Two critical signals were emitted from Bangladesh on Monday, at once very different and confusing. Exactly two months ahead of the general election, Prime Minister Begum Hasina has agreed to hold talks with the Opposition alliance called the Jatiyo Oikya Front. While this may be deemed as a certain forward movement in the country’s murky political scenario, the decision cannot readily inspire optimism.
The Awami League’s proposed flirtation with the Opposition ~ election is the single-point agenda ~ comes in parallel to the second jail term that was awarded on Monday to Begum Khaleda Zia, the head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and a pivotal leader of the country’s Opposition. As in many parts of South Asia, both the AL and BNP are virtually one-person entities. In jail since February this year, Khaleda has been sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment in yet another corruption case. She has been convicted for having embezzled millions of taka from a charitable trust in her late husband’s name. Now battling serious illness behind bars, her absence from the conference table will almost certainly impede the Opposition’s bargaining position. Equally,
Begum Hasina’s terms of engagement can be expected to score over the Opposition’s though it is early days to speculate on another uncontested election as in 2013. Suffice it to register that for now, Hasina has responded positively to the letter for talks, sent by Kamal Hossain, convenor of the umbrella entity. Yet the Awami League is unlikely to concede the principal demands of the Jatiyo Oikya Front ~ release of Khaleda, dissolution of Parliament, and elections under a non-partisan caretaker government.
This is a faint echo of the demands that were raised five years ago. The interim administration ~ not to be confused with a caretaker government ~ that was put in place was a quasi-military dispensation, and the uncontested election was held under the shadow of the soldier’s gun. Unmistakable is the common strand with Pakistan, where the recent election was stagemanaged by the military. In Bangladesh, the atrophied Opposition is rudderless and scarcely in a position to be assertive… if and when the meeting with the ruling party is held after all. Officially, the seven-point charter of demands has already been turned down ~ a rejection that has led to protest rallies across the country, with the likes of Kamal Hossain threatening the Awami League with what he calls “unimaginable punishment”.
For all that, Hasina’s decision to interact with the Opposition is an essay towards a halfwayhouse. The striking feature of the Jatiyo Oikya Front’s letter is its conciliatory tone. For once, it has referred to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the “father of the nation” ~ a salutation that the BNP has consistently abjured. Hasina’s prompt response to the suggestion for talks is doubtless a positive development amidst the overwhelming uncertainty. Yet Bangladesh must greet the suggestion on and acceptance of the talks offer with guarded optimism.