THE prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, and the opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, invited each other to the iftar parties they organised earlier this month as Ramadan got under way. In a political climate where the country’s two most powerful figures have not spoken to each other for years, the people expected neither to take the invitations seriously. They were not disappointed. And thus the personalised politics the two have long pursued went on unimpeded. Syed Badrul Ahsan, editor (current affairs) of Bangladesh‘s leading English daily ‘The Daily Star’ writes.
Indeed, the vengeance with which Hasina and Zia have gone after each other has kept democratic politics stymied in Bangladesh, and has underscored the danger which dynastic politics continues to pose for a country that has had more than its fair share of tragedy and tribulation. The fraught relations between the two — Hasina took charge of the Awami League in 1981 while Zia became chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — have blocked the road to chances of a new leadership arising in the country. Hasina and Zia, the former in the name of her father and the latter by invoking the memory of her husband, have maintained a stranglehold on their parties and national politics. The casualty has been democracy, to the extent that rather than a parliamentary system underpinning national politics, it is overarching dynastic predominance that characterises Bangladesh today.
Hasina mistrusts Zia for reasons one cannot quite ignore. It was during the time of Zia’s husband, General Ziaur Rahman (Bangladesh’s first military dictator in 1975-1981), that systematic efforts were made to airbrush the country’s founder and Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, out of history. Worse, he incorporated an indemnity ordinance (which was repealed in 1996) in the constitution preventing any trial of Mujib’s assassins. Mujib and most of his family were murdered by soldiers in August 1975. During Zia’s first term as PM, in 1991-96, no move was made to do away with the indemnity ordinance despite the expectation that a restoration of democracy would mean a new beginning with a clean slate. In her second administration in 2001-06, she and her allies effectively stalled the process of the trial of the assassins begun by Hasina’s first government in 1996. The trials were not to be completed until Hasina’s return to office in early 2009.
For her part, Zia is miffed at what she sees as efforts by the Awami League government to ignore her husband’s contributions to Bangladesh’s history. In March 1971, with the Pakistan army launching a genocide in what was then East Pakistan, Ziaur Rahman, a major in the Pakistan army, announced Bangladesh’s independence on behalf of “our great leader and supreme commander” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Awami League, on the other hand, has always claimed that Mujib declared Bangladesh’s freedom moments before his arrest by the Pakistani junta on March 25, 1971. In the latest amendment to the constitution, its 15th, Hasina’s party, which holds a three-fourths majority in parliament, has established Mujib as the father of the nation who proclaimed independence in March 1971. Zia has promised to throw it out if her party returns to power.
In office, Hasina has presided over the withdrawal of innumerable cases filed against her partymen, both by Zia’s last government and the caretaker administration from 2007 to 2009, on the ground that these had been politically motivated. Intriguingly, the cases filed by the caretaker government against BNP politicians have stayed. The government is pursuing with vigour cases of corruption against Zia’s two exiled sons. For their part, Zia and her party colleagues have consistently protested the innocence of the two men, a stance not even serious BNP supporters are comfortable with.
Bad relations between Hasina and Zia have translated into bad blood between their parties. The BNP has, since its defeat in the 2008 elections, played petulant by boycotting parliament. The Awami League, following a judgment by the high court to the effect that the caretaker system was ultra vires of the constitution and yet suggesting that the next two elections could be held under the system, quickly moved to have parliament abolish the caretaker system. The BNP has vowed not to participate in any future elections under a partisan government, meaning Awami League.
Politics has also dwindled into the petty based on the personal. Hasina’s government has renamed Dhaka’s Zia international airport. In her time, Khaleda Zia indulged in similar acts, the other way round. Then again, in 2009, Hasina moved to have Zia evicted from the home she had occupied in the cantonment since the 1970s on the ground that it had been handed over to her illegally after General Zia’s assassination.