Dhaka, Feb. 1: The traffic snarls are back on Dhaka’s streets with a 2km ride taking more than 30 minutes. The cafeterias are again doing brisk business and the gun-toting men in uniform, ubiquitous across the city till January 5, seem to have returned to their barracks.
Ask anyone in Dhaka about the difference between their lives before and after the January 5 election, and there is near-unanimity that normality has returned after more than three months.
“I’m happy to see the traffic snarls again; I was missing the madness on the roads,” said a middle-aged businessman standing with his friends outside Captain’s World, an upscale evening haunt near Jahangir Gate.
The past three months had seen mayhem on Dhaka’s roads and there was fear in the air. The country was virtually under siege from the 18-party Opposition alliance led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which had vowed to derail the elections till Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed agreed to form a caretaker poll-time government.
Hasina did not budge and the Opposition boycotted the polls, resulting in the ruling Awami League winning over two-thirds seats, more than half of them uncontested, in a one-sided election.
Although debates continue over the voter turnout, the estimates ranging between the Opposition claim of 5 per cent and the official figure of 40 per cent, and over whether the poll results captured the national mood, there’s no missing the sense of relief in Dhaka.
No one is worried although BNP ally Jamaat-e-Islami has called a nationwide general strike on Thursday to protest the death sentence to its chief Motiur Rahman Nizami, along with Ulfa boss Paresh Barua, in a 2004 arms smuggling case.
Jamaat had initially planned the strike on Monday but postponed it citing an annual congregation that day as well as Saraswati Puja on Tuesday. The unusual reference to Saraswati Puja suggests the hard-line Islamist party is on the back foot.
That the BNP has not joined the strike call despite party leader Lutfozzaman Babar also being sentenced to death in the case implies a part of the Opposition has realised the people’s exasperation at shutdowns after losing 55 days in six months.
The apparent signs of normality, however, have spawned varying interpretations in a society split largely between League and BNP supporters. There’s a third bloc of influential people who are tired of the battling begums, but they are yet to garner a critical mass of support.
Those close to the ruling League say the elections have ended the uncertainty and that the return to normality is an indication that people want Hasina to run the country.
However, a lobby that includes BNP supporters as well as the powerful elite from the third bloc claim the normality is the lull before the storm that will dislodge Hasina’s government and force her to hold a participatory election.
There’s little doubt that Hasina has emerged the clear winner in the first round of her battle of nerves with Khaleda.
By holding the polls, she has not only stolen a march over her rival but also smothered the chances of army intervention, a possibility always looming large in a country that has seen military dictators as well as military-backed civil administrations.
Running the government, though, will be a bigger challenge, admitted League insiders while adding that Hasina had a foolproof strategy ready.
“Law and order is our priority and there will be zero tolerance for any terror activities. The Prime Minister will deliver on development and we’ll crush those who try to derail development through violent protests,” said League general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam.
By arresting some key members of the BNP and the Jamaat for the pre-election violence, Hasina has sent a strong message to her opponents, including Khaleda.
Hasina has also made it clear that her government would continue with the trials of the “war criminals” who had supported the Pakistani army during the 1971 war and execute the court orders.
The Prime Minister’s keenness to deliver is evident from the way she has formed the new cabinet by dropping non-performers and bringing back experienced people.
Since graft charges against some past lawmakers had dented the League’s image, the government has asked the anti-corruption commission to probe the allegations.
Another key element of Hasina’s strategy is her decision to stand by the country’s 12 per cent minority of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians — traditional League supporters who faced post-election attacks from alleged BNP and Jamaat activists.
“We want a secular and democratic Bangladesh where everyone has the right to observe their religion,” Hasina told a recent rally in Jessore.
“Jamaat supporters had opposed the country’s independence from Pakistan. Their ally, the BNP, is dictated to by its masters in Pakistan. We won’t let this country become another Pakistan.”
Hasina seems to have a well-laid plan that she wants to implement in a time-bound manner to dispel concerns about how well she can rule after winning a one-sided election.
“It all depends on how she implements her plans. If she can deliver development, execute the court orders on war criminals, keep the Opposition in check and win the trust of the minorities, she can silence her critics,” said Bidisha, former wife of H.M. Ershad, the military dictator who ruled between 1983 and 1990.
That Hasina successfully persuaded Ershad’s Jatiya Party to participate in the election and made him her special envoy with a minister’s rank is indication that she has the support of the current main Opposition in the parliament.
The BNP seems on the back foot for now as its decision to boycott the polls is being questioned by the people as well as some party members.
Some members of Dhaka’s elite power lobby, most of whom are opposed to the Awami League, told The Telegraph that the BNP had miscalculated. “They made a mistake by not taking part in the election,” a source said.
That the BNP lower rungs were eager to contest the polls becomes clear from their enthusiasm for the upa-zilla (sub-district) local government elections, starting February 19.
“Their leaders had expected the US-led international community and the uniformed forces to intervene during the pre-election phase of uncertainty and force Hasina to step down and form a poll-time caretaker government. But as the people did not hit the streets to support the BNP’s demand, their expectation of third-party intervention was not fulfilled.”
Not only have major powers such as India, China and Russia stood by the Hasina government, the US and the European Union, which had asked Hasina to hold participatory polls, too have agreed to engage with the new government.
“The BNP was banking too hard on the US. It didn’t help their cause,” the source said.
He added that the way the BNP had “outsourced” its street protests to “a handful of Jamaat activists”, who hurled cocktail bombs at innocent people, did not please the people.
The BNP leadership’s refusal to criticise the Jamaat for its disruptive politics in the run-up to the polls, which created an atmosphere of uncertainty and affected the economy, has further weakened the party.
Over 500 people have died in poll-related violence since early 2013, for which Bangladeshis primarily blame the BNP and the Jamaat.
Sensing the public mood, Khaleda recently said her party would pursue a peaceful and democratic political path. The statement is being seen as a victory for Hasina.
BNP leaders, who till the other day were boasting they would not allow the election to take place, are now banking on a people’s uprising against the “illegitimate” government.
“What you see on Dhaka’s streets is an uneasy calm based on fear. An illegitimate government, which doesn’t have the popular mandate, cannot deliver development. They can only unleash brutality, and the people of Bangladesh will not accept it,” said Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, former foreign secretary and a close Khaleda aide.
Chowdhury refused to admit that the BNP was on the back foot, but party sources hinted at a lack of direction because of the divergent views expressed by Khaleda and her exiled son Tarique Rahman, a senior party vice-chairperson.
“Khaleda has said she is open to a dialogue with the League but Tarique has sent video messages to supporters urging them to carry on with the street protests. There’s confusion in the party,” a source said.
Amid the confusion in the BNP ranks, the government is trying to achieve its goal of dissociating the BNP from the Jamaat, which is seen as the biggest obstacle to Hasina’s dream of positioning Bangladesh as a secular and democratic country.
“In some of her interactions with the diplomatic community, Khaleda has not defended the Jamaat and stressed the temporary nature of her alliance with them. If she maintains this stand, Bangladesh’s polity is bound to change,” said a diplomatic source.
The road ahead
Although Hasina looks stronger than Khaleda at the moment, key questions relating to the likely length of the government’s tenure and the possibility of another election remain unanswered.
Senior League leaders such as commerce minister Tofail Ahmed claim the government will complete its five-year term, prompting the question why they need to stress the point again and again.
“These repeated assertions are nothing but a sign of nervousness,” Chowdhury said. But while he claimed that Hasina’s days in power were numbered, he could not explain how the government would be dislodged and by when.
“The government will claim it has the mandate to rule for five years while the Opposition will keep disputing this. Eventually, matters will be settled on the streets —we’ll face a political crisis again,” said Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star, the country’s highest-circulated English daily.
Debapriya Bhattacharya of the Centre for Policy Dialogue agreed that the current situation of uncertainty was unsustainable. “The government has got some breathing space, but for how long is anybody’s guess,” he said.