The Awami League, now and yesterday – Syed Badrul Ahsan

The Awami League, now and yesterday – Syed Badrul Ahsan

THE Awami League has had an election, of sorts. There are two ways of looking at it. There is, first, the positive way. That the party is closely involved with the grassroots, that it has always been an organisation truly of the masses and for them, has once again been proved by its recent council session. It was, in a number of ways, a reminder for us of the heritage the Awami League has been heir to since it took form in 1949 and substance in the 1950s. That was when stalwarts like Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani served as the unquestioned symbols of the party, though by 1957 Bhashani had already decided to go his separate way.

If now you think of the maturity the Awami League came into, it was in the 1960s when a band of young men — and in this group came Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansoor Ali and A.H.M Quamruzzaman — painted an entirely new ethos for the party through transforming it into a bandwagon of Bengali nationalism. Mujib would become Bangabandhu before the end of that remarkable decade; and the others would in their discrete individuality strike out as stars in the Bengali political firmament.

So when the Awami League decided on Friday to re-elect Sheikh Hasina as its president and choose Syed Ashraful Islam as its general secretary, its members and followers obviously believed it was doing all of that in line with tradition. And they were right, in a way. In a way, meaning not in every way. That is where the negative comes in. What was missing at this year’s council was the verve and individuality that defined the council sessions of the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, camaraderie underpinned the working of the party; and every figure in the party, especially at the leadership level, mattered.

Mutual respect was a given and within that ambience of respect lively internal debate on the issues was carried on. Dissent was not construed as treason and deference to the party leader did not mutate into subservience. Bangabandhu freely sought the advice of his colleagues who, in their turn, were not averse to demonstrating their independence of thought. It was this spirit of democracy which powered the Awami League and kept it going.

You do not observe a continuity in terms of the old heritage, not much of it anyway, in the Awami League today. And we speak of the Awami League and not of any other party because the Awami League has mattered, will matter in national politics. That being our point of view, we are not quite enthused by what has been happening in the party. Sheikh Hasina is back at the helm for the sixth time. There is little question that her leadership of the party has been effective and purposeful. That is the good side of it. The bad is in knowing that in all these years since 1981, the party has not had the chance to throw up alternative leaders. Every senior politician in the party has lived in Sheikh Hasina’s shadow. And the shadow has diminished the men who could have been larger than life.

In Bangabandhu’s day, even though his colleagues acknowledged his stewardship of the party without question, they also made sure that they operated and thrived in their own light. That is not what you see happening in the party today. Indeed, there are certain realities that disturb you when you stumble upon them. Sheikh Hasina, since her emergence from incarceration in the caretaker days, has been speaking of forgiveness for those who she suspects sought to reform the party through engineering her ouster from the Awami League. She spoke of forgiveness again at the council session.

Now, a couple of questions come up here. The first relates to whether this idea of forgiveness is not being carried to an uncomfortable extreme. And the second is a more pointed one: why must a point of view which is at variance with that of the party leader be taken as disobedience or rebellion? And then comes a third question: when the party leader expects or asks for unquestioned loyalty, to what extent is the cause of democracy in the party and by extension the country served?

This emphasis on loyalty has stultified the growth of new leadership in the Awami League. No one in the party has ever challenged Sheikh Hasina for the presidency of the organisation. Party general secretaries have been approved by acclamation rather than through elections involving a set of candidates. That was the way Abdul Jalil came in. That is how Syed Ashraful Islam has arrived on the scene. Things worked out that way because the party chief has wanted them that way. It is politics centred around the leader. It carries the risk of a vacuum developing and widening in the party.

And that can, perhaps will, happen now that the party president and general secretary have been empowered to choose members to the central committee and presidium of the party. The Awami League was supposed to be different, wasn’t it?

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star. E-mail:

Link reqeusted by Badiuzzaman Khan | original source

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