Journalist | Writer | Analyst
13 September 2004
A rivalry that is tearing the country apart
By Siddharth Varadarajan
Dhaka: Competition may be the engine of pluralist politics everywhere but here in Bangladesh, the rivalry between the ruling party and the Opposition is so personalised, intense and venomous that it is poisoning the very lifeblood of democracy.
Consider one symptom of this pathology: Three weeks after a deadly grenade attack on a rally of the Opposition Awami League (AL), Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Awami leader Sheikh Hasina, who was the target of the attack, have not seen it fit to meet or even speak to each other on the telephone.
Each side has its own explanation, but at the heart of this bizarre and unhealthy disconnect lie three decades of bitterness in which the visceral emotions of familial loss — Ms. Hasina blames Ms. Khaleda’s husband, the late Zia-ur-Rahman, for the assassination of her father, Sheikh Mujib, while Ms. Khaleda believes Ms. Hasina was complicit in her husband’s killing by the Ershad regime — have merged with a confrontationist political ethic to produce a situation in which “normal” politics has no place. Elections take place regularly — and produce shock upsets, as in 1996 and 2001 — but Parliament rarely functions since the Opposition party invariably launches an unending series of street protests and hartals soon after the elections demanding that the ruling party resign. “The whole country is divided on bipolar lines. Journalists, lawyers, doctors, judges and generals, everyone is either BNP or AL. The only thing left is the cricket team,” said a senior editor.
The August 21 incident was an attack on Bangladeshi democracy but when ordinary political cadres — whether of the AL or the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — suspect the hidden hand of the rival party, there is obviously no question of their two leaders meeting. Begum Khaleda sought to call on Sheikh Hasina soon after the attack but the AL leadership, convinced the Prime Minister’s sole aim was propaganda, baulked. On her part, Ms. Khaleda quickly realised there was little sense in pressing for a meeting given the Awami League’s failure to capitalise on the initial wave of sympathy.
The AL wanted Interpol to handle the investigation but Ms. Khaleda went one step further and brought in the FBI. Last week, the BNP upped the ante again. The Prime Minister is said to have broadly hinted to a Chambers of Commerce group that the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, might have engineered the attack to discredit her Government. And her Foreign Minister, Morshed Khan, told a visiting group of Indian journalists that the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telephoned only Sheikh Hasina and not Begun Khaleda to express his concern about the attack suggested New Delhi was being partisan in its approach.
“This is no time for jokes,” the owner of a Bengali-language daily told The Hindu , “but the only thing that can be said about the identity of the assailants with a fair degree of certainty is that half of Bangladesh secretly believes India did it while the other half is convinced the culprit is Pakistan,” which still has links with collaborationist elements — mostly Islamist — who opposed the 1971
liberation war. “Quite frankly, the situation is really bad,” a senior BNP leader said. “Unless I see the two ladies appear on television together soon, signalling an end to this destructive bitterness, things are going to go from bad to worse. One might as well pack up one’s bags and leave the country.”
Asked why the Awami League is embarking upon a political programme with a demand — the resignation of the Government — that the Prime Minister can never accept, a senior AL leader said the growing number of terrorist attacks on liberal and secular forces had pushed the entire Opposition into a corner.
“We have no choice but to press for the ouster of the Government. It is a question of survival.”
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