The Pulse

Will the Congress Party’s Strategy Against the BJP Work For the Bangladesh Nationalist Party?

Recent Features

The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Will the Congress Party’s Strategy Against the BJP Work For the Bangladesh Nationalist Party?

The BNP lacks leadership on the ground in Bangladesh and the political environment it faces is far more repressive than that in India.

Will the Congress Party’s Strategy Against the BJP Work For the Bangladesh Nationalist Party?

Bangladesh Police personnel arrest BNP activists after breaking up a mass gathering in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on October 28, 2023.

Credit: Saqlain Rizve

The political fightback of the opposition Congress party in the recent Indian general election has won hearts and fired the imagination of many Bangladeshis. People are discussing whether the Bangladeshi opposition can find a way to conjure up resolve and draw on the strategy of the Congress and the INDIA coalition to weaken the iron grip of the ruling Awami League (AL) in Bangladesh.

Bangladeshis have paid close attention to Congress leader and member of Parliament Rahul Gandhi’s cross-country marches, the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, which helped him connect with the masses, enthuse Congress cadres, and draw attention to the divisive governance and injustices of the Narendra Modi government.

Gandhi and the Congress used social media skillfully to engage the Indian youth. Their campaign focused on the decline of democracy under Modi’s rule. Gandhi emphasized the need to defend constitutional rights and used the Constitution as a symbolic prop throughout his campaign. He also addressed issues like unemployment, inflation, and secularism. Responding to BJP and public criticism of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s domination of the Congress party, Mallikarjun Kharge, a Dalit leader, was appointed as Congress president, the first non-Gandhi to hold the post in 24 years.

The Congress leveraged the influence of its regional leaders. It also reached out to other opposition parties to form the INDIA coalition and made concessions to its coalition partners on seat-sharing to ensure the bloc’s survival during the elections.

The INDIA bloc’s creditable performance came despite the systematic efforts of the Modi government to weaken the opposition. In addition to throwing opposition leaders into jail, the BJP split parties, cornered funds through the electoral bonds scheme, and froze the Congress’ funds. The Election Commission of India functioned as an extension of the BJP.

Yet, the INDIA bloc fought the odds to put up a credible performance in the recent elections. It has inspired Bangladeshis. Some are asking whether the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) too can fight the ruling Sheikh Hasina-led AL.

Since 2009, Bangladesh has been ruled by the AL, which like the BJP in India has crushed opposition parties and jailed their leaders en masse. There has been significant democratic backsliding in Bangladesh under Hasina’s rule.

The 2014, 2018, and 2024 general elections in Bangladesh were held not under a neutral caretaker government as demanded by the opposition but under the AL government. All elections in the country have witnessed widespread rigging and other irregularities. Elections have been far from free or fair.

Additionally, BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia, a two-time prime minister, was jailed on corruption charges in 2018 and has been living under house arrest due to her ill health since 2020. The party’s acting chairman is her son, Tarique Rahman, who lives in self-exile in London.

The BNP’s strategy to fight the AL government has included calling for strikes and shutdowns, violent protests, and boycotting of elections. It boycotted the general elections of 2014 and 2024, because elections under an AL government would not be free and fair.

However, the BNP’s boycotts didn’t pay off. Despite its boycott call in 2014, the election went ahead and the AL won a landslide majority with 153 of the 300 directly elected seats uncontested, amid a backdrop of violence, arrests of opposition members, and international criticism of the election’s legitimacy. Fast forward to 2024, the BNP’s boycott call, while underscoring the party’s stance against the electoral process, has entrenched the AL’s hold on power. Indeed, questions are being raised over the future of multiparty democracy in Bangladesh.

The BNP participated in the 2018 general election; one of the reasons for doing so was to maintain party registration. Despite the challenging political landscape, the BNP’s participation marked a significant shift in its strategy. However, the BNP secured only seven seats of 300. This result allowed the BNP to retain only a formal presence in the national parliament, ensuring its continued existence in the political arena and maintaining its eligibility for future electoral contests. However, this election too was marked by vote-rigging and suppression of the opposition.

The BNP’s fight against the AL has suffered on account of the absence of leadership on the ground. While Zia remains in detention, Rahman’s self-imposed exile in London since 2008 has left a leadership vacuum and hindered the BNP’s efforts to reorganize the party and mobilize support.

