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Critics consider him a military ruler. He came to power in army uniform. But more than being a military ruler, BNP also considers him to be the pioneer of Bangladeshi nationalism and multiparty democracy in the country. Within a short time of coming to power, he shrugged off his identity as a military ruler. He formed the political party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and took to the political arena. In that sense, BNP can be referred to as a ‘king’s party’. BNP started off with the advantage of state facilities.

Generally speaking, such ‘king’s parties’ become extinct once the ruler steps down from power. But not in the case of BNP. Even after the death of Ziaur Rahman, despite many ups and down, BNP survived.

The main reason that BNP survived was that Ziaur Rahman had applied certain strategies and policies. His fresh stance on nationalism was a significant sensation in politics. He introduced the new political concept of Bangladesh nationalism. He became active in the political arena, implementing multiple and diverse programmes through various policies and strategies.

Unlike the rules of the Russian czars or the Japanese emperors, Bangladeshi nationalism was not dependent on bureaucracy. Zia directly involved the people in the materialisation of Bangladeshi nationalism

First the administration and bureaucracy was refurbished. Then the armed forces were strengthened. Bringing the administration and the armed forces fully under control, Bangladeshi nationalism was shaped much on the lines of Western European countries. On one hand there was social participation and on the other was military training.

Unlike the rules of the Russian czars or the Japanese emperors, Bangladeshi nationalism was not dependent on bureaucracy. Zia directly involved the people in the materialisation of Bangladeshi nationalism. The people were directly involved in various programmes such as digging canals, mass education, village government, VDP (Village Defence Party) and such.

There was an element of people-based programmes in the various plans pertaining to Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh nationalism. He had even spoken of doing away with the dividers that separated crop fields. Many feel that perhaps it was Ziaur Rahman who had planned the commune farm system in the agricultural sector of the country. He had directly spoken about cooperative farming. There may have been a fusion of liberal economy and a socialist agricultural system in his thoughts. Bangladeshi nationalism, indeed, can be seen as a fusion of systems.

Ziaur Rahman gave the media a free hand to function normally. Alongside politics, he gave importance to social, economic and cultural advancement

At the grassroots there were efforts to apply a people-oriented system of production and governance. There was a propensity at the time to take ideas from the grassroots and translate these into decisions at the centre. Alongside this, a controlled private sector was also encouraged. For example, irrigation and agriculture was previously handled entirely by the government. But during Ziaur Rahman’s rule, private enterprise was welcomed in the agricultural sector. Small teams were formed in the villages for irrigation. One person would buy an irrigation pump and supply water to the fields of others. Such people-oriented production methods are seen in the socialist countries. But in the socialist countries those days, everything was controlled by the government.

Ziaur Rahman relinquished these matters to the hands of the local people, with government monitoring in place. That is why at the time Bangladesh managed to move away from the extreme profit mongering of capitalism and the absolute central control of socialism, and adopted a new model of the West European ilk. This new trend in economic structure brought about changes to the country's industrial and agricultural sector. The people directly benefitted from these changes. An educated new middle class emerged from the agro-based rural community. Prior to 1947 or during the Pakistan rule, the backward rural population would migrate to the cities. A farmer's son would not take to farming, but search for jobs in offices, mills and factories. This gave rise to new professions and an expansion of urban life.

Ziaur Rahman's rule can be discussed in two divides. One is his political position and policies. The other is various social and economic programmes. Many criticise his political stance, saying he used religion for political purposes. They say he gave scope to anti-independence forces in politics. He even took some such elements into his own party. He sternly quashed his rivals, even carrying out Colonel Taher's death sentence. But then again, he opened the doors of politics to everyone. Ziaur Rahman gave the media a free hand to function normally. Alongside politics, he gave importance to social, economic and cultural advancement.

It was during Ziaur Rahman's time that the Ekushey Award and the Independence Award was introduced. Other initiatives included the national folk music festival, the national drama festival, the national annual fine arts exhibition, expansion of radio and television, colour television, national children's awards, national film awards, grants for cinema, setting up the film institute and archives, international film festival and so on.

Basically, any political criticism, failure or limitations were eclipsed by his social, economic and cultural progammes. That is why even though there may have been debate over some of his political decisions, it wasn't difficult for him to establish himself firmly among the people. This gave BNP a strong foundation amidst the people. But BNP later failed to hold on to that position. BNP is no longer seen in any programmes where the masses are involved. The dynamic power of Ziaur Rahman's BNP, its force, its strategic skill, its astute grasp of circumstances, the ability to make snap decisions, is now entirely absent in the present BNP.

The present BNP seems to be clueless, wondering aimlessly in a political maze. It has become an old and decrepit party. The present BNP takes years for a single decision. It now takes seven years to form a full-fledged committee of Chattogram Chhatra Dal. Once the committee was formed, it was seen that many of the top leaders were over 50 years old or near 50! The committee was later dissolved, but why did it take seven years to form the committee? A few years ago the central leaders of the student front Chhatra Dal included non-students, elderly persons and fathers of several children. A joke had been making rounds that fathers and sons would both be in Chhatra Dal at the same time.

This example of Chhatra Dal gives a good understanding of BNP's present organisational state. The activists are divided up, following different 'bhais' ('big brothers'). They look after the syndicates of these big brothers. This benefits various big brothers and leaders of the party, but harms BNP. That is why despite having a strong foundation within the people, 40 years since Ziaur Rahman's death, BNP seems to have entered premature old-age even before reaching vibrant youth.

* Dr Maruf Mullick is a political analyst

* This opinion appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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