Commentary by Mahfuz Anam: Khaleda Zia’s Medical Condition – Moment for PM’s magnanimity

When it comes to the BNP is it at all possible for the ruling party to see it through any other prism but political? Can the decision to allow Khaleda Zia to go abroad for medical treatment be seen as a humanitarian case rather than party politics? Can doctors’ views stand any chance of being seen purely from a professional point of view rather than contrived? Can medical facts, gleaned from tests conducted by doctors of a hospital managed by an international franchise, be taken for what they state? The answer, I am afraid, will be an instant and emphatic no.

Nothing about the BNP as a political party and Khaleda Zia as its chief be ever considered for anything else other than its political implications, even when the latter is most seriously ill with doctors making dire predictions in case of not being allowed medical treatment in countries like the US, UK, and Germany.

There is a whole history of bitter, fractious, rivalrous, and destructive relations between these two political parties. The BNP in its heyday did not view anything to do with Awami League and its president, Sheikh Hasina, in any light other than political. She was not allowed to seek justice, which is a fundamental right of any person especially the children, for her parents’ murder and not even allowed to lodge a case. The injustice of that reality and the sense of helplessness on the part of Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana must be felt by us all.

The saddest example of it is the assassination attempt on Sheikh Hasina on August 21, 2004, that left 24 AL leaders and activists killed while the AL chief had an unbelievable escape. Equally condemnable was the farce that the post-event official investigation was turned into. Starting from washing away evidence from the crime scene and inexplicably destroying the grenades that remained unexploded — all sorts of actions were taken so that the truth couldn’t be unearthed.  We noticed with increasing incredulity the discussions in parliament at that time trying to suggest that it was a result of Awami League’s internal feud, statements of ministers implying the same, and the so-called one-person judicial inquiry that came out with the finding that it could be the work of a neighboring country.

Such was the farce made of the most diabolical attempt to kill a political rival since the brutal murder of Bangabandhu and most of his family members back in 1975.

The miraculous survivor of that day’s dastardly event and today’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, made her sentiments clear during her latest press conference the other day. She said she is a human being and has feelings like everybody else and cannot be expected to set aside everything when attempts were made to eliminate her from politics by murdering her.

We understand and fully respect the prime minister’s deep feelings of betrayal, and bitterness.

As everything about the relations between these two rivals is considered through a political prism, then let us politically analyze the implication of what is happening now with the question of Khaleda Zia’s medical treatment abroad.

We think politically the government and the ruling party are facing a serious challenge in the public sympathy battle. It had done the right thing by suspending Khaleda Zia’s sentence and allowing her to be with the family. By this action, the government gained substantial public goodwill, which is now eroding on the treatment issue.

It was said by the law minister earlier and repeated by the foreign minister on Monday that for the BNP chief to avail the opportunity to go abroad, she has to go to jail first and apply from prison for the necessary permission. For argument’s sake, this position could have been tenable before she became critically ill. Can it be expected that a patient who is fighting for her life and who is in Coronary Care Unit (CCU) since November 14th actually goes to prison – whose sick prisoners are routinely sent outside to obtain treatment in BSMMU – and apply from there? How practical is that expectation and with what credibility will such statements be received by the general public?

With each passing day, the logic of treatment abroad is getting stronger and the government’s resistance to it looking increasingly weak.

What political risks does the government face by allowing the BNP chief to go abroad for treatment? Let us assume Begum Zia would completely recover and then indulge in politics from abroad. Even then what could she effectively do? Hold press conferences and issue statements against the ruling party? The international press would pick it once or twice but would later treat it as déjà vu and spike it as they usually do. How much harm could that cause a government which is being lauded by the international community and recognizing whose achievements the UN has just passed a resolution? There are many examples of exiled leaders trying to influence the internal situation of their own countries. Their success rate is literally non-existent.

Contrarily, the political cost of not sending Khaleda Zia abroad could be high. It could galvanize the opposition into action which they have miserably failed to do so far. In the event of anything remotely tragic, the government will not be able to brush aside the blame for the eventuality. The international press is more likely to pick such stories than anything Khaleda Zia could do while abroad.

Just as politics is the art of the possible, so also politics is known to be full of unpredictable consequences. What triggers what always remains an open and perplexing question.

Let me end by recollecting an act by Nelson Mandela, who termed the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) of South Africa, as a “surrogate of the apartheid regime” and yet made its chief Buthelezi – a man known for killing many ANC leaders including attempts on Mandela’s life – his first home minister in his first cabinet in 1994. This stunned the world and added to Mandela’s myth.

Politics that make an everlasting contribution and which is remembered and quoted the world over is almost always based on forgiveness.

If Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is able to bring herself to forgive Khaleda Zia at this moment, she will be remembered for this act of magnanimity as she will be for leading the country into global recognition.