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DAWN - Features; 06 November, 2004

November 06, 2004

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Comedies and tragedies of Bangladeshi politics

By Nurul Kabir

The mainstream political parties of Bangladesh often provide comic relief to the otherwise depressed citizens of the country. The latest such example came with the induction of General H.M. Ershad's younger wife, Bidisha Earshad, into the presidium of his faction of the Jatiya Party late last month.

Bidisha, a young fashion designer before her marriage to Ershad a few years ago, suddenly became "political adviser" to the JP supremo soon after the wedding. However, some analysts in Dhaka believe Bidisha's entry into the Jatiya Party, the second largest opposition party in parliament, cannot only be taken as a comic episode.

Through the event has been manifested a serious tragedy of the country's political culture, which allows the party supremos to run the organizations as if these were their feudal family estates, and endorses the supremos to behave like private owners of those estates called political parties.

Hypocrite is really an understatement to describe any party supremo, especially when an individual talks about the growth of democratic institutions in the country, and that too under his or her leadership.

Before taking a look at other mainstream parties, one needs to note that Gen Ershad's first wife, Rawshan Ershad, was made a member of the JP presidium long ago, while Ershad's younger brother, GM Quader, is a vice-chairman of the party. None of these persons were politically active before General Ershad seized state, by means of a military coup in 1982.

DIFFERENCE: The situation in which Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia had entered politics was quite different from the one that made Ershad enter the political scene.

One cannot blame the chief of both the parties - Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and former prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed - for assumption of the top posts of the parties concerned, although they had hardly any political background.

Invited by two separate groups of senior leaders of AL and BNP, Hasina and Khaleda took over the parties concerned rather to save them from the danger of disintegration due to internecine conflicts among the senior office-bearers of the parties.

The erstwhile leaders of the conflict-torn parties, especially in the absence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, required political gimmicks for survival, while Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman, and Khaleda, widow of Ziaur Rahman, successfully saved the parties.

But as soon as they consolidated their positions in their respective parties, both Khaleda and Hasina allowed themselves to turn their parties into sort of private estates for promoting family interests.

To begin with, Tarique Rahman, the young elder son of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, has already been made the "senior" joint secretary general of the party in super session of almost all members of the BNP. A rumour in circulation says grounds are being prepared for making him the party's secretary general - the second most powerful position after the chairperson.

If this really happens, it will the first time that a political party would have a mother as its chairperson and son as secretary general. In addition, Khurshid Jahan Haque, elder sister of the prime Minister, holds the cabinet portfolio of women affairs and Sayeed Isklander, the brother of the PM, is a member of parliament.

Saiful Islam Duke, one of Khaleda's young nephews, is reportedly the most powerful private secretary to the premier. Shahrin Islam Tuhin, another young nephew of Khaleda Zia, was given BNP nomination for parliamentary elections in 1996.

However, the number of prime minister's relations at the PMO was much larger when Sheikh Hasina was in power between 1996 and 2001. She made S.A. Malek, one of her brothers-in-law, her political adviser.

Although he enjoyed the status and privileges of a cabinet member, Malek reportedly never put forward any advice to the former premier. Apart from Malek, Sheikh Hasina appointed six of her relatives, particularly cousins and nephews, to different posts at the PMO, while recalling Mustafizur Rahman, one of her uncles, from LPR (leave preparatory to retirement) back into service and appointed him chief of army staff.

Sheikh Hasina also has more than one relative at the senior positions of her Awami League, although a few of them, like Amir Hossain Amu and Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, both former ministers of her cabinet, have genuine political background.

However, she has made Bahauddin Nasim, a cousin, president of the Awami Sechhasebak League - a front organisation of the party. She has also inducted Kazi Zafarullah Chowdhury, a family relation with hardly any political background, directly into the party presidium, which manned by senior politicians like Abdus Samad Azad or Tofail Ahmed.

The position of Abul Hasnat Andullah, another cousin, who the chief whip in the previous parliament, has been upgraded in the party. Besides, two other cousins, Sheikh Helaluddin and Sheikh Liton, secured party nominations for contesting parliamentary polls, reportedly depriving dedicated local leaders with much longer political backgrounds.

As if all this were not enough, rumours have it that Hasina has long been persuading her still reluctant son, living in the United States at the moment, to enter politics.

Political analysts believe that the trend of inducting family members into the policy-making bodies of mainstream parties is retarding the growth of democratic institutions. People with no faith in democratic principles cannot contribute, even if willing, to the growth of democracy.