There are certainly many better persons than I who can assess former President HM Ershad more insightfully and, perhaps, more eloquently. As a writer one cannot escape the inevitable influence of the personal association with the man he is writing about, on his thoughts. Having had the occasion to know General Ershad for a considerable period of time, and working directly under him on several occasions, the influence is, I admit, inevitable. But I shall try nevertheless.
People know Ershad mainly as a politician and that aspect is what I shall focus mainly on. And if a politician is measured by his successes after he has departed, Ershad’s success is that the very political party that spent a good deal of the nine years of the Ershad regime on the streets trying to oust him, anointed him with most disgraceful adjectives and vilified him at every possible opportunity, had to solicit his party’s support and participation to validate the elections of 2014.
His success is that he stamped his authority on the politics and governance of the country for long nine years after taking over power and continued to influence the country’s politics to the very last day of his life. He was the unpredictable political variable everyone sought to have on one’s side. His success is that he not only emerged from the doldrums and survived as a political force but also dictated the course of politics often.
How so is the question many ask. It was, I suggest, a combination of his political acumen, ability to read into the nature of our politics and the psyche of the public and his guile and wily astuteness to analyse a situation and identify the weaknesses in his opponents. