Much to the relief of her supporters and well-wishers Begum Khaleda Zia is back to her Gulshan residence from Evercare hospital, where she was treated for liver cirrhosis and a host of other illness. This was the BNP leader's second long-term stay in the hospital since she first went there last year after being infected with Covid-19. Before her release from the hospital on Tuesday her doctors told the media that her condition was stable even though it may deteriorate any time. The cited a spread of Covid-19 pandemic among the hospital staff as a key reason for taking her out of the premier hospital for her safety. Government spokesperson Information Minister Hasan Mahmud, however, found the opposition leader's release from hospital as yet another proof that BNP has been spreading lies about the 76-year-old ex-prime minister's health condition. He obviously was referring to BNP leaders' repeated assertions that their leader was on the edge of life and death. They did so to pressure the government, more specifically, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to take a humanitarian approach and allow her to go abroad to better treatment. Her family also said that they need to take her abroad, preferably in Germany or UK, as her further treatment is not possible in Bangladesh. They were backed by the doctors treating her.
Has BNP been doing politics on the health of Begum Zia? The government is convinced that the opposition party is exactly doing that. The government has been clear in explaining why the BNP leader, convicted of two counts of corruption, can't travel abroad. The prime minister was on record saying that she in exercise of her executive power suspended her bitter political rival's corruption sentence on humanitarian ground after the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic when the authorities thought it was not safe to keep her in prison. The prime minister showed the gesture after an appeal from Begum Zia's family. Law bars the government from taking the same move for the second time as the law minister repeatedly said she has to return to prison to make a fresh appeal for going abroad or she can seek pardon from the president. Both the options were rejected by BNP which continued to state that legal provisions on this issue are being misinterpreted.
As Begum Zia was lying in hospital, where she was mostly kept either in ICU or CCU, BNP tried to hype a street movement for her total release so she can go abroad for treatment. In some places BNP workers clashed with police even though the demonstrations were by and large non-violent. It is now clear that the party did not succeed in getting its demand fulfilled or accepted by the government, which remained as rigid as a rock on this issue. Rather it believed that the opposition party was using Begum Zia's illness as a ploy to get her out of the country in the name of better treatment. If that was the strategy of BNP as the government says the party needs to have a critical assessment of it. BNP has the right to take to the streets on the issue of the supreme leader's illness. But the failure to sustain the momentum reflects the weakness of the party, which has long been suffering from a leadership vacuum. With Begum Zia incapacitated (due to illness) and rendered silent (because of corruption sentence) the party has her son Tariq Rahman, also convicted of corruption and other charges, as the acting head of the embattled organization. It is difficult for us to know if Begum Zia still talks politics with the leaders who come in contact with her either directly or through the doctors. But there is no confusion about Tariq's role in guiding the party from London, where he and his family have been given political asylum. BNP has long been inflicted with this problem of leadership from two different centers of control. It first emerged when Begum Zia was the prime minister during 2001-2006 when her administration's ability to deliver suffered a huge setback because of Hawa Bhavan, an alternative seat of power even superseding the prime minister's office.
It has been more than 15 years since BNP is out of power. As an opposition party during this period the party and its leadership has been trying to regain the foothold in power politics. In spite of the hardline approach of the government in its dealing with BNP the party still has a fair amount of popular support that has been evident in the ongoing UP elections. Officially, the party did not field any candidate, but BNP grassroots did take part in the polls as independent candidates doing fairly well compared to the ruling Awami League, which too suffered setbacks in the local government polls. Imagine what could have happened if BNP had officially taken part in the elections.
Another challenge BNP now faces is streamlining its strategy on the not-that-far-away national election. It is due in 2023 and the Awami League has already started rolling out its preparations. Confident of its return to office in also in the next election the government outwitted BNP in the latest move to enact the Election Commission law as per the provision of the constitution. Though late by 50 years the passage of the law, despite some controversies triggered by it and opposition from BNP, has generally been welcomed as a timely step. Whether the law will help creation of a truly independent and bold EC is still matter of debate. While Awami League has already started drumming up its success in making the law, BNP is going back to its old stand: restoration of the long-annulled constitution provision of holding the general election under a neutral and nonpartisan caretaker administration. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government will never accept this demand of BNP just because the opposition wants it. What BNP needs is either to mobilize the public both on streets and outside on this issue or be courageous enough to accept whatever comes on its way and participate in the vote. Lobbying in the US or European Union will not help the party's cause at all.
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