Also, Rahman faces corruption charges and has been linked to a history of violent politics. Critics accuse him of fostering intimidation and corruption, leading to charges, including involvement in the 2004 Dhaka grenade attack. His association with Hawa Bhaban, a parallel power center during the BNP’s rule, was infamous for corruption, including its role in the 10-truck arms haul case in 2004. This case implicated Rahman, marking a significant episode in Bangladesh’s political history and reflecting its complex landscape.

Rahman is accused in over a dozen cases due to his involvement in these major incidents. Last year, he received a nine-year prison sentence for his involvement in a corruption case initiated by the Anti-Corruption Commission back in 2007.

The long list of criminal charges he faces and his status as a fugitive from the law have eroded Rahman’s credibility and capacity to inspire the masses. It has impacted the BNP’s image as well and led to internal discord, undermining its ability to present a cohesive and effective political strategy domestically.

Furthermore, the BNP’s decision to boycott elections has been criticized for failing to engage the political process constructively and not providing a viable alternative to the electorate.

BNP leaders sought foreign help to advocate for a fair and transparent electoral process in Bangladesh, particularly by seeking to establish a strong connection with the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh. They also tried to connect with the grassroots by distributing leaflets calling on people to boycott the election; however, these efforts lacked impact without a leader engaging directly with the masses. The BNP’s senior leaders face legal and other issues. The leadership from abroad hasn’t compensated for the lack of a physical presence on the ground.

BNP leaders need to revitalize the party’s image and policies, listen to the grassroots, discuss issues like inflation, and work toward strategic alliances with other parties to form a long-term vision for party growth. To accomplish these, Rahman needs to return to Bangladesh first, or allow alternative leadership to emerge. The absence of the top leadership on the ground, issuing directions to those working at the grassroots, has cost the BNP dearly.

However, the BNP faces far greater challenges than does the INDIA bloc.

It will be difficult for Rahman to come home and lead the party. The Hasina government is determined to extradite him to face corruption and violence charges. He will be arrested and jailed upon his return.

Moreover, the AL government’s crackdown on the opposition, journalists, and civil society groups has been far more intense and sweeping than that by the BJP government in India. According to BNP records cited by The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi daily, over 141,633 cases have been filed against 4,926,492 BNP leaders and activists since 2009. The Cyber Security Act, formerly the Digital Security Act, has been used to suppress dissent, fostering a culture of fear among civilians and oppositions.

Moreover, enforced disappearances in Bangladesh under Hasina’s rule have reached alarming proportions. According to Human Rights Watch, from January 1, 2009, to July 31, 2020, at least 572 people were forcibly disappeared by security forces and law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh. An Asian Human Rights Commission report claimed that at least 623 people have been victims of enforced disappearances between January 2009 and June 2022.

Furthermore, although the BNP has sought to build a coalition, it has partnered with religious parties, which are also under government pressure.

The alliance between the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami is deeply controversial as the JI collaborated with Pakistan during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War. Since coming to power in 2009, the AL government has put JI leaders on trial in the domestic International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), resulting in convictions and sentencing of its leaders.

Though criticized for procedural flaws by international human rights organizations, the JI cannot shake off the stain of 1971. The BNP may need to rethink its alliance with the JI.

Bangladeshi analysts are skeptical about the BNP putting up a tough fight against the AL regime.

Shantanu Majumder, professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Dhaka, told The Diplomat that he is skeptical that “anyone in Bangladesh can change the political landscape like Gandhi did.” To do so, “leaders must change the strategy in a way that suits our nation,” he said.

Discussing whether Rahman could provide the leadership that Gandhi did, Majumder pointed out that “there are a lot of differences in their ideology.”

“A big question,” he said, is “whether Rahman is prepared to face the court for the charges against him, and then start working at the grassroots.”

Replicating the Congress’ strategy in Bangladesh will be challenging.

The Congress’ mass mobilization campaigns and social media engagement worked in India, but the BNP faces a more complex environment, marked by intense crackdowns on dissent and a leadership vacuum. The BNP can draw inspiration and ideas from India but must tailor its strategy to address Bangladesh’s unique political challenges, including fostering internal cohesion, revitalizing its image, and building alliances that resonate with the Bangladeshi electorate.