After the ill-fated 1/11 coup, many cheerleaders of that misadventure engaged in a rather sexist and simplistic rhetoric to the effect that all our problems are due to two quarrelsome ladies. Like much else about the post-1/11 rhetoric, this allegation had a kernel of truth that was embellished to ridiculous proportion. The truth is that our political divisions have many complex causes, and replacing the two party chiefs with other individuals wouldn’t have solved them. And in any case, fortunately the coup has failed, so minus-2 1/11-styles is now a thing of the past.
However, it is also an unfortunate truth that the two party chiefs — Mrs Hasina Wajed and Mrs Khaleda Zia — did have a less than civil or cordial personal relationships, and that lack of civility has affected our politics over the past two decades.
This bitter relationship probably started with the AL chief’s infamous TV speech in February 1991, where she launched a vicious ad hominem attack on the husband of the BNP chief. It definitely increased when the BNP chief chose to celebrate her birthday on 15 August, a day of irreparable personal loss for her rival. It saw a new dimension when assassination attempts on the AL chief was ridiculed as ‘stage managed’ by senior BNP leaders in the presence of their leader. This bitterness was visible on 21 Nov 2006, when the two leaders sat within yards of each other, and refused to make eye contacts. One cannot but help feel that had they been on speaking terms then, 1/11 might have been avoided.
One also hoped the election of Dec 2008 would have ended that bitterness. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. No, this is not about the rhetorics of Paltan meetings — that kind of language ‘you presided over unprecedented corruption’ vs ‘you are a failure’ is part and parcel of politics. This is about the government’s attempt to force Mrs Zia out of her house, an attempt that started with a partisan intellectual suggesting it in a very uncivil language in the presence of the AL chief.
The AL chief suffered a personal tragedy on 9 May. Within hours, the BNP chief was by her side, embracing and consoling her. Perhaps the BNP chief remembered that Dr Wazed stood by her in a time of personal need years before either of the ladies joined politics. Perhaps it was a realisation on the BNP chief’s part that this personal bitterness doesn’t help anyone other than the enemies of democracy — after all, it was their joint action that foiled 1/11.
Whatever it is, let’s hope that this is a new beginning. Let’s hope that the AL chief reciprocates by stopping the eviction procedures against her rival. And independent of that, let’s hope that the BNP chief marks her birthday this August not with an outlandish cake, but with a milad mehfil where all our national tragedies, from the martyrs of various movements to the Sheikh family’s brutal assassination to the Pilkhana massacre, are mourned.
There is no shortage of things that the two leaders can throw at each other. High prices, corruption, misuse of power, militancy — failures of the last BNP government is huge. Law and order, electricity, Pilkhana — AL’s failures are already rising. The leaders can use these issues, they don’t need to be nasty to each other.