It has been more than two weeks since BNP leader Khaleda Zia has been in the Critical Care Unit of Dhaka's Evercare hospital, her third admission in the upscale facility in recent months. According to a medical board formed on her health the ex-premier has been afflicted with liver cirrhosis besides her old complications like arthritis and diabetes. At a recent press briefing Dr. FM Siddique, head of the medical board, emphatically said that the treatment Khaleda urgently needs is available in three Western countries _ the UK, Germany and the USA- and not in Thailand and Singapore, the usual destination of critically ill Bangladeshi patients. It has been four days since the board addressed the media (Nov. 28), for the first time since her hospitalization with no progress in sight that she will be allowed to go abroad for better life-saving treatment. Meanwhile, her party BNP has her "life-and-death" health condition to the streets in order to mount pressure on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a long-time rival of Khaleda, to take set aside the legal barriers (if any) so she can be urgently flown to the UK or either of the two other suggested countries. The government has so far shown no sign it will budge from its insistence that the country's law does not permit Khaleda to go abroad because of her being convicted of corruption even though her prison sentence remains suspended by an executive order of the prime minister.
Thus the stand-off on Khaleda's health and the purported urgency to let her go abroad for treatment continues to stir up the country's politics. For BNP it has been an issue for regaining the political foothold it has lost to Awami League. With both Khaleda and her son Tariq Rahman (now the acting chairman of BNP, but living under political asylum in the UK) sentenced to jail terms for corruption the opposition party seems to be in disarray. A robust and farsighted leadership is what the BNP has been lacking since it conceded defeat in the 2008 general election to its bitter rival Awami League. In two more general elections since then BNP haphazardly walked off the race leaving the field open to Awami League which bagged many seats uncontested in 2014 and swept the 2018 polls amid allegations of "midnight ballot coup." The party, which governed the country for two separate five-year terms (1991-96) and (2001-2006), has now been in political wilderness for over 15 years.
It will be wrong to dispute the fact that there is a pool of public sympathy for Khaleda, if not for her party. This gets reflected in the public statements issued by otherwise non-partisan civil society members calling for her treatment abroad. Having entered politics after the assassination of her husband Gen. Ziaur Rahman, a military ruler-turned-president, Khaleda, along with Hasina, daughter of assassinated founder of Bangladesh Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, spearheaded the pro-democracy movement of Gen. Ershad which led to his downfall in 1990. Apart from the sympathy factor there is also a good amount of public dissatisfaction over the way the Awami League government has been running the country in spite of its enviable achievements on the economic fronts. On so many other issues ranging from undermining of democratic values and institutions, respect for human rights to unbridled corruption and crony capitalism the ordinary people of Bangladesh are not really impressed with the incumbents.
However, as the country's main opposition party BNP has failed to convert this public dissatisfaction into a meaningful anti-government movement firstly because of leadership crisis and then for lack of proper political strategy and tactics in confronting the giant of a party like the Awami League. It still remains a mystery to many, including those from the BNP, why the party has been playing a "neither-here, neither-there" sort of game in regard to elections be it national or local. A common public perception has been that being party that believes in election politics had committed hara-kiri on several occasions on the issue of its participation (and then boycott) over the polls. Consider the ongoing UP elections that have completed the third phase. BNP has decided against fielding any candidate, and yet many of party's grassroots have contested and won the ballots as independents. The party's handful of lawmakers in the current parliament is also not making as much noises as expected from them.
With regard to the next national elections due in 2023 BNP is still undecided on the path it will take. Until now its stand is boycott the polls if they are held under the supervision of the incumbent AL government. The party wants the constitutional restoration of the now-repealed provision of neutral non-partisan caretaker government, a demand rejected outright by the government. Even before BNP could start a street movement on the issue, it's attention has now been focused solely on the health condition of Khaleda.
On the Khaleda's health and treatment abroad BNP is focusing more on a humanitarian gesture from her bitter opponent Hasina than on taking the legal procedure. The party has even rejected the government offer that BNP will be allowed to bring in any foreign physician they want to check Khaleda's condition. That leaves the party with only one option: street agitation. How successful it will be in this tactic remains to be seen. The government, meanwhile, made it clear that suspension of her sentence by an executive has been done on condition she will take treatment only in Bangladesh. This has been enough from the prime minister permitted by the law. No more magnanimity is expected.
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