Friday, January 25, 2013

On praise of HM Ershad

The Independent
2nd January, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

Politicians are often criticized for having short memories. However, they are not the only one who suffers from this undesirable trait. People in public life in other professions also have short memories. In fact, at least one section, the “stars” of our Talk Shows (TS), is proving that their memory is shorter than that of the politicians. In a recent roundtable in Dhaka, organized by a  New York based Bangla weekly paper , one talk show “star” said that “the two leaders (Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia) are worse than the military strongman we frequently criticize.” He was referring to former military dictator HM Ershad.

Those who participated in this seminar are individuals who are seen every night on TV Talk Shows criticizing the government. In such discussions, the BNP is also often criticized for its role as an opposition and its earlier tenures in government. Such criticisms are justified because there are a lot of things happening with politics and governance that are frustrating the people for which the ruling party is responsible. Likewise, when the BNP is criticized, there are reasons for such criticism because the people want the party to play a more pro-active role as an opposition.  Criticisms about the party while it was in government are also justified because it failed then on many issues of governance.

These criticisms are signs of democracy and healthy. Nevertheless, these TS participants need to be careful for in many instances they are crossing their limits. When the Prime Minister talked critically about the TSs recently, there was widespread criticism about her remarks. Nevertheless there is good reason to feel that she is justified in her reaction when one thinks of her criticisms dispassionately because many who come on the shows criticize her government out of a deep grudge against it. Their body language leaves viewers no opportunity to draw any other conclusion. In one TS telecast recently, a well known participant said that he and his fellow TS participants are playing the role of the parliament!  In the round table that encouraged me to write this piece, these TS participants have crossed the limit by their praise for HM Ershad!  In praising the former President, they forgot a few well known facts about the former President.

Hussain Muhammad Ershad was a military dictator. He usurped political power by overthrowing the elected government. Those who placed HM Ershad ahead of the elected leaders are the same people who take the public stage regularly to talk about our war of liberation and the sacrifices of millions for the independence of Bangladesh. While our war of liberation was the immediate consequence of genocide of the Pakistani military; the movement for an independent Bangladesh that started much earlier was for the establishment of a government they would be able to elect freely and fairly. Lest we forget as our TS participants have, our demand for Bangladesh started in right earnest when the Pakistani military declared the election of November, 1970 null and void and banned the Awami League.

To speak well of President Ershad’s role in government is thus the anti-thesis of the spirit of our war of liberation.  One has to wonder what could be there in the 10 years that President Ershad ruled illegally to encourage the TS participants to place his rule ahead of those whom the people elected freely and fairly. He violated every norm of civil governance and laid the foundation of state sponsored corruption from which the subsequent democratic governments have suffered. He managed elections in 1986 and 1988 that were fraudulent by any definition of the term. The moral degradation of his regime in which he gave leadership was something that our TS participants should not have forgotten because the people have not. They should not have forgotten the many hypocritical acts of the former dictator like for instance his Jumma prayer at Star Mosque where he said he had come to pray inspired by a dream he had the previous night where his security had spent 3 weeks before that to make the mosque secure for him; and his hand in writing poetry.

There is no doubt that the democratic leaders have frustrated the people. The two mainstream parties have made politics conflict ridden; where the people’s needs and those of the nation have always come second to the need to keep them in power by any means. Their fight for their selfish interests is the main reasons why Bangladesh is still hovering around the threat of becoming a failed state. It is indeed a sad reflection upon our history that after these two mainstream parties had come together and had overthrown the dictatorship of President Ershad, they did not come together on bipartisan politics for if they had, the country would have become a middle income country before we said good bye to the last century instead of looking into some distant future to realize this great national expectation. The stance of the ruling party on the next elections is portent with dangerous possibilities and unless resolved, could push the country to great uncertainties and make the issue of becoming a middle income country irrelevant.

Nevertheless, these are the prices a nation must be prepared to pay for establishing democracy because sustainable socio-economic and political development can only be achieved through the democratic process. This is the unambiguous verdict of history. The TS participants should therefore come to the shows with an objective mind, keep issues apart, and help the people realize the faults of their political leaders, so that they can make their choices. They should also suggest remedies. They should not mislead the people by praising a discredited military leader like HM Ershad by suggesting to the people that his rule was better than those of the elected leaders and thus encouraging them for another military intervention. Instead, they should alert them to the depth of moral degradation to which the 10 years of President Ershad had taken Bangladesh. In two years, General Moyeen U Ahmed had threatened to take Bangladesh down the same way. Our military is a well organized force now that has earned great international reputation as peace keepers. They should not be encouraged as these TS participants are doing by putting ideas into their heads that the two mainstream parties are bad for the country.

The TS participants are also bringing back the discredited “minus two agenda” of the Moyeen regime. In the round table, they also spoke disparagingly on “dynasty” based politics suggesting that such nature of politics is one of the main reasons why the country is at such a despairing state of affairs. They are also calling for the emergence of a third political force to replace the existing two-party system. In these actions, these individuals who represent nobody are taking stand directly against the fundamental principles of democracy where it is the people who make the choices and not someone individuals on their behalf.  The military, for instance, cannot be an alternative to even the worst democratic government because the elected government, despite all its faults, is legitimate government; the military, with all its short term options, is illegitimate and unconstitutional. In addition, it contradicts the very spirit of Bangladesh.

More importantly, they are suggesting socio-political engineering that are way beyond their abilities or responsibilities unless they have extremely inflated ego or upholding some hidden agenda. If they feel that they have such great ideas for the betterment of the country, they should pursue their self-imposed greatness through the constitutional/democratic/legal means available which is the political process. Let them get together and form a political party and fight the “evils” that they see in the two mainstream parties. Otherwise, they will help replace the existing system with all its faults with something far worse as some of their colleagues did when they helped bring the Moyeen regime to office that by the verdict of the business community that bore a major brunt of his illegal hold on power has pushed Bangladesh 2 decades back in overall development.

Some of the participants of the TV Talk Shows have crossed their limits by placing General HM Ershad over two political leaders that millions helped elect to the highest political office of the country. They should spare themselves a moment and touch base with reason by deflating their inflated egos.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary

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