How Ershad stayed relevant
It is not polite to talk ill of the deceased, or at least that is something we were taught in a world where elites and cabinet members did not regularly employ profanities. So, I shall be balanced and nuanced rather than critical. Letting go with his passing to the Great Beyond without taking a retrospective look at the times and many incarnations of the late General Hussein Mohammad Ershad would be unseemly to do.
I have to admit that my first political consciousness can be traced to his time as president; to be precise to February 1983 when I showed up at school during a hartal called by the combined student activists at Dhaka University agitating for a return to democratic rule.
For someone in his pre-teen years, it was quite easy to admire a dashing general in his bemedalled uniform or well-cut suits who only wanted to restore efficiency and order in the universities and the country beyond the campuses.
I was to remain a fan till the very end of his rule, which coincided with me starting my university studies.
A general who was a poet, who waded through the flood waters in all the “68,000” villages (or so it appeared), and put Bangladesh on the map for many an elegant foreign head of state and dazzling sporting events ... what was there not to like?
As for his opponents, about the only thing I liked then was that we got frequent days off from school thanks to their usual hartals. Children like simplicity and fanfare, and even as teenagers, we were, but, children. There was indeed a lot to like about the former president’s rule. For starters, even as a “military dictator” his use of the state apparatus to personally kill, maim, torture, and make disappear political opponents was minimal to non-existent.
Sure, journalists and politicians were often jailed for a few days here and there, but it was unthinkable that they would be hounded out physically from their own houses, bloodied in front of the world’s cameras, or bundled up and dropped across the border from moving cars. And despite the supposed “censorship” for most of his rule, newspapers were as loud and direct as ever. In a strange twist of irony, that dictatorship had more civil freedoms than today’s “democracy.”
Yet, the wholesale debasement of politics -- which has rarely been a redoubt of decent people in this part of the world -- began in earnest under the late general’s rule with the mixing of religion, cash, and personal immorality in a concoction that was rare until then. Men of stature like the late Kazi Zafar Ahmed and the late Enayetullah Khan literally went from strident critics on Monday to ambassadors, ministers, and yes men on Tuesday. The utter mockery of the 1986 parliamentary election, with the fanfare of phony Western-style live returns on state television, was a sight to behold as liberal amounts of money from illiberal kingdoms was used to grease the creation of a mirage opposition even as some democrats saw through the charade and kept their dignity intact by staying away from the farce.
When such the managed opposition started showing baby teeth, the good general simply created a new parliament with a brand new “Combined Opposition Party” made up of a dozen folks spread between 50 or so “parties” with funny names which nobody had ever heard of until then. And to calm the good God-fearing folks, he declared a state religion, a religion whose rather puritan dictates never quite hampered his well-known exploits with the ladies across several continents.
He did pay a price for his chutzpah. During the first few years after his fall, the treatment meted out to him and members of his party by the first post-1990 democratic government was nothing short of vindictive. Wily as the general was, however, he paid back the mistreatment and then some in the years that followed. His moodiness, disappearing acts, clownish claims of depression and suicidal thoughts, and constant infighting with his wife, brother, cousins, and retinue made him a kingmaker in election after election and the trendline that emerged couldn’t be clearer.
His party, cobbled in the 1980s as a political vehicle for his ambitions and without much of a coherent philosophy, had neatly found its calling as the loyal opposition with a sinecure in parliaments and a few executive jobs, playing the “B” team for the ones who played the “B” team for them in the 1980s. The politics of wholesale stagecraft had come full circle even in the general’s own life.
In ensuring that sinecure for his top lieutenants, the general ensured that even after his demise, his party will remain around as long as the current mode of “elections” hold sway in the land.
Not bad for a chap from rural Cooch Bihar; not bad at all, my general!
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]