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The sordid art of political betrayal

  • Published at 12:03 am November 7th, 2019
Joseph Stalin
Photo: COLLECTED

The lure of power often makes people turn on their benefactors

There are all the tales of political betrayal in our times. There are the men who have, in their various ways, undermined the nobility of politics by turning on their benefactors in their need to fulfill their ambitions of glory that comes with power.

Many are the reasons why Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is remembered all these years after his tragic death through execution. A principal cause behind such remembrance is the manner in which he betrayed those through whose benevolence he rose to the top before he finally perished.

There is the fawning letter he wrote to Pakistan’s president Iskandar Mirza days after he was inducted as a cabinet minister (and this was soon after Mirza and Ayub Khan together placed Pakistan under martial law in early October 1958), telling him that history would record that his leadership was greater than that of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and that he would be remembered more than the founder of Pakistan.

Only 20 days after the imposition of martial law, Ayub had Mirza packed off into exile. Bhutto swiftly changed stance and made it clear to Ayub that he was absolutely loyal to him. Through Ayub Khan, Bhutto scaled the heights. Eventually he betrayed Ayub, accusing him of all sorts of sins that were simply not true. Bhutto was prime minister when Ayub died. He did not attend his funeral.

Stories of political betrayal have been legion in history. In Bangladesh, there have been quite a few. Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed and Taheruddin Thakur remain eerie symbols of such betrayal. They were always seen around Bangabandhu, much more than any other member of the senior Awami League leadership. 

In the end, these were the men who, in company with others, pushed the Father of the Nation to his death.

Proper Bangabandhu loyalists like Tajuddin Ahmad found themselves pushed to the sidelines and indeed out of government, but Moshtaq and his ilk stayed on, long enough to make sure that the Father of the Nation was put out and put away for good.

In neighbouring India, Jagjivan Ram first became a minister in the post-independence government of Jawaharlal Nehru. He would go on to serve in various ministerial positions under Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. When Gandhi imposed a state of emergency in June 1975, Ram stayed on and served her without raising any questions about her action, all the way till the emergency was lifted in early 1977 and fresh elections were called.

Jagjivan Ram quickly jumped ship and joined the opposition which eventually routed the Congress. Ram then served in the new Janata Party government under Morarji Desai. Many had expected him to end up being prime minister at some point. That did not happen.

In the 1980s, Korban Ali from the Awami League and Abdul Halim Chowdhury from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party were entrusted with the responsibility of engaging in preliminary political dialogue with the Ershad military regime by their parties. They soon turned their backs on their leaders and their parties and quickly became ministers under General Ershad. Nearly similar is the story of the veteran politician Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, who deserted the AL and then served Ershad as prime minister before making his way back, post-Ershad, to the AL.

Shah Moazzem Hossain, associated with the Chhatra League and then with the AL in Bangabandhu’s time, linked himself with Khondokar Moshtaq in the Democratic League. He then joined Ershad’s Jatiyo Party and served in various ministerial positions. 

In the Ershad era, Moazzem regularly made obscene references to Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia. A day then came when he ditched Ershad (and that was years after the return to elected government in 1991) and joined the BNP by presenting a bouquet to Begum Zia. 

Moudud Ahmed and Kazi Zafar Ahmed are two other instances of the pursuit of turncoat politics in Bangladesh.

In Pakistan, the well-known journalist Mushahid Hussain was associated with Nawaz Sharif until the Pervez Musharraf coup of October 1999. He went quiet for a short while and then linked up with Musharraf.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray, on whose advice Indira Gandhi went ahead with clamping India under emergency rule, subsequently went out of favour with her when he denied that he had any role in the affair. Indeed, his defense before the Shah Commission was a curious denial of any role in the imposition of the emergency. He pointed the finger at Indira Gandhi, who ignored him after she returned to power in 1980.

MJ Akbar, once a Congress lawmaker and friend of Rajiv Gandhi, was till recently in India’s BJP government. 

Joseph Stalin died in 1953. At the party congress in Moscow in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, who had been unquestioningly faithful to Stalin, took the opportunity of condemning him harshly for the excesses committed by his government. In 1964, Khrushchev himself was betrayed by those who had been beholden to him over the years, men like Leonid Brezhnev, Nikolai Podgorny, and Alexei Kosygin. They ousted him and banished him to the country-side.

Stories of political betrayal in Afghanistan are many. Sardar Mohammad Daoud, related to King Zahir Shah, overthrew him in 1973. Daoud was then murdered in the communist coup, known as the Saur Revolution of 1978, and Nur Mohammad Taraki took over as president. Taraki was then murdered by his associate Hafizullah Amin, who in turn was killed when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and installed Babrak Karmal in power. Karmal too had been part of the Saur Revolution.

The stories of betrayal go on. Do not forget that ZA Bhutto was betrayed by his handpicked army chief Ziaul Haq. Bhutto called him his monkey general. In the end, the monkey general sent his master to his untimely grave.

And recall that in Chile, Augusto Pinochet led the coup which killed President Salvador Allende in September 1973 and plunged the country into murder and mayhem for years. Pinochet had been appointed chief of staff of the army a few days before he launched his coup against his president.

Remember Brutus? 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.