An election is approaching. Government is set make the playing field as uneven as possible. Opposition needs a major street victory to change the game. Jamaat is flexing its muscle. Secular-liberal-progressives are worried about what might happen if Awami League loses to the BNP-Jamaat alliance. The establishment — local bureaucracy-army-civi society-corporates and the international murubbis — are worried about stability. There is much violence in the street. No, I am not talking about today’s Bangladesh. Though this describes Bangladesh of March 2013 pretty well, I am actually talking about late October of 2006.
This old gem is a good indication of how the last few days of October 2006 looked to contemporary observers. Read the analysis carefully, and you will see two themes emerging:
1. BNP is the party of confident (but corrupt) “new”, while AL is disconnected and “old”
2. Jamaat was “back” in rural Bangladesh, using the Islam card
While the blogger did not explicitly say it, I read the analysis as implying that the corrupt Naya BNP was going to snooker the disconnected purana AL and return to power on the back of the above factors. The first factor would mean BNP would be supported by the “establishment” — at the end of the day, no one wants street violence and anarchy, and even Hawa Bhaban corruption would be preferred over logi-boitha violence. The second factor would come into play in electoral arithmetic — like so many elections before, “vote AL = Islam-in-danger” would carry the day.
That was the analysis then. There was no facebook, and blogs were new. But TV talk shows were already big at that time, and newpaper columnists we have had since the British era. And most pundits supported some variation or other of the above analysis. AL-ers would worry about “shukkho karchupi” on the back of these above factors. BNP folks would feel confident that they were returning to power because of these factors. So the reaction varied. But very few questioned the validity of the above analysis.
As it happens, things turned out quite differently. No one talks about BNP as the confident party of new generation anymore. Its confident, new generation leaders were sent packing after 1/11. It failed to win any support among the new generation in the 2008 election. Whether because of the promise of Digital Bangladesh or 10 taka rice or the hatred of the razakars, young voters of all socioeconomic backgrounds overwhelmingly voted for AL.
AL leadership played a very shrewd game whereby first an overconfident and disconnected BNP was ousted by its handpicked generals, and then the generals’ third party plans were foiled and AL was left as the only possible exit strategy. And in the election, AL was the choice of the new generation.
Fast forward to now, which party has the pulse of the new voters? Which one looks to be composed, if corrupt? And which one looks to be disconnected? Maybe AL has also lost the new generation. Maybe the new generation hates everyone. Or maybe the new generation, like their parents, is divided between two sides. But one has to be a brave analyst with some amazing insights, or a hardcore partisan mind, to say that BNP is the Naya party.
And by taking a strident, uncomprimising stance against Shahbag, BNP seems to be saying “we don’t care about the new generation”.
Or are they?
New generation is, of course, more than just Shahbag. At no point in its history were there more than 500,000 people in Shahbag. There are 3 million factory workers in Tongi-Ashulia belt. There are 3 million mosques in Bangladesh, each home to a few young men. Is BNP appealing to them?
While there is nothing in its conduct to appeal to the factory workers, by denouncing the nastiks of Shahbag, is Khaleda Zia calculating that the old (in fact, older than Purana Paltan) Islam-in-danger card will save BNP “in rural Bangladesh, where, religion and Muslim communalism still play a big role in election politics”?
Well, she played that card (and its companion — India bogey) very hard in 2008. AL will ban burqas and azan — that’s pretty much where the 2008 campaign went to. And it didn’t work then. Maybe it will work now?
Maybe. But AL can play that game too. Can AL be really against Islam if the Imam of Sholakia — who leads the largest Eid prayer in the country — supports it?
And is she factoring in the overwhelmingly female 3 million workers? They may not particularly care for the nastiks of Shahbag. But how do they feel about huzurs who think women’s place is at home?
Most importantly, how will the establishment view a party that wants to ignore the urban, educated youth for the religious vote bank?
AL, on the other hand, has appropriated Shahbag, while defending its own turf of the religious-minded vote bank. If they can now portray BNP as the force of instability, they believe it will be enough to have the grudging support of the urban working class as well as the establishment. Remember, in politics, to win you don’t need to be liked — you win as long as the opponent is hated more than you.
Will that strategy work?
Shahbag might be just 3 kms from Paltan — Naya and Purana. And the reality of Paltan and Shahbag may well be identical. But the perception of Shahbag and Paltan could not be any more different. Coming election will be a contest between Shahbag and Paltan.