If you look at the history of modern democracy, it is not going to be easy to find a match for the BNP. Despite not being in power for one and a half decades, making one serious political mistake after another during that period, and in the process pushing itself further and further away from regaining power, BNP is still one of the two most popular political parties in Bangladesh.
For years, BNP members – local activists and central high-ups alike – have been facing thousands of political cases and stern police actions all over the country. Still, it will be hard to find a place in Bangladesh where the party does not exist. If there is a local unit of the ruling Awami League anywhere, there will most likely be a unit of BNP as well.
Over the last 13 years, the BNP has boycotted a general election and made a last-minute decision to participate in the next one, and came out with almost equally devastating results on both occasions: zero seats in the election they boycotted, and almost zero seats in the one they took part in. The last time the party took part in a general election with their usual preparation was in 2008, and they faced a massive defeat.
Although they won about a fifth of the seats in parliament, they decided to stay out of the House almost throughout the entire tenure of that parliament. All of that meant that the media (both mainstream and social) was the only platform left for them to challenge the government. As a result, they never got to have an official say in the country’s policymaking process all these years.
With yet another general election coming up, BNP is trying to warm up its ranks. One would think that the party would struggle to find supporters for its rallies and processions after being away from power for so many years. Surprisingly, that isn’t the case: supporter turnouts in their street programmes have been impressive. Historically, major political protests are staged during winter and spring because of the pleasant weather, which allows the parties to keep their supporters out in the streets for long hours. However, this year, BNP is seeing supporter turnout despite the summer heat and the sun beating down hard.
Tactically speaking, the party has never been in a worse situation. Nobody knows when their supreme leader Khaleda Zia, who is in her 70s and has been fighting potentially fatal ailments, will be able to come back to active politics. Their second-in-command Tarique Rahman, convicted for serious criminal offences, has been in exile in the UK for more than a decade. Many of their seasoned leaders have either died or have become inactive due to old age and other reasons, leaving it to only a handful of leaders at the top to run the show, some of whom do not have proven political prowess and administrative potential. Add to that the political cases hanging over virtually every important BNP member’s head, and you can’t help but wonder where the party is getting the organisational strength from to amass as many people as they are able to.
There are several factors that are probably helping the BNP build up the emotional drive for its supporters to come and join the street protests. First is the death of at least three men from gunshots fired allegedly by law enforcement agencies during street protests in recent times. Second is the raging price hike of essentials such as food and fuel. Third is the news of many different kinds of corruption allegedly by ruling party politicians and government officials. And fourth is the eternal anti-incumbency emotion that every party in Bangladesh that has ever been in power has had to deal with.
The protest programmes that the BNP is currently holding are almost exclusively on issues such as price hike and corruption. Through these protests, the party is trying to attempt to correct its previous failures of not being able to portray itself as a pro-people party. In fact, this failure to address issues that affect people’s lives directly is often seen as one of the many serious strategic mistakes the BNP has made in the past. But one thing is clear that so far the party’s stance is to not join any election under the current Awami League government. Then again, you never know with the BNP; they might decide to join the elections at the last minute like they did in 2018. They might be as popular and this might be the source of confidence to contest the polls. However, that popularity did not translate into favourable results in the last elections. So just being popular isn’t enough; the party needs to make strategic preparations to fire up its grassroots and get them ready to stand firm and compete in the local-level standoffs with their political rivals.
You can never be sure whether the large number of people joining these recent political programmes of BNP comprise general people, who are coming spontaneously out of their frustrations towards the current government, or just party workers coming in return for some form of material gain or expectations of future rewards. Either way, supporter turnout is merely an indicator of the party’s popularity, which is just one of many prerequisites for winning an election.
Heading into the next general elections, BNP seems to be lacking a concrete strategy to address the other prerequisites. Even if they do have a plan, it needs to come out just about now; otherwise, a change of fate will keep eluding them.