WHEN Prime Minister Khaleda Zia met President Abdur Rahman Biswas on March 27 evening, everyone knew what they discussed. Soon after, the state-run television said the prime minister had requested Biswas that a caretaker government be formed without further delay, so that fresh general elections could be held by the end of May. However, there was no mention on the prime time news whether Zia had agreed to step down in order to pave the way for the neutral administration to take over.
In fact, the question is not whether Zia is going to resign, but when. It really is just a matter of time as she is left with no choice but to quit office in the face of a sustained and mounting opposition campaign. The prime minister, in effect, lost her authority ever since the combined opposition led by Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina launched an indefinite non-cooperation movement. Since then, Zia has helplessly watched her power gradually slip through her fingers. So much so that observers note that her writ runs only between her house inside the Dhaka cantonment and the prime minister's secretariat at Tej-gaon—a distance of about one-and-a-half kilometres which she travels back and forth under heavy security. She has practically become a prisoner in her own domain.
In reality, a parallel government led by the opposition is in place and it takes stock of the situation on a day-to-day basis. The financial institutions, including the government-owned and foreign banks, for instance, have been operating from 1 pm to 4 pm, as dictated by Sheikh Hasina. The normal banking hours are between 9 am and 3 pm.
Chittagong port, which handles more than 70 per cent of the country's export and import, is firmly in the hands of the opposition. The deployment of the navy and army for the smooth functioning of the port as well as rail and road communications failed to produce the desired result.
Despite this dislocation and the violent anti-government demonstrations almost every day, Zia, for a while, appeared unmoved and stoic. Even the deaths of more than 150 people, including some policemen and ruling party toughs, failed to shake her. She seemed determined to hold on to power at any cost.
But after March 20, things began to take an ominous turn. A huge crowd gathered in front of the Press Club in central Dhaka at the call of the city mayor, Mohammad Hanif, who began an indefinite sit-in agitation designed to hasten the fall of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Hanif is also president of the Dhaka city Awami League.
The effect was electric. Within hours employees and officers of the central secretariat, which is only a few yards away from the Press Club, openly revolted and joined the sit-in. They also issued an ultimatum, saying that the BNP government must resign forthwith or face the consequences. "We are not ready to serve the illegal government elected last month," they stressed. The ultimatum had an immediate impact as all government activity ground to a halt. (A similar action by government servants in 1990 had precipitated the fall of General Hussain Mohammad Ershad.)
What followed dealt a further blow to the already tottering Khaleda Zia government. All secretaries to the government met President Biswas on March 27, requesting him to form a caretaker administration in place of the BNP government without further delay. They told him in no uncertain terms that otherwise they would stop working from the next day, a threat they carried out.
The action by the secretaries seemed to wipe out whatever remaining support Zia had in the civil administration. For the first time since her government was installed five years ago, the prime minister realised that she was no longer in charge. This prompted her tete-a-tete with the president.
Now, it is merely a matter of technicalities. The Caretaker Government Bill passed by the controversial parliament on March 26 has cleared all the obstacles in the way of a neutral administration. All eyes are now focused on the opposition, especially Sheikh Hasina. For, the ball is now in her court.