The two former prime ministers of Bangladesh, arch political rivals Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia exchanged greetings and shook hands on Friday. Their meeting after more than a decade was accompanied by thunderous applause by hundreds of invited guests and dignitaries in a reception in Dhaka cantonment.
The two leaders, who were kept behind bars by the military-backed government of Fakhruddin Ahmed and released on bail after nearly a year of detention, shared jail experiences and exchanged informal greetings at the Armed Forces Day reception at Senakunja.
The AL chief entered the reception venue five minutes earlier than the BNP chief. Hasina was chatting at that time with the advisers to the interim government when Khaleda approached the area reserved for the VIP. She suddenly drew near to the BNP chief to receive her.
Khaleda approached her hands towards Hasina. As they shook their hands, the dignitaries attended the program burst into roaring applauds to welcome the exchange of greetings.
Fakhruddin was flanked by Khaleda at the right and Hasina on the left at the reception. The rare event took place ahead of the general elections to return the country to democracy, which will end nearly two years of emergency rule of the army backed caretaker government.
The program was attended by most of the bureaucrats and elites, including President Iajuddin Ahmed, the chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed, the Speaker of the Jatiya Sangsad Jamir Uddin Sircar, advisers to the interim administration, chief election commissioner, head of the parties, former presidents, judges of the Supreme Court, chiefs of the three services, and high civil and military officials.
The two smiling former premiers, who were hardly in any talking term nearly two decades, also inquired about their family members, especially the grandsons and grand-daughters.
The chief adviser, Fakhruddin Ahmed, and the army chief, Moeen U Ahmed also talked to the two leaders separately in the sideline of the illuminating reception, attended by several thousands dignitaries.
The content of their discussions, however, could not be known.
Many attempts to bring the two former prime minister across the table to resolve major issues of the nation, politics of which is sharply divided between Zia’s BNP and Hasina’s Awami League party, had failed earlier.
The two leaders last week expressed their eagerness to sit together to hold a dialogue on national issues. Hasina wanted agenda specific discussion while Zia preferred open ended discussion without any pre-set agenda for the proposed talks.
The two leaders last attended the same program in November 2006, but they did not exchange any words. They last exchanged such cordial greetings at a program in early 1991, when another political transition took place ending H M Ershad’s dictatorship in the face of a mass upsurge.
Khaleda Zia said that they talked about their jail life as both of them lived in separate sub-jail at the parliament complex. ‘We exchanged our experience in the jail. Although we lived near, we could not talk at that time,’ she said. Hasina also echoed Khaleda.
Asked about the much talked about dialogue between the two leaders, who ruled the country for 15 years in turns, Khaleda said she had no problem to hold the summit.
To a question on holding a delayed election other than December 18, Sheikh Hasina said that it was not a matter of her party. She said that the matter is between the government and BNP, which on Thursday proposed delaying the general elections by 10 days and meet its three other demands, including complete lifting of the state of emergency.
‘It is not clear to me the reason for elongating the state of emergency by delaying the polls. We prefer the election to be held as per the schedule so that the people get rid of the emergency rule,’ Hasina told reporters.
Asked whether the two leaders would continue their conversation as they did on Friday after a long time, the AL chief said that they [the two leaders] were often in talking term.
But again, she said, all should not be weighed in the same manner. She defended saying she was taken to jail despite she had no corruption records.