he do it?

Perhaps this passage from 2012 would provide some method behind this madness:

A blogger friend sounds a pessimistic note: ‘Our countrymen are maybe more blatant about it than most, but there is no “true” history anywhere in the world. It’s all air-brushed, covered with pancake makeup, and then dipped into rosewater.’ He suggests that these history wars are just a form of dialectic struggle, perhaps a healthy one at that.

That discussion was had at a time when Awami League cabinet ministers all the way to people like Muntassir Mamoon would routinely call Ziaur Rahman a Pakistani spy or sleeper agent.  Here is the full quote:

What will happen when BNP returns to power? Maybe what MM is doing is in anticipation of BNP returning to power. I mean, let’s face it, our countrymen are maybe more blatant about it than most, butthere is notruehistory anywhere in the world. It’s all airbrushed, covered with pancake makeup, andthen dipped into rosewater. Think of these “history wars” as a dialectic struggle, and whatever emerges out of this is what Bangladeshi children, fifty years on, will learn. And they won’t be any worse off for it.

Additionally, remember, when BNP comes to power, where MM leaves off is where BNP has to start. So the more AL-oriented the history is, the more effort BNP will have to put in to revert just back to the mid-point state, let alone make it pro-BNP.

So, calling Mujib a collaborator is perhaps the dialectic tat for the tit of Zia being a Pakistani spy.

Maybe.  And maybe in the long run this will all be washed out.  But right now, this isn’t doing Tarique Rahman any good.  Maybe if BNP ever came to power, it could start its version of history.  But right now, Tarique should remember what happened to Hasina Wajed in February 1991.

In the lead up to the parliamentary election of that month — the first one held after the fall of the Ershad regime — Mrs Wajed repeatedly launched personal attack on Zia, calling him a murderer and drunkard, including in her nationally televised (this was when there was nothing but the BTV) campaign speech.  Mr Rahman is old enough to remember how aghast the chattering classes were at Mrs Wajed.  This was a time when Zia was fondly remembered by our establishment.

Over the past quarter century, Zia’s image has faded, and Mujib’s has been given a new gloss.  Right now, the establishment reaction to Tarique is similar to the visceral reaction the Awami chief caused in 1991.

Mr Rahman seems to be learning the wrong lesson from Mrs Wajed.

So, what do I suggest?

Let me answer that with reference to why and how I believe BNP must engage in history wars:

BNP needs to win back today’s and tomorrow’s Saifur-Oli-Huda.  Without professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and intellectuals, BNP’s future will be dominated by the likes of Lutfuzzaman Babar. Winning the history wars is essential for avoiding that dark future.


our history of political-social-economic struggles that predates 1971 and continues to our time.  This would not mean ignoring 1971, but to put that seminal year in its proper context.  …. our founding leaders like Fazlul Huq and HS Suhrawardy who came before Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, putting these men in their proper historical context.

….. we have struggled for a democratic polity, or social justice, from the time of British Raj.  Sometimes these struggles have been violent, at other times we had peaceful ‘ballot revolutions’.  Sometimes the leaders betrayed the trust people put on them.  Sometimes they made mistakes.  But overall, we have been making progress.  And ….. make the case for BNP in the context of that march of history.

That’s BNP’s overall challenge for the history wars.  And I do not suggest Mr Rahman has to fight a solo battle.  But if he must engage in political dog fight about dead presidents, I would suggest leaving Mujib alone, and focusing on restoring Zia.

Arguably, Tarique’s initial foray at the history wars was an attempt at this.  Unfortunately, he seems to have made a hash of it, losing the forest for the trees.

For a long time, BNP has tried to establish Zia as the one who declared independence.  In the process, the argument got to a minutae of who got to the radio station and held the mike first, completely missing the historical significance of Zia’s multiple radio speeches.  What was the significance?  The significance was that a serving major in Pakistani army publicly, in English, severed ties with Pakistan and called for an armed resistance.  The significance was not that it was a declaration of independence.  The significance was that it was a declaration of war.  That significance was completely lost.

