General Ershad’s visit to India Bangladesh Political Scene

by Barrister Harun ur Rashid | September 1, 2012 8:21 pm

The term of the ninth parliament ends on 25th January 2014 and the parliamentary election is scheduled to be held before that date.

After assuming power in January 2009, Sheikh Hasina visited India in January 2010 and opened a new horizon of Indo-Bangladesh relations. The Hasina government has removed quickly New Delhi’s core concern of cross-border terrorism and agreed to provide transit or transshipment facility to India through Bangladesh to its North-Eastern states.

Although in return, the implementation of the bargain on the Indian side has been delayed, especially in water-sharing of the Teesta River and the Land Border Agreement including exchange of enclaves, India has been repeatedly assuring at the highest political level that their promise would be delivered.

Political observers believe that current indications increasingly suggest unpopularity of the Awami-League led government for many reasons including its incumbency factor and it is up to the government within the time of 14 months to restore its popularity to secure majority of seats in the next parliament.

India is comfortable with the Sheikh Hasina government and is reportedly very concerned with the unpopularity of the AL-led government. The Times of India on 29th August writes that with the possibility of a regime change in Dhaka in early 2014, the intelligence establishment here is worried that anti-India forces could once again get a free run to use Bangladesh as a staging post for terrorism and other subversive activities. The paper states that the agencies fear that the gains of the last few years may be reversed if Begum Khaleda regains power.

In the above context, the visit to India for almost a week of former President, General H. M. Ershad, currently chairman of the Jatiya Party-the third largest party in the parliament assumes political importance. Informed sources say that this time General Ershad had received such warm welcome in New Delhi which he never received even he was in power.

The fact that General Ershad met, among others, with President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Dr. Singh and the Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi demonstrates that Indian government leaders have considered General Ershad who ruled Bangladesh for almost nine years an important player in the next parliamentary elections in Bangladesh.

The official spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs Syed Akbaruddin said.
General Ershad’s visit is part of our ongoing engagement with a democratic and multi-party polity in Bangladesh,” This is a signal that India, a regional power, looks for options if Awami League does not come to power. It may be recalled that Indian Prime Minister during his visit to Dhaka last September invited both Begum Khaleda Zia and former President Ershad to visit India).

On the timing of General Ershad’s visit to New Delhi, India’s weekly tabloid Blitz writes (edition of 21 August) that sensing the uncertainty for the two major parties from forming the next government in Bangladesh policymakers in India have already started looking for an alternative. They invited General Ershad and leader of Jatiya Party to New Delhi and held series of talks with him to find any way of at least ensuring a government in Bangladesh friendly to India after the next general election.

The weekly states that if the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) refrain from joining the electoral run as the next election may not be held under a non-party government, India gave two options to Ershad, which included either forming the government if can bag required seats or helping Bangladesh Awami League in forming the government.

Indian observers believe that Ershad appears to have several plus factors in the country.
First his party’s active participation in all parliamentary elections shows its commitment to democratic norms in the country. That Ershad is personally popular with people is illustrated by the fact that he has been elected many times not only from one constituency but also from multiple constituencies

Last June during the budget session, General H, M. Ershad requested all lawmakers in the parliament not to call him a dictator any more. “I get hurt when you call me a dictator. I am not a dictator any more. I am an elected lawmaker like you,” Ershad claimed in the parliament.

The statement was supported by former Secretary General of Awami League and currently advisory council member of the party, Abdul Jalil who said that the movement was against autocratic regime. “We agreed to his plea and from on we will not call him autocrat. He is now our co-passenger,” the AL veteran opined.

Second, he gets support from a large segment of Islamists because it was he who introduced Friday as a weekly holiday and made Islam as the state religion, although providing equal right to people of other faiths to practice their religions.

Third, as a former General and Chief of Army Staff, the armed forces, an important institution in the country, are not against him and it is a long tradition in the armed forces to respect their senior retired officers.

Fourth, his administration was not politicized, as administrations have been since 1991 One could argue that people are unhappy with the rule of both AL and BNP and are looking for a political third force and a rejuvenated Jatiya party may fit the bill.

Furthermore during his rule, he had a working relationship with India and maintained excellent relations with the US, China and Arab States. It was his time that Bangladesh became the President of the UN General Assembly in 1986 and it was he who first in 1988 sent Bangladeshi troops to the UN Peacekeeping Mission, currently an important component of foreign policy.

The US is also concerned over the confrontation between the two major parties on the type of the government under which the next parliamentary elections would be held in 2014. Even the Prime Minister’s offer of a “small interim government” with representatives of the opposition during the parliamentary elections has been rejected by the BNP.

The “one-to-one” meeting on 29th August between the US Ambassador Mozena and the Chairperson of the BNP, Begum Khaleda Zia demonstrates its concern of political instability of Bangladesh, because chaos and instability help to breed violent extremist organizations. It is speculated that the Ambassador might have suggested to soften the BNP’s stance so as to hold a credible, fair and inclusive election.

Furthermore, Bangladesh is now considered strategically important to the US given the geo-political realities in the region. The signing of the Joint Declaration on “Partnership Dialogue” between the US and Bangladesh during the visit of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May this year is a case in point.

Given the above context, the US also has expressed its interest in General Ershad who is reportedly likely to visit the US and meet the top leaders of the Obama administration.

Soldier, politician and poet, General Ershad in an interview with a leading news daily The Daily Star (published on 31st August) reportedly said that AL and BNP each had a bloc of more than 30% of voters and swing voters constituted the remaining 40% and “my target is to grab those 40% of votes”… If the AL, BNP and JP take part in the next election, none of the parties would get a single majority to form a government and if his party got more than 60 seats he would become the deciding factor and might become the Prime Minister.

Finally the country’s political scene is so volatile and unpredictable that it reminds me of what German politician Otto Bismarck (1815-1898) once said that “politics is the art of possible.”

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

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