1/11 was inevitable
The animosity between BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia and Awami League President Sheikh Hasina was so intense that they both would rather like to see the military than the other one in power.
Patricia A Butenis, the then US ambassador in Dhaka, had this impression after a series of meetings with the two leaders and their deputies during the political impasse that led to the promulgation of state of emergency and suspension of the parliamentary polls then slated for January 22, 2007.
“Neither woman appears to imagine that they might be ousted themselves under military rule,” she wrote in a cable in the morning of January 11, 2007, hours before the then president Iajuddin Ahmed declared the state of emergency.
According to the cables, Butenis and other foreign diplomats worked in private and public to find a peaceful solution to the political deadlock by making Khaleda and Hasina agreeable to each other but found it an impossible task.
Even in early January, the diplomats separately met the two top leaders and warned them about their political future and possibilities that they might be forced into exile abroad following military intervention. They suggested the two take bold steps to break the impasse and avert any such scenarios.
Bitter political rivalry and a non-compromising stance emanating from a desperate attempt to win the parliamentary polls were evident in a number of cables the American embassy sent to Washington at that time.
In the January 11 morning dispatch, Butenis wrote, “With both sides entrenched in their respective positions, frustration among civic and business leaders continues to fuel public speculation over ways to involve the military and circumvent the BNP and AL. Even activists among the two parties continue to seek support for solutions that could sideline 'the two ladies'.”
In the night came the state of emergency, with none of the two budging from their position. President Iajuddin Ahmed was forced to step down as chief adviser along with his 10 colleagues in the caretaker government, which he had been leading for about two and a half months.
An army-backed new regime with Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former central bank governor, as the head started a two-year eventful journey, which would give the AL and BNP chiefs tough time, even pressing them to quit politics and leave the country.
Five days before the political changeover, Butenis and the then British high commissioner Anwar Choudhury apprised Hasina of approaches made to them by prominent AL members, supposedly backed by a faction of BNP, advocating political scenarios that included forcing Hasina and Khaleda into exile abroad and a possible military intervention, said a US embassy a cable on January 7, 2007.
The AL chief largely dismissed the reports, the cable read. “Hasina was not troubled by military involvement, either directly or under a state of emergency. 'If the military can intervene and make things okay, that would be good,' she said.”
On advice from BNP, the Iajuddin-led caretaker government was pushing with all its might towards the parliamentary elections slated for January 22 even after pullout by AL-led grand alliance.
“Asked how she would respond if (Khaleda) Zia reached out to her to find a solution, Hasina said she would reject any such overtures from Zia,” the cable said.
The two envoys described a possible scenario suggested by some in the BNP under which elections would be held with the understanding that new elections would be called within 12 months. “Hasina dismissed the proposal out-of-hand, saying she would sooner support a solution involving the military than one that returned the BNP to power.”
The two diplomats met Khaleda Zia the next day and told her about the approaches by some politicians advocating scenarios to send her and Hasina into political exile with backing from the military.
“Although acknowledging some dissent within the party, Zia bristled at suggestions the military would take action against her or act extra-constitutionally,” Butenis said in a cable on January 9.
Like Hasina, she rejected discussions with her rival before the scheduled elections and suggestions of making a bold political gesture of compromise.
“Instead, she reiterated the BNP position that elections must go forward but offered once returned to office to implement election reforms and hold new elections within 12-15 months.
“Zia reacted as anticipated, rejecting out of hand the suggestion that 'her' army would be disloyal, though surprisingly admitting to some dissension in the BNP ranks,” wrote the US ambassador.
She also wrote that BNP was rather taken aback “by the negative reaction of the US and other countries to their one-sided election plan”.
While the opposition was agitating on the streets demanding the then chief election commissioner Aziz's resignation, Butenis met Khaleda Zia on November 1 and raised the opposition's demand. “Not possible,” Khaleda replied.
“Hasina, [Khaleda] Zia complained, had ignored Zia's demand in 2001 as the then-opposition leader for the resignation of Chief Election Commissioner [MA] Syed, so why should she accommodate Hasina now?” Butenis wrote to Washington the next day.
A couple of days ago, Hasina gave CA Iajuddin an ultimatum to prove himself neutral by fulfilling an 11-point opposition demand, which included removal of the CEC and three election commissioners by November 3.
“The question remains whether Hasina's demands are designed to produce failure and justify a quick return to the streets or whether they are subject to modification, especially if Ahmed does well in other key areas,” the envoy wrote on October 31.
According to the embassy cables, AL was convinced that it had won a major victory as Justice Hasan, who was blamed to be biased towards BNP, declined to head the caretaker government.
But BNP, which was shaken by the number of defections to newly floated Liberal Democratic Party, got the upper hand on October 29 when BNP-elected President Iajuddin Ahmed took over as the chief adviser.
While some advisers of the caretaker government were trying to “find light at the end of tunnel” to solve the crisis, Butenis urged Khaleda on December 10, to be flexible to prevent the electoral process from unravelling over two relatively technical points.
“In response, Zia recalled alleged Awami League perfidy when it was in power, and repeated the view that in the end the Awami League will join, not boycott, the election,” Butenis wrote.
With her demands unmet, Hasina announced that the grand alliance would boycott the January 22 polls, citing the CG had failed to ensure the conditions necessary for a free and fair election. She also announced fresh agitation programmes to press for a new election schedule and the resignation of Iajuddin Ahmed as CA.
“Publicly, the AL points to the disqualification of former President Ershad, leader of alliance partner Jatiya Party, as the precipitating factor. Privately, many AL supporters admit the alliance is unprepared to contest the elections as scheduled and has run out of time to prepare and campaign,” the ambassador observed in another cable on January 3.