Now the claim is that Zia was Bangladesh’s first president.  Well, in his first speech, Zia claimed that he was the head of the provisional government.  In the next version, he dropped that bit.  So, is he or isn’t he the first president?

Well, the founding legal document of the country is the Mujibnagar Proclamation, and that says:

We the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh, as honour bound by the mandate given to us by the people of Bangladesh whose will is supreme duly constituted ourselves into a Constituent Assembly, and having held mutual consultations, and in order to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice,

Declare and constitute Bangladesh to be sovereign Peoples’ Republic and thereby confirm the declaration of independence already made by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,


do hereby affirm and resolve that till such time as a Constitution is framed, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shall be the President of the Republic and that Syed Nazrul Islam shall be the Vice President of the Republic

So we can have a nice legal argument that tries to make Zia the first president, and in the process lose a very important aspect of Zia’s action — something that is directly relevant in today’s Bangladesh.

Because Tarique said so, it’s now becoming BNP’s holy truth that Zia was the first president.  In the process, the fact that Major Zia swore allegiance and subservience to a democratically elected civilian political leadership is completely lost.  Zia’s bravery is March 1971 is to be lauded.  But for BNP, it’s also important to highlight his political maturity, and dedication to civilian, constitutional rule.  And that is exactly what he displayed on 15 August 1975, when he reminded Major General Shafiullah that the president might be dead, there was still a constitution and a vice president.  Whether in 1971 or 1975, Zia deferred to the civilian leadership and constitutionalism.   The relevance for an eventual post-AL Bangladesh is self-evident.

As it happens, Tarique Rahman was not the first person to claim that Zia is our first president.  In November-December 1987, Dhaka was rocked by a series of hartals that nearly brought down the Ershad regime.  Emergency had to be declared, and most opposition politicians were arrested.  Then, on 15-16 December, posters emerged around the city.  One had Mujib’s wireless message to Chittagong declaring independence, apparently sent before the midnight crackdown.  The other claimed Zia as the first president.

Oh, Ershad stayed in power for three more years.  How much more time is BNP’s history wars giving the current regime?

Des(h)i progressives’ nightmare

“But see, I don’t want to vote for AL. I do not think AL should return to power. We need checks and balances. BNP should come. But how can I vote for BNP when they are in an alliance with JI.”

That’s what a friend told me in December.  I have the deepest respect for this person’s sincerity.  She is a genuine progressive.  She wants a democratic Bangladesh — of this I have no doubt.  And I understand her reasons for aversion to Jamaat — never mind 1971, Jamaat categorically rejects some liberal-progressive tenets such as equal citizenship rights.  Had she said “I will not vote for Jamaat”, I would have accepted it.

But that’s not what she said.  She implicitly rejected BNP for its electoral alliance with Jamaat.

I didn’t engage in a prolonged conversation with her.  She is hardly the only person I know who made that leap about conflating Jamaat and BNP.  Bangladesh is full of self-proclaimed progressives who choose to reject democracy,never mind the facts.  I just don’t have the mental energy to engage in fruitless debates these days.  At least my friend had the decency to not engage in that kind of sophistry.

I didn’t engage in a political discussion with her, but was reminded of her comment after the Indian election.  You see, I had heard similar stuff from my Indian progressive friends.  Way back in the early 2000s, I heard people say “don’t want to vote for Congress, don’t like the sycophancy/dynasty, and the Vajpayee government isn’t so bad, but you know, how can BJP be supported when they have someone like Modi”.

And now Modi is the prime minister.

My Indian friends could have supported Vajpayee or other moderates in BJP/NDA government.  They could have provided the left flank of a genuinely centrist alternative to Congress.  But their self-inflicted intellectual blind spot meant that they couldn’t even contemplate such a course — never mind that such an alternative would have served India well.

