Wednesday, May 29, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Families, parties, and impediments to democracy

Such personalization of parties has damaged the cause of democracy

Update : 01 Feb 2024, 10:15 AM

Queer things have been happening in the Jatiya Party. They have nothing to do with the poor show of the party at the recent general election, prior to which the Awami League handed over 26 constituencies to it in an act of magnanimity. In the end, though, the JP came home with no more than eleven seats in parliament.

But that is not the issue today. In recent days, Begum Raushan Ershad has acted to remove G M Quader, her brother-in-law, from the position of chairman of the Jatiya Party. She has taken charge, as her supporters put it, of the party and has even appointed a new secretary general of the JP. This development has been communicated to the Election Commission.

Where does all this place Quader, who certainly looks forward, through a rearrangement of arithmetic, to being leader of the opposition in parliament? His loyalist secretary general has of course dismissed Raushan Ershad’s move as being without any foundation. The picture is not a happy one. But then, is anyone surprised? 

When it is the personalization of a political party which turns up as a public image of the organization, one can well imagine what its fortunes will be. In all the years since it was cobbled into shape by General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, the JP has not advanced as a democratic political party but has remained stymied by family quarrels, the family now divided between Raushan and Quader.

In recent times, it has been a truth about politics that parties centred on personalities or families have not fared well. And they have not because the entire show is focused on dynastic factors, as in the case of the JP, which is a reason why such parties are unable to convince people that they are equipped to formulate and implement political programmes for a country. And the problem is not one associated with the JP only. There is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the inability of whose leaders to break free of the grip of the Zia family has prevented it from developing a structure that could be truly described as democratic. 

Leaders at the various tiers of the party have traditionally been chosen by the mother-son team of Begum Khaleda Zia and Tarique Zia, in arbitrary manner. No senior party leader has been able to break out of this straitjacket, a consequence of which has been the inability of its workers and senior figures to convince the public that democracy is at work within it and therefore it is ready to promote democracy on a broader basis throughout the country.

Across the Indian subcontinent, such personalization of parties has damaged the cause of democracy. In the 1960s, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, in his bid to transform himself into a politician in Pakistan, sliced away part of the All-Pakistan Muslim League through calling a convention. His loyalists duly and happily joined him in what became known as the Convention Muslim League. A nominal internal structure was established within the party, but that was more in the nature of fiction. 

Ayub dominated the party till his fall from power through a mass movement in 1969. The party was then taken over by his loyalist Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, but made little headway in national politics. In subsequent times, the Muslim League went through a number of permutations and combinations before passing into the control of the Sharif clan. Today it is dominated by Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif and Nawaz’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz. Take these three out of the party and the party simply ceases to be. That is what families do to a party.

The ailment afflicting personalised parties is in the fact that once their central figures depart from the scene, they lose meaning and, in many instances, credibility. Sometimes it so happens that when the leading figure in such a political organisation loses power or public appeal, there are others in the party ready and willing to part ways with him. Following General Ershad’s fall from power, Anwar Hossain Manju, who had served in his regime as a minister, went ahead with heading a faction of the JP, which faction then aligned itself with the Awami League following the June 1996 election. Shah Moazzam Hossain went over from the JP to the BNP.

Family hold on political parties has in these past four decades been a hard reality in Pakistan, with unhappy results. The slide in the fortunes of the Pakistan People’s Party has squeezed the organisation into a situation where it struggles today to reclaim its place in the national scheme of things. After the fall and execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the party’s founder, the PPP passed into the hands of his widow Nusrat and daughter Benazir. Subsequently, Benazir pushed her mother out of the scene and took over the entire party, much to the displeasure of her brother Murtaza, who apparently believed he was the rightful inheritor of the Bhutto legacy. Murtaza formed his own faction of the party and was later murdered.

The PPP since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007 has remained in the control of her husband Asif Zardari and son Bilawal. Its fortunes have drastically declined on their watch, to a point where the party is today a mere shadow of its former self, confined as it is to the province of Sindh. The lesson here is that when families refuse to let go of political parties they or their ancestors may have formed, it is the parties which go through haemorrhaging. 

Pakistan’s forthcoming general election will be a test of whether, if at all, the PPP can regain centre stage in the country’s politics. It is a dilemma which afflicts the Indian National Congress as well. In the last ten years, the party, in the hands of the Nehru-Gandhis, has been unable to roll back the Hindutva tide of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its back is against the wall.

Of course, in Mallikarjun Kharge the Congress has a new president, but the party yet revolves around Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. It struggles to regain its old image, but it remains unable to recreate the appeal of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The Congress, like Pakistan’s PPP, has fallen on bad times. And yet the families which have superimposed themselves on them are reluctant to widen the internal democratic base of the parties. And that has been a huge impediment to the promotion of pluralistic values in our part of the world.

Political parties form the base of democracy in countries which profess a belief in the will of the people being exercised through elections. In an ideal situation, a political party is a training ground for men and women whose dedication to the cause of national welfare forms the core of their political aspirations. Every political party produces or throws up leaders who, when the time comes, will be ready to assume leadership of a country. Parties are much like cabinet government where collective decision-making underscores politics. 

Leaders rise to prominence before they yield place to other individuals ready to take charge. And there is that other point: it is the responsibility of the leader, the chief, of a political party to prepare the leadership that will take over from him or provide a sense of direction to the party when he may not be around through force of circumstance. 

In the Bhashani-Suhrawardy era of the Awami League, a younger generation symbolised by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman prepared to take over when the time came. In 1971, when Bangabandhu, having made the call for national freedom, was taken into custody by the state of Pakistan, his lieutenants -- Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam, M Mansoor Ali, A H M Kamruzzaman -- went forth to implement the goals he had set for the country.

When parties are commandeered by families or have their institutional structures undermined through the not-so-democratic fiat of their leaders; when party leaders expect sycophancy and unquestioned loyalty from those around them, nations pay a price. Regular and unimpeded internal party elections, without any threat of those electorally opposing the leadership being penalized later through expulsion or irrelevance, keep democracy alive.


Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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