In an interview with the London-based Guardian on 18 October 1981, Bangladesh army chief Lt Gen Hussain Muhammad Ershad said that the armed forces should be kept directly involved in the country’s administration to ensure that there would be no more coups in the future. The army would be responsible for safeguarding the country’s welfare. At least there would be no fresh attempts to take over power through any coup.
General Ershad had begun marking time from then and he didn’t have to wait for long. On 11 February 1982 a few senior army offers entered Bangabhaban and demanded that the president Abdus Sattar step down from power. It was obvious that with the removal of Sattar, there would be a military takeover.
Awami League’s stand at the time was ‘an enemy’s enemy is a friend’. Demanding that the government step down, opposition leader in parliament Asaduzzaman Khan said, the army does not have confidence in this government. When Ershad was knocking on the door, Awami League expressed no confidence in the Sattar BNP government and at a public rally in the city on 7 March 1982, it called for the government to be overthrown.
Early in the morning on 24 March, there was a military takeover. Ershad declared himself Chief Martial Law Administrator. The parliament was dissolved and Abdus Sattar was made to deliver a speech over TV and radio in favour of the military takeover. On the same day Ershad said in his speech, “I have had to respond to the call of the people. There was no other alternative before the people.”
Ershad’s words were not untrue. A large faction of BNP wanted change. They joined hands with Ershad. And all the anti-BNP parties wanted Sattar to step down.
Immediately after the military takeover, Awami League’s mouthpiece Dainik Bangla welcomed Ershad’s ascension to power. The newspaper, edited by Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, published a picture of a woman, hands raised in prayer, supposedly thanking the Almighty for the imposition of martial law.
Ershad remained at the helm of power for 8 years 8 months and 12 days. There were two martial law models for him to follow. One was of Ayub Khan and the other of Ziaur Rahman. These models were similar. The first step was to take over power. The next was to form a political party. Then would come the call for elections, the uniform would be discarded for political leadership. Leaders of various political parties, bureaucrats, businessmen and intellectuals would be lured in with all sorts of lucrative incentives. This is exactly what happened in the case of Ershad too.
Ziaur Rahman gained political legitimacy by getting the opposition to participate in the presidential and parliamentary elections under martial law rule. Ershad similarly gained political legitimacy when Awami League and its allies joined in the 1986 parliamentary elections and his rule was extended further.
The difference between Ziaur Rahman’s model and that of Ershad was Ziaur Rahman could not gain the confidence of the entire army. There were a dozen and a half coups against him. He was killed in the last.
Ershad was lucky in this sense. Like Ayub Khan, he too had the entire army by his side. Ayub’s downfall came through a military coup conducted by his appointed army chief Yahya Khan. And Ershad was forced to step down when army chief General Nuruddin and his associates withdrew their support for him. Both events were sparked off by mass uprisings. Both Ayub and Ershad had become liabilities for the army.
Ershad officially fell from power on 6 December 1990. He was arrested too. While in jail, he contested in five seats in two consecutive general elections and won with a huge number of votes. The urban middle class may have been against him, but he had strong pockets of support all over the country. That certainly calls for analysis.
Bengalis have a proclivity towards supporting the 'elected' government and so Ershad had a negative image of having unlawfully taken over power. But the scoreboard of his rule cannot be written off easily. The people of this country look to morals and ethics more than performance. You can’t always win the election with good performance. Politics often takes centre stage. His politics was bad.
After Ershad’s rule, no political party could form the government alone. In many seats, there was a very narrow gap between winning and losing and so Ershad and his Jatiya Party were a vital factor in many constituencies. The two major parties played tug-of-war with him. If they couldn’t get Ershad to their side, they would entice Raushan Ershad. Awami League was eventually successful in using Ershad as their stepping stone to power. So even though out of power, Ershad still wielded his influence. His death brought an end to an era.
The question now remains, what will be the predicament of Jatiya Party in the absence of Ershad? Will the party survive, break or vanish altogether?
In 1996 Awami League formed the government with the support of Ershad. Then Jatiya Party split into three. Now once again the party faces possibilities of a rift.
The country’s political parties are more or less all centred on dynasties or individuals. Awami League and BNP are both proof of how a party disintegrates in absence of its top leadership. However, they managed to make a comeback as they had clearly enunciated politics.
Jatiya Party at present has no politics. Initially Ershad had flown the ‘nationalist’ flag in an attempt to take over BNP’s place. That did not work out. They are now Awami League loyalists in parliament.
A parliament has no value without an opposition. Having a loyal opposition is a matter of relief for Awami League. They do not want any aggressive party in that stead. So it is up to the ruling party, that is the prime minister in particular, to ensure that Jatiya Party remains united.
If the party does break, all the factions will still remain in the Awami League mahajote (grand alliance) just as two factions of JSD remain in the 14 party alliance. In that way, the government’s balance won’t be affected in parliament this term.
Jatiya Party’s leaders are quite content. They will hardly break the branch upon which they are perched. They perhaps need to read the moral of that Aesop’s fable – strength in unity.
* Mohiuddin Ahmad is a writer and researcher and can be contacted at email@example.com. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir