Will BNP ever change?
Ajoy Dasgupta (is a researcher and columnist.)
Awami League contestants Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh and Atiqul Islam have attained victories in the elections to the two city corporations in Dhaka. They deserve a hearty congratulation. They have challenges to overcome and the voters have made it clear. Around three-quarters of the voters were absent. There are several reasons behind the low turnout, though! Still, it is a matter of concern. We must not forget that Dhaka is home to 20 million people while the number of voters in the capital is around 5.4 million. It means a large portion of the city’s population seek civil benefits despite being registered as voters under the city corporations. Every day, hundreds of thousands of men and women make it to Dhaka, the capital and the administrative center of Bangladesh, for education and medical purposes. But, they also fall under the purview of the community the mayors ensure the welfare of. The mayors also ensure the benefits that the government and non-government organisations are entitled to.
The BNP, arch-rival of the Awami League, bagged a total of 500,673 votes in the mayoral elections to Dhaka North and South City Corporations while the Awami League secured 871,806 votes. The mayoral candidate of the BNP in the North, Tabith Awal, contested in the 2015 elections as well. He did not reach out to the people of the city corporation even for the blink of an eye after losing the polls. When the electoral campaign rolled on, a handful of BNP leaders confided that the city dwellers were grappling with some menaces –from mosquito-borne dengue and chikungunya, extreme cold as well as hot weather, rumours like those about salt and onion prices, regular traffic congestion to water-logging. None of these issues could stir the heart of the aspirant guardian of the city. If someone pops up on the stage as shortly as a migratory bird, you cannot expect that candidate to sail through the polls against a party like the Awami League so deeply spread at the grass-root level. A BNP leader couldn’t hide his rage in a discussion aired by a television channel during the voting. He said that Awami League activists came to his residence in Dhanmondi as part of their electoral campaign. He went to the vote booth with the slip he was provided by those activists. He visited around 20 polling stations on the day of the election. Not even within a certain radius did he find the trace of any BNP leader. One cannot win the election with so much fear deep down the mind.
I also encountered some BNP-leaning journalists. With a tone of humour, they said that the BNP took the ‘selfie-style’ for the campaign, which means that they went out to campaign only when television cameras were around. Instead of knocking door to door to inform the voters, they had rather took interest in distributing leaflets on prominent roads and getting interviewed by television channels. On the other hand, Awami League leaders were seen busy with public relations on a one-on-one basis. With due respect to the people’s choice, they placed a candidate in the North, Atiqul, who is endowed with a spotless reputation and friendly gesture. Within just nine months of his bygone tenure as the mayor, he presented himself as a dedicated guardian of the city bringing about swift and positive changes. I visited 50 polling centers on the day of voting. Nowhere did I see any BNP camp in the vicinity. Ritual requires central leaders of a party to be present at the polling centers during the day of voting. Some Awami League leaders could not do so because of the code of conduct. But BNP was out of power for 13 years. None of their leaders are seen in parliament. Dr Kamal Hossain, the leader of the Oikya Front which swore allegiance to the BNP, posed for a picture with Tabith and the other BNP mayoral candidate, Ishraque Hossain. Both of these BNP candidates had serious allegations to bear – one facing charges of corruption placed by the Anti-Corruption Commission while the other is accused of smuggling money out of the country. Those issues were too small for Dr Hossain to take seriously. Neither did he take into account that the BNP was more on placing the demand of releasing their leader Khaleda Zia, jailed for corruption, than on the crises facing the city.
But, that did upset the voters. Bangladesh is transforming in terms of financial status. She stood on her own feet. The way the BNP bowed down to Western countries for helping them out was not accepted by the people. They did the same in the 2018 parliamentary elections. That did not make any difference. It is the voters who decide who would end up winning in the elections. Though some embassies tried to help the BNP in organising an election designed to help the party win, that didn’t work. They opted for the same strategy in the city corporation elections.
Another incident bearing the proof that the BNP has not changed even the least is that they called a dawn-to-dusk general strike in the capital on Sunday rejecting the results. I wandered around the streets for three hours during the strike. Taking some leaders and activists of the BNP in front of their party office as an exception, you wouldn’t be able to trace even a footprint of any BNP leader and activist around the city. No one paid heed to the strike called by the BNP and the city was bustling the way it always did.
The million-dollar question is – why did the BNP call the strike?
They enforced a blockade programme spanning the first three months of 2015. They couldn’t thwart the people’s agenda by using petrol bombs. On Dec 30, 2018, they suffered a vanquishing defeat, but didn’t call any strike.
The city corporation polls in Dhaka once more lent evidence of the level of public support they had. Still, they have no connection with the people. Organisational weakness is more evident than before. Their agents did not cover all the polling stations. Even a person named as a BNP polling agent was found holidaying in Cox’s Bazar. That went viral on social media too!
During the election campaign, different leaders of the BNP had different versions to publish.
Some said that the BNP participated in the election only to prove that polls would be farcical. Some said that the Awami League would be taught a good lesson. Some said 80 percent of all votes will go to the BNP. On the other hand, all the abuses were hurled at the EVM machine. But, what happened in reality? EVM was proved to be the easiest and most effective method of polling among all the voters – from the young ones to the senior citizens. A voter’s identity is confirmed by matching fingerprints.
Still, the BNP leaves no stone unturned to prove that EVM makes messes. A quarter with vested interests is desperate to raise the question whether it is possible to conduct free and fair elections under the current Election Commission. Though hundreds of thousands of cameras in the hands of voters are the ultimate watchdog in this era of social media, some people still sniff every corner to search for evidence of irregularities. But, all voices finally told in unison that EVM is the best and the most hassle-free way to conduct elections.
So, did the BNP call the strike simply because they couldn’t withstand the pain and agony of their failure to prove EVM ineffective? Or did they call the strike because people didn’t respond to their demand for releasing Khaleda? Whatever the reason is, people have rejected the strike. Neither were they able to drum up support to get her released. BNP leaders knew very well that the activists would raise questions about the failure of the strike. They had taken the chance of the faintest possibility of a slightly successful strike would save their faces. But, how could they expect any success without changing themselves, how they work and how they react?