Pundits are seeing revolution everywhere in Bangladesh these days. First there was the Shahbag revolution, which was supposed to start the second liberation war. Now there is the Hefazot revolution, which is turning Bangladesh into Afghanistan via Syria. And then there has been all the speculation about disturbances in the force. In between, pundits (and fellow bloggers) have seen black-and-white birds, various flags, and politics that keep on getting deeper. For all that talk, I think the most likely path of political change in Bangladesh is still through an election participated by both main parties. I am going to eschew various deep analysis of these revolutions, and focus on some simple political calculations.
As of 4th February 2013, Bangladeshi politics was pretty much where it was on the same day 12 years earlier. The ruling AL and the opposition BNP had similar support base — about 40%. Smaller parties accounted for the rest. Ershad couldn’t be trusted, but both main parties knew that he still commanded enough vote that could upset any calculation. Jamaat was formally in alliance with BNP, but it was as much a liability as an asset — BNP wanted to maintain the relationship, without publicising it. Smaller left parties provided symbolic values for AL, but meant nothing for its votes.
Both parties had geographic pockets of support — Bogra-Noakhali-Chittagong for one side, swaths of south Bengal for the other. These gave each side 60-70 seats as a starting point. Each also had areas of weakness. BNP was particularly weak in Sylhet, AL in north Bengal.
The election was all about the rest of the country — greater Jessore-Pabna-Dhaka-Mymensingh-Comilla. Within these, the more urban an area, the more popular was the opposition BNP. The urbanites didn’t like the Hasina’s heavy handed attitude. They complained about civil amenities. They liked BNP’s moderation. They were ready to return BNP to power. Rural voters, on the other hand, were solidly with AL because of farmer friendly policy, which kept prices steady while production rose and natural disasters were tackled efficiently.
That was the scenario in the first week of February 2013, as was the case in 2001. In 2001, BNP solidified its alliance with Jamaat, persuaded enough of Ershad’s followers to join its side, and made use of media, civil society and foreign powers that it was a more dependable ‘party of governance’. Result — 2001 election victory.
Up until Shahbag, BNP was copying exactly the same playbook. It called the occasional hartal or long march to keep its party workers active. But its real game was elsewhere. Khaleda was touring India and west, writing op eds and papers about the importance of co-operation and friendship and foreign intervention to save Bangladesh. Mirza Fakhrul was rekindling old friendship with Matiur-Mahfuz. Jamaat alliance was talked down. The cities were ready to vote BNP again, and everyone was focussing on smaller towns and villages in the ‘middle Bangladesh’.
For its part, AL had given up on the cities and the bhadralok. It was gearing up to solidify its rural base and aiming to spend a lot of money and muscle power to hold on to the mofosshol and small towns.
Then came Shahbag.
After the initial shock, AL grabbed the opportunity very quickly. It saw in Shahbag a chance to corner the elite bhadralok upper class as well as educated middle class opinionmaking chattering section of the society. By siding with Shahbag’s rekindling of the Spirit of 1971, AL believed it would make the chattering classes forget about the past four years. BNP meanwhile was completely at a loss.
BNP was, but Jamaat wasn’t. It needed a confrontation. That was its only way to save its leaders. And other mullahs — Hefazot mob — also saw an opportunity, to advance their agenda. At a crucial point in early March, BNP leadership decided that in the ‘Islam-in-danger’ cry was BNP’s greatest electoral advantage. BNP figured that it had the cities with it — no amount of razakar bashing would make the city dwellers forget four years of loadshedding and share market scam. But in the mofosshol and upazilla towns and prosperous villages — the battleground ‘middle Bangladesh’ — Islam-biponno could only help BNP.
AL quickly came to the same conclusion — hence the recent flurry of activities against the ‘nastik bloggers’. AL figures that it cannot afford to fall behind BNP in the ‘save the Islam’ race. But at the same time, AL feels quietly confident that it still has a considerable hold over the chattering, opinionmaking classes.
Why? Because BNP has stopped wooing this class altogether. BNP figures Awami misrule is enough for this class to come over to BNP. But that was before the violence and Hefazot’s 13 point demand. The chattering city dwellers believe the violence is caused by ‘razakars-jongis-mollahs’, and by siding shoulder to shoulder with them, BNP is seen as guilty by association. BNP is now locked in a corner. If it tries to wiggle out of the embrace of the Islam-savers, it will be lampooned as directionless. But by staying with them, it will be dubbed as the patron of militancy, with the corporate media’s hostility to BNP reaching 2006-07 levels.
BNP is well aware of it. But it believes the Islam-in-danger cry will silence all others and give it 100 or so seats it needs to win convincingly. It looks to Turkey or Thailand as models where mofoshhol based, conservative-populist parties triumphed again and again against a cosmopolitan urban elite.
So, which side will be right? Will AL be able to rely on its rural vote banks to vote for its pro-farmer record while capturing the cities on the basis of 1971 symbolism? Or will BNP capture enough of the middle to upset AL calculation?
The result will come down to one demographics that no pundit has analysed so far.
I believe it’s the ‘young’ (18-40) female voters that will prove crucial for the coming election. We can look at the Hefazot mob and see thousands of angry young men with little prospects. We can shudder at their demands — this will turn Bangladesh into Talebanistan. Well, how do you think the idea of ‘women’s place is at the kitchen and bed’ play to the garments workers? Thanks to bipartisan efforts over the last two decades, we have seen revolutionary gains in female literacy. How do you think the young women of mofoshshol ‘middle Bangladesh’ see the prospect of an ‘Islamic Bangladesh’?
People talk about Prothom Alo’s command over the media landscape. Few realise that its most popular feature pages are the ones read by the ‘middle Bangladesh’ women — people who are inspired by the success stories of other women, people who like to impress their friends with egg sandwich. In a previous generation, their mothers and sisters voted overwhelmingly for BNP because in Zia they saw someone who could make their life a bit easier by providing stability, and in Khaleda they saw a grieving widow they could identify with.
But in 2013, how many female voters will be turned off by the spectre of Hefazot-allied BNP?
A few more long marches and ultimatums by Hefazot and such like, and AL won’t have to rig the election — it will win on the back of female vote, in a landslide.