Politics and the master opportunist
Several of my friends reminded me, after 14 July, that one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. But it is not as if they held back their criticism of Mir Jafar or Hilter. In fact, Mir Jafar’s name is considered to be a synonym for betrayal. And no one hesitates to use Hitler as a symbol of fascism despite his being elected through popular vote. But the former military ruler and recently demised leader of the opposition in parliament Hussain Muhammad Ershad has been lucky. The loss of trust in politics and the country’s long history of autocracy have protected him from such lingering public condemnation.
According to the latest voters’ list in Bangladesh, of the country’s 100 million voters, 22 per cent are within the 20 to 28-year-old age bracket. That means when the autocrat was toppled on 6 December 1990, those 27.5 million voters weren’t even born. They are hardly expected to have any idea of the pledges contained in the declarations signed by the three alliances of that time – the 15-party, 7-party and 5-party alliances. But, of course, those with an interest in history will know very well that within five to six years, General Ershad managed to erase the joint declaration from the minds of the two major political parties.
It had become so important to win his support in the prevailing political equation that General Ershad’s past was no longer a factor. These parties not only compromised, but also went all out to meet their own political interests. But most importantly, it was the present government and its party Awami League that found a loyal and reliable ally in Ershad.
Many view Ershad’s loyalty and support for Awami League in the critical times of 2013 and 2018 as a repayment for their role in 1986. He must be given full credit for sending political integrity into exile and replacing it with opportunism. An analyst of Al Jazeera called him a ‘master opportunist’. That identity certainly seems to fit him well.
Ironically, it is coverage by the foreign media on Ershad that has been much more informative and factual than that of the local press. London’s Telegraph has called him the world’s most ‘scandal-proof despot’. The newspaper mentions the list concerning his corruption as drawn up by the opposition parties after his fall in 1990. It mentions how he misappropriated millions of dollars provided by foreign donors for relief, and deposited this in a Swiss bank. The Bangladesh government in 1991 appointed a British private investigative firm to recover this money. However, mysteriously, this investigation was dropped.
The Telegraph has come up with new information about his relationship with a young American girl. It speaks of the sudden birth of a wonder boy after 26 years of his childless marriage. It said that the American young woman was actually the child’s mother and the child was delivered to Bangabhaban in the deep of the night. It is globally acknowledged that people have an avid interest in the lives of politicians. The Telegraph also recalled his marriage to Mariam Mumtaz which had made headlines at the time. The report also says he gave himself to the wives of 18 of his colleagues during his rule. Details of his love life have also been highlighted in the book authored by his second wife. It is hoped that the local media makes an effort to verify all this startling information.
The Telegraph lists plagiarising poetry among his crimes. He would pay poets to write poetry and have these poems published in his name. He would turn up late at international conferences and say he had been busy penning verse.
The paper went on to say that in 1991 he was given a 10-year prison sentence on charges of possessing illegal firearms, but added that his stint in jail was not unpleasant at all. He had a separate cell and even a personal cook. He would get three daily newspapers to read and also had a radio. When he was still living, Ershad always blamed BNP leader Khaleda Zia for his imprisonment. His party still blames her for that. He was released in 1997 but was sentenced again in a corruption case. However he passed away before the most significant case against him was settled – the killing of General Manzur. It has been said that this case was used for all sorts of political bargaining.
Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, military ruler Ziaur Rahman, Ershad drew in elements from left, right and centre of the political prism in an attempt to give his autocracy a democratic guise. However, though Awami League and Jamaat-e-Islam responded to his political imitative in 1986, BNP and the left leaning parties remained firmly opposed to his move. After losing power, it was the chemistry between Ershad and Awami League that was effective in his political rehabilitation and it was win-win for both sides. BNP did try to forge a compromise too at one point, but failed. Ershad by far surpassed his predecessor in using military and civil intelligence agencies, and also religion, to form his party and stay in power.
Many people blame Ziaur Rahman for instilling a communal character in the state by adding the word ‘Bismillah’ to the constitution through the fifth amendment. Yet even though Ershad went a step further by declaring Islam to be the state religion, for political reasons they did not dub him as ‘communal’. Ziaur Rahman was criticised for installing Jamaat-e-Islam back in politics. Again, Ershad’s supporters apparently sparked off communal riots for the first time in the country following the Babri mosque demolition. Ershad is also said to have revived the Islamic elements in politics. But, again, his role in this regard is mostly overlooked. It was under his direct patronage that the anti-independence Maulana Mannan formed Jamiatul Murdaresin, the organisation of madrasa teachers which later played a role in politics. Half a dozen or so pirs (spiritual leaders) gained political clout with his blessings. His support for Hefazat-e-Islami’s Dhaka siege programme was no secret either. But the liberals of the mahajote (‘grand alliance’) had no problem with his political proclivity towards pro-Islamic elements.
Ershad never had to face charges for his role in the Pakistan army during Bangladesh’s liberation war. It is surprising that no importance was attached to the contention that he served on the military tribunal at the time. His predecessor was strongly condemned for granting indemnity to Bangabandhu’s killers, but Ershad’s role in facilitating the rehabilitation of those killers in politics was totally overlooked. Bangabandhu’s killers Col Rashid and Col Farooq formed Freedom Party during his rule. Col Farooq was even a presidential candidate in elections held under Ershad’s government.
Discord and debate, in the meantime, has emerged over who will be his successor in Jatiya Party. His legacy of opportunism and immorality lingers on and they will not be dispelled from the political arena any time soon. It is becoming apparent that authoritarian politics can rise up even through elections, while the constitution, the neutrality and independence of the administration, the judiciary and other such institutions are destroyed. In the Philippines, military autocrat Ferdinand Marcos, who was toppled through a mass uprising, is the role model for Duterte, the leader successful in election politics. Are we very different?
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir