Slightly over a month before Bangladesh goes to the polls, the incumbent Awami League, which is faced with mounting pressure from the Oikkyo Front, must put up “good, clean and honest” candidates to contest the general elections, according to a recommendation by a Dhaka-based political think tank close to the ruling establishment.
According to the think tank’s findings accessed by the South Asian Monitor, Sheikh Hasina has been advised that as many as 12 ministers on her 48-member cabinet should not be given the Awami League ticket to contest the polls.
Even as the Jatiya Oikkyo Front (National United Front) continues to keep up pressure on the Awami League government, the think tank has also recommended to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that the party’s basic organisational structure should be strengthened to take on a united opposition.
Besides a set of strong recommendations, a detailed overview of the electoral prospects of the Awami League as well as the National United Front in general and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in particular was presented to Hasina towards the end of October.
The think tank has not minced words to caution Sheikh Hasina that “it would be potentially dangerous and risky to rely only on the police and civil administrations and other government institutions” at a time when the international community in general and India in particular continue to insist that Bangladesh must have “free, fair and participatory elections”.
A fourth recommendation made by the think tank relates to Awami League-leaning civil society involvement in the elections, which would send out the message that the government is prepared to take on board the “views and suggestions” of “pro-democratic and pro-Liberation forces” at a critical juncture in Bangladesh’s politics otherwise riven with confrontation and violence.
Ever since the united opposition, which received a shot in the arm when famed freedom fighter Kader ‘Tiger’ Siddiqui formally joined the Front on November 5, closed ranks to hold talks (sanglap) with Hasina, there has been a visible softening of its earlier uncompromising stand by the ruling party which has already accepted the opposition demand to hold political-electoral rallies across the country and has agreed that the BNP could launch and conduct public meetings under the Front’s banner.
On its part, the BNP, perceiving that both India and the US continue to ‘sensitise’ the Hasina government to create conditions for a semblance of free and fair elections, has redoubled its efforts to seek the release from prison of party supremo Begum Khaleda Zia on bail and not on “parole” as suggested by Awami League general secretary Obaidul Qader a few days ago.
Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, BNP secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said, “we demand nothing short of release of Khaleda Zia”. When asked whether he saw an Indian hand behind the creation of the National United Front and the consequent softening of the Awami League’s stand, Alamgir said, “certainly”. “I welcome this initiative,” he added.
But some highly-placed BNP sources admitted that the party’s position on bail for Khaleda was preceded by “strong differences of opinion” over the issue among several senior standing committee members four days ago. While at least three senior BNP leaders initially favoured Obaidul Qader’s “parole” suggestion, there was strong opposition from another section which insisted that it “has to be bail or nothing”. Alamgir’s comment to the South Asian Monitorwas a reflection of the amended view previously held by the three influential standing committee members.
Reacting to a question over the parole issue, standing committee member Gayashwar Chandra Roy said: “Accepting parole for Khaleda Zia is impossible. She should get bail”. Besides, Roy and some of his other senior party colleagues insisted that Khaleda herself “would dismiss being released on parole”. The parole issue was, however, dismissed by a seasoned think tank head as part of the Awami League’s “game to deflect the BNP’s attention”.
A second issue that caused friction in the 15-member standing committee meeting attended by seven leaders on November 2 was whether to at all take part in the forthcoming polls. BNP sources said that matters came to a head when Roy was asked why he preferred to not join a section of the party’s senior leadership in the National United Front’s talks with the Hasina government. The sources indicated that while Dr Khandaker Mosharraf and Alamgir were keen that the BNP must take part in the polls under the leadership of Dr Kamal Hossain, Gayashwar Roy and Mirza Abbas insisted that the party should refrain from participating in the elections if the ruling Awami League did not meet the demand of Khaleda’s release.
This issue was also scheduled to be placed before the executive committee whose meeting could not be held on November 5. Some of the younger generation of BNP leaders, many of whom expect to be nominated to contest the polls, said that backing away from contesting the elections would mean imminent break-up of the party and eventual loss of registration.
Even as the BNP would prefer that elections took place after January 28 when the National Assembly would stand automatically dissolved, the Awami League is keen that polling takes place towards the end of December. The poll schedule is expected to be announced by the Bangladesh Election Commission on November 8, which will be preceded by another round of talks between representatives of the National United Front and prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
The Awami League itself is jittery over how far Sheikh Hasina would go to concede to the Front’s demands, especially at a time when there is widespread belief among senior party insiders and civil society leaders that India’s push has forced the prime minister to “make some electoral room” for the Front.
They even frowned upon the party leadership’s “alliance” with Hefazat-e-Islam which felicitated prime minister Sheikh Hasina on November 4 and hailed her as “Quomi Janani (Mother)”. It may be mentioned here that the ailing Hefazat-e-Islam amirAllama Shah Ahmad Shafi was airlifted from the Hathazari-based Islamist outfit by helicopter and brought over to Dhaka to attend the felicitation ceremony. The same chopper transported him back to Hathazari after the programme concluded.