Like in India, the left in Bangladesh is currently anaemic; unlike its Indian counterpart, however, the Bangladeshi left has been in this state for decades. Contesting under the Awami League symbol of the boat, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) won three seats and the Workers Party two during the ninth Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) election, in December 2008. Yet contesting in the same election under the JSD’s own symbol (a flaming torch), its two other candidates failed miserably, as did two candidates contesting for the Workers Party. The other left parties – including the CPB, NAP, BSD, Gonotantri Party and Biplobi Workers Party – collective ly floated 118 candidates in the polls, but secured a combined total of less than 110,000 votes. Such pitiful results only re-emphasise the continuing weakness of Bangladesh’s left parties among the people.
There are about two dozen leftist political parties in Bangladesh, though only seven or eight are visibly active in terms of meetings, rallies and protests. The remaining few restrict themselves to statements and press notes in the media. But many are happy enough to receive invitations to formal functions at Bangabhaban, the president’s official residence, and the various diplomatic embassies. While the parties do have leaders (who attend such events), their workers seem non-existent. As such, many of these parties exist in name alone.
It has not always been so. During the early 1980s, many college and university students moved towards left politics. But today, this trend has vanished. Political analysts suggest two main reasons for this decline. The first includes the collective impact of the upsurge of capitalism, growth of consumerism, onset of globalisation and fall of the Soviet Union. The second is a general sense of mistrust amongst leftists that prevents the formation of a unified front, which in turn keeps away potential supporters. Inner-party functioning certainly contributes to the general sense of cynicism. Saiful Haque, general-secretary of the Biplobi Workers Party, and Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) leader Mujaheedul Islam Selim both say that many left leaders today are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices or take risks in the current climate. Furthermore, they say, such leaders are too ready to compromise with ‘capitalist values’ in their eagerness to become MPs or ministers.
Others suggest that there is too little independent thought amongst the left leaders. Farhad Mazhar, a columnist and political thinker, calls the left in Bangladesh “dominantly pro-Indian”, and dictated by the political discourse of the US-led ‘war on terror’. He says that many leaders simply parrot US foreign-policy terms such as ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘Islamism’. In this, they largely lack their own class analysis of Bangladesh society and international politics. “The democratic left, who fought against the oppression of the Pakistani state and also fought for a democratic revolution, has declined mainly because its members did not resolve the relation between the military and political mobilisation of the masses,” says Mazhar.
Perhaps part of the problem is class itself. “The left and right forces in Bangladesh are both from the middle classes,” says political analyst Sirajul Islam Chowdhury. “The left fails on two grounds: They cannot declass themselves, and they cannot uphold the aspirations of the people.” About two dozen left political parties today take themselves to be ‘hardcore’ communists. But analysts say that only a few – the CPB, BSD (Khalequzzaman), Nirmal Sen, NAP (Muzaffar), Badaruddin Umar and the a few others – have remained faithful to left ideology, despite splits and rifts along the way. The others, many complain, are little better than opportunists with a left façade.
Even insiders admit that the biggest part of the problem has simply been the left’s inability to present an oppositional choice vis-à-vis the two main parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). “We have made mistakes in the past,” says CPB General-Secretary Mujaheedul Islam Selim. “After Independence, we did not emerge as a force alternative to Awami League. This was a blunder. We failed to say, ‘If you don’t like Sheikh [Mujibur], come with us’.” He continued: “However, we can’t say that the left has been obliterated. It is the left, after all, that is most vocal in protest about vital national issues such as oil, gas, seaports, the Phulbari coalmine and so on.”
Such protests have yet to make an impact on the mass public, however. In the last election, the CPB fielded 37 candidates, but every one lost, together securing only 42,115 votes. (Though, it should be noted, in the local-level upazila elections, two of the 16 CPB candidates for the post of chairperson and five of the 15 candidates for vice-chairperson won.) In its post-election evaluation report, CPB officials stated that their organisational structure had been inadequate for the election, and even admitted that the party was still amateurish when it comes to elections.
“But we are not frustrated,” said Selim. “As the opposition, we will continue in our movement against the government. We will not give the BNP and Jamaat a free hand to take over as the sole opposition.”