In 1970, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was an unparalleled leader, with no one capable of competing with him. Even so, when it came to the election, there was a contestant against him. His opponent in the election was Khawaja Khairuddin of the Dhaka Nawab family. Bangabandhu was a Bangali nationalist out and out, while Khawaja Khairuddin was a hard core Muslim nationalist, of the Pakistani ilk.
Khawaja was fully aware that his defeat was inevitable. Bangabandhu knew that no power on Earth could prevent him from winning. Yet Khawaja Khairuddin went ahead, campaigning in the lanes and alleyways of Old Dhaka. And Bangabandhu travelled around the entire country, seeking votes for his party candidates. He even campaigned in his own constituency of Old Dhaka. There was no need for him to do so, but one has to approach the voters.
Hamidul Haque Chowdhury gave extensive coverage to Khawaja Khair’s meetings and rallies. One journalist asked him the clichéd, “How confident are you of winning?” In his Bangla interlaced with Urdu, Khawaja replied, “We will see how many supporters I have after the election.” It was a free and fair election and he secured around 45,000 votes or so.
It is obvious that not everyone who contests in an election will have to win. Sometimes the contest is strong. At times people contest just to be known. Then there is the trend down from the British rule, of popular and respected persons unwilling to contest with anyone, and they are the ones who are elected uncontested.
In Bangladesh’s first parliamentary election held in 1973, no one contested against Bangabandhu. That was only natural. What was unnatural was that there were others who wanted to be elected uncontested. They were Syed Nazrul Islam, AHM Qamaruzzaman, Sohrab Hossain, KM Obaidur Rahman, Manoranjan Dhar, Zillur Rahman, Rafiq Uddin Bhuiyan and others. It is alleged that their rivals in the election were forced not submit their nomination papers.
It was said that such propensity towards uncontested was unhealthy. The veteran communist leader Khoka Roy wrote:
“Bangabandhu was elected uncontested. But then it became a fashion for many future Bangabandhu aspirants too, to also want to be elected uncontested. Thus it is being heard that in areas where there is risk of losing the contest, these candidates have used force to win. Bangabandhu is a different case. The allegations brought about by some opposition parties against 10 candidates who were elected uncontested, other than Bangabandhu, are not unfounded. Like arrogance, it cannot be denied that such use of force and fear does not bode well for the future of democracy in Bangladesh. It is history that has placed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the position of Bangabandhu.” [Weekly Saptaha, 23 February 1973, Kolkata]
The two most popular leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, always had rival candidates whenever they contested in the election. Election means contest. But over the last five years or so, elections in Bangladesh have veered away from contest. After the parliamentary polls, now the upazila elections is all about being elected uncontested. If there are opposing candidates, these are either just for show, fake candidates or ‘rebel’ candidates of the same party.
Technically speaking, the election commission or the ruling party cannot be blamed. They did not announce that no one other than their dear candidates can buy nomination papers and contest. But reality is another story. Force may not have been used to stop others, but the threat was there. In fact, many of them decided it was safer to leave their areas and stay for a while with relatives in Dhaka city.
Winning the election uncontested would be fine if this did not apply to the ruling party alone and if many of the opposition also won uncontested. The opposition has no problem with uncontested victory. In fact, it has saved them. The problem is for the ruling party. There are several popular leaders of the ruling party from the same area. The people want any one of them to be the upazila chairman. So when one of them wins, the others lament along with their supporters. And the people are just disposable commodities to be discarded once the election is over.
The opposition leaders are not any better in this democracy drama. In this recent election, despite everything, if the elected Oikya Front leaders took oath, no one could have said anything. It is the normal to be sworn in after being elected. But only one ‘jewel’ among all of them took oath. As for unfortunate Khaleda Zia, her only representative has entered the parliament without even uttering her name.
He has called himself ‘nilmoni’, a gem, a precious sapphire. He is the Gono Forum candidate elected under the BNP banner. He took oath and the people were not surprised at all. After all, compared to those who took oath on the evening of 15 August in Mushtaque’s cabinet, this sapphire’s oath is nothing. Bangabandhu’s blood hadn’t even dried then and now Khaleda Zia is behind bars. The people were shocked for a different reason. They were taken aback by the speech delivered by this gem in parliament after being sworn in. This was completely contrary to the speeches he had been delivering for the past 10 years.
‘Nilmoni’ is a strong orator. He spoke in parliament, saying that he had been in ‘political prison’ for 18 years. Now he is free within the confines of the Louis Kahn structure. In his elation he seems to have forgotten that it was the BNP symbol, the sheaf of paddy, that gave him this freedom. Since he was so eager to enter this building, he could have chosen the correct path. If he didn’t take oath, his seat would have been declared vacant within 90 days. There would be a reelection in that seat. Then he could have used any other symbol, whether a rising sun, a setting sun or an afternoon sun, to enter the building at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar with the support of the voters. He would be applauded rather than criticised then. Bangalis can give up a lot. They can do away with ethics and conscience, but surely not the duty free luxury vehicles, choice plots of land and other perks that came with the package.
As the leader of the majority, it was Bangabandhu who was entirely entitled to be the prime minister of undivided Pakistan. But for the sake of earning the rights of the Bangali people, on 7 March he said that he didn’t want prime ministership. But this gem now has scorned his party, his election alliance, the election code and everyone, vying to enter the parliament at any cost. This is Bangladesh in the 21st century.
* Syed Abul Maksud is a writer and researcher. This piece appeared in the print version of Prothom Alo in Bangla and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir