BANGLADESH: Politics and the Two Ladies
Guest Column by Bhaskar Roy
October 10, 2007
Source: South Asia Analysis Group
The interim Caretaker Government in Bangladesh appears to be finally confirming something which everybody knew. Talking to foreign correspondents in Dhaka on October 7, Law Adviser Moinul Hossain said they had intended to keep Awami League President Sk. Hasina and BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia out of the country, but the two did not cooperate. In other words, what Moinul Hossain was saying a quid pro quo was being offered by the Interim government – you stay out and keep your ill-gotten money which really belongs to the people, with you.
Was the intention to repeat the Pakistan example keeping former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto out of the country? The army backed Caretaker Government failed to realise that there was no Gen Pervez Musharraf ruling the country and that Bangladesh was not Pakistan. Dhaka is not USA’s frontline non-NATO allyagainst terrorism working against the USA and its interests all over the world. Efforts were made in a ham-handed way keep Sk. Hasina out of the country earlier this year to visit her son and daughter-in-law in the USA. The government got egg in its face and Sk. Hasina returned home triumphant.
The interim government also tried to exile Khaleda Zia to Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Neither country would comply. They certainly would not be an accomplice to the political downfall of a friend who is also Pakistan’s main friend in South Asia.
The “minus two” formula i.e. neutrality both Hasina and Khaleda from politics have been doing the rounds for the last few years. Some say the plan was hatched covertly by a certain western country who perceived both the ladies as obstacles in taking their strategic interests forward in Bangladesh. It is, however, true when either of the two ladies were in power they spent a greater position of their time getting at each other’s throats. It is also correct to presume corruption in Bangladesh through the politician-bureaucrat-businessman nexus have been so high as during the government run by Hasina and Khaleda.
The next best option the Caretaker Government had was to proceed against both Khaleda and Hasina in corruption cases. In fact, al the corruption cases against the political and business leaders are being tried under the Emergency Powers Regulations (EPR). There has been a lot of short-cuts taken by the prosecuting agency, mostly using testimony by a single witness rather than incontrovertible evidence. Convictions if any, under the present procedures, may be challenged when a democratic government returns to power after next year elections.
If the question is whether the Caretaker Government is acting neutrally between Hasina and Khaleda, the answer is no. In every democratic country the ruling government places their own people in important positions, but the armed forces are generally left apolitical. During its last stint in power (2001-2005), the BNP became political iconoclasts breaking every rule, regulations and honourable precedents. There were bizarre promotions, supercessions and dismissals in the armed forces, other security forces and the bureaucracy to ensure their acolytes would remain in power for a long time. Khaleda Ziia and her son did not understand that generally purchased loyalty have short lives. But some loyalties are Khaleda Zia can still count upon some in the decision making machinery to come to her assistance.
The army-backed Caretaker Government seems to have differentiated between the Hasina-Khaleda issue and the Awami League-BNP question. There has been a seesaw of support to Khaleda Zia from different quarters of the Caretaker Government which includes the army. Actions against her and her immediate family have generally followed similar actions against Sk. Hasina and those close to her, but sometimes reluctantly. Notwithstanding this, the fact remains that Khaleda Zia and her two sons are apparently being proceeded against seriously. This would suggest that some powerful voices in authority today are inimical to Khaleda Zia and her family returning to power. These same people may have been recipients of BNP largesse but fell out somewhere sensing the tsunami that Khaleda Zia and her older son Tareq Rehman Zia, were about to inflict on the country.
Almost across the board, Tareq Rehman is seen as the ‘Enemy No.1’ of Bangladesh. A lot of blame on Khaleda Zia emanates from the blind support to her elder son and his close group who indulged in everything illegal including promoting Islamic radical terrorist like Sheikh Abdur Rehman and Bangla Bhai, now executed leaders of the Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the master minds of the August 17, 2005 countrywide bombings.
Sk. Hasina falls in a totally different category from Begum Zia, notwithstanding her fleeting flirtations with Islamic parties trying expand her vote bank. She was ill advised by some close to her by whom she swears. Unfortunately, Sk. Hasina functioned as a powerful matriarch of the Awami League family with strong likes and dislikes, and deep suspicion bordering on paranoia that some of those who helped her return to the country and power were plotting against her. In due course she created an atmosphere with the potential to split the party. Awami league veterans find it difficult to accept ‘Johnny Come Lately’ leaders with proven pro-Pakistan identities to have Sk. Hasina’s ears and dominate over the liberation constituency of Sk. Mujibur Rehman. The resentment has become so strong that some of these old leaders are willing to cooperate with the interim authorities to keep Hasina out. But they are not willing to split the Grand Old Party of Bangladesh.
The BNP, however, has been split between the Khaleda loyalties and her opponents. This was bound to happen at some point of time. The BNP was formed by President Zia-ur-Rahman, late husband of Khaleda Zia. Zia. Stands next to Sk. Mujibur Rehman in Bangladesh’s war of Liberation. The BNP, however, was formed by a coalition progressive and rightists. It was an opportunities succeeded in splitting the party using the good officer of its, or rather the army’s, premier intelligence. Agency, the DGFI.
The army’s efforts to float a ‘King’s Party’ has not succeeded and unlikely to. The last ‘King’s Party” was General and President H.M.Ershad’s Jatiyo party. It has bee a lesson for the astute and serious Bangladeshi politicians. Therefore, a formation of viable King’s party is not an option.
The cards are not in Khaleda Zia’s favour, especially after the split in the BNP recently. Politics in Bangladesh is a strange world. It is a concoction of religion, secularism, army rule and god knows what. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) in Bangladesh which collaborated with Pakistan in the rape and massacre of Bengalis in 1971, is back in politics and a partner of the BNP (Zia faction).
A power struggle on between the Khaleda faction of the BNP and the expelled General Secretary Mannan Bhuyian over which side will inherit the party symbol. Both factions are also in touch with the DGFI which is overseeing the political re-engineering of the country.
As regards the Awami League, despite internal factions Sk. Hasina still remains the consensus leader of the party. If she is sentenced to jail and the leadership would have taken over, but it would be one that would take decisions by consultations. But this scenario is still at some distance. If Sk. Hasina is jailed, the government would have immense problems on its hands. Street actions by Awami Leaugers is a definite possibility.
(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience of study on the developments in China. The views expressed by the author are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)