A lot of things contributed to Mr Modi’s rise to power.  The progressives’ blind spot is just one factor, and probably not even an important one.  But to the extent that he represents a lot of things progressives loath, they have no one but themselves to blame.

I fear whether someday my Bangladeshi progressive friend will wake up to her political nightmare.  Jamaat’s importance in Bangladesh is constantly over-rated, and BNP’s strength under-rated, by everyone.  Of course, Jamaat benefits from the inflated power projection.  And the Jamaat bogey suits the Awamis fine.  The thing is, as the centrist opposition is systematically denied any political space, and as the ruling party degenerates into an orgy of violence (google Narayanganj / Feni murders), Islamists (Jamaat or otherwise) may well emerge as the only alternative.

My friend is genuine progressive, not a closet Awami fascist.  Will people like her act to prevent their own worst nightmare?

Major Zia’s war

A few years ago, I noted how the typical discourse on Ziaur Rahman is full of lies. An (Awami League supporting) old friend asked me to write a positive account of Zia’s politics: instead of rebutting X, write about Y, he told me. This (painfully slowly progressing) series is an attempt at that. Meanwhile, a regular reader asked me to write about Zia’s role during the war — not to refute the preposterous propaganda about him being a Pakistani spy, but about what Zia actually did after the radio declarations of March.

Interestingly, not much is readily available on the matter. While it is well known that Major Abu Taher or Major Khaled Mosharraf were injured in the battles of Kamalpur and Kasba respectively, even the typical BNP supporter wouldn’t be able to name a battle Zia was associated with. According to Muyeedul Hassan’s Muldhara ’71 (among other sources), Zia wanted Osmani to establish a war council. I have also heard from a number of freedom fighters that Zia worked hard to build a regular army. But these weren’t exactly the stuff of ‘battlefield valor’.

This well-researched post by the nationalist blogger দাসত্ব shows that Zia was actually quite intricately involved with a number of battles in 1971. I highlight some key points from the post over the fold. All the photos are from his post as well.

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Reviving BNP — what are we talking about?

If there is one constant refrain in Bangladeshi political punditry, it is that BNP as a political party has no future, it is broken beyond repair, it really stands for nothing, why, BNP means Basically No Party.  But defying these pundits, BNP keeps bouncing back.  And yet, some pundits keep ignoring the facts of BNP’s resilience, and continue to harp on about BNP’s imminent demise.

The thing is, cacophony of these pundits actually drown out some very legitimate critical analysis of BNP, analysis that BNP leaders and supporters would do well to dwell on at length.  This post provides a framework to think about these critical analyses.

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Street failures

The party’s undisputed supremo has given an iron clad ultimatum to the all powerful government, while an unequivocal promise has been made to the party rank and file that victory is imminent.  Political temper is reaching an unprecedented level.  Violence has spread to even the remotest village, and the government repression is just as fierce.  Ultimately, with the economy on the verge of disintegration, the urban and moneyed classes prevail upon the leader to call off the protests.  The andolon has failed.

Mrs Khaleda Zia.  BNP.  Awami League.  2013-14.

MK Gandhi.  Indian National Congress.  The Raj.  1921-22.

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Like on most other things historical, there is no consensus on the life and work of the Mahatma, except perhaps on one thing — there is a wide agreement that he was the father of mass politics as we know it, the politics of andolon, the street politics of rallies and processions, of hartal and bandh, of  gherao and oborodh, of civil disobedience and boycotts in the subcontinent.  Before him, politics happened in the palaces and among the elites.  He brought it to the streets and masses.  And the 1921-22 non-cooperation movement was the first time our part of the world saw this mass politics.  That was the first andolon to shake the entire South Asia.

And it was a failure, if by failure we mean it failed to meet its declared goal.  Swaraj in one year — that’s what Gandhi called for.  India would not be free for another quarter century.  The andolon failed to achieve what it called for.

Not just that andolon, but most andolons of that kind — where the opposition party announces a clear set of demand and deadline and makes its case in the street — fails.  I’ll keep to the examples from our part of the world for brevity.  In August 1942, Congress under Gandhi called the Raj to Quit India.  The Raj didn’t oblige.  A quarter century later, in June 1966, the Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, called an andolon to achieve maximum regional autonomy for the then East Pakistan.  Ayub Khan, the Pakistani president, threatened to use the language of weapon against Mujib and his party.  Within weeks, the streets were quiet.


Fast forward another two decades to 1987.  Awami League, BNP, leftists, and Jamaat-e-Islami were united in demanding that HM Ershad, in power since a March 1982 coup, steps down and allows free and fair election.  The opposition parties called for a siege of Dhaka on 10 November to achieve their objective.  The opposition failed.  Ershad would be in power for another three years.


There is a consensus in Bangladesh that the opposition BNP’s andolon in the last winter failed.  Of course, BNP failed to prevent the 5 January election, or to unseat the government of Mrs Hasina Wajed.  But then again, andolons usually fail.

Wait a minute here, this is selective history, all the successful andolons are being left out — I hear you say.  Let’s think through these successful andolons carefully.

The two andolons most comparable with the BNP’s failed one are those AL launched against past BNP governments.  And to the extent that the BNP governments were unseated in 1996 and 2007, it would seem that AL andolons were successful.

It would seem so, but the reality was a bit more nuanced in both cases.  In 1995-96, Mrs Zia finished her term and did hold a one party election — street protests could not prevent that.  The short-lived government she formed in February 1996 amended the constitution that ushered in the caretaker system.  It is quite possible to argue that BNP left office on its own term, and was not forced out.  It’s not so straightforward that AL’s andolon succeeded.  And in 2007, BNP had rigged the caretaker system and was on course to push through a sham election much like the one held on 5 January 2014, until it was toppled by a coup.  To the extent that the AL and allies were not demanding  a coup, is it straightforward that the andolon succeeded?


Arguably, the difference between 2007 and 2014 is that in the first case, AL had convinced Bangladesh’spowerbroker establishment to ditch BNP, while in the latter case AL had convinced the same group to let it ram through its agenda.  In both cases, AL was successful not out there in the streets, but behind the scene in halls of power.  Interestingly, AL did not always have such a strong grip on the bastions of power.  Even in the 2001 election, these powerbrokers refused to back AL’s designs, and openly or covertly endorsed BNP.  Obviously, since then BNP has fallen out with the establishment.

That falling out is BNP’s real political failure, not anything that has happened in the streets.

Wait, we’re still missing the seminal events in our history — what about 1952, 1969, 1990?  Let’s think through those events.  In each case, there were youth-led urban protests that quickly escalated and changed power dynamics.  These were indeed events when the street trumped the palace.  But in each of these cases, the organised political parties came let to the game.  And in each cases, the most organised of the parties (and other political players) ultimately reaped the benefit.

The kind of andolon that happened in 1952 or 1969 or 1990 cannot be predicted in advance, but after they happen, they almost inevitable — these are the proverbial black swan events.  And while some of them succeed, not all do.  Students of Dhaka University and elsewhere rose up against military regimes in 1962, 1983 and 2007 — but the regime survived in each case.  Meanwhile, there are other andolons, at local levels, that sometime succeed in achieving their aims — examples from recent past include Kansat and Arial Bil.

The andolons opposition parties launch against the government are usually thwarted because the government can see them coming, and take appropriate actions.  And surely opposition parties know that too.  Politicians from Tofail Ahmed to Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir have been in the game for long enough to know that street protests and hartals don’t bring down the government.

So why do the opposition parties continue to do this?

Instead of lazily pronouncing judgment about BNP’s failed andolon, pundits should focus on answering that question.

(Cross-posted in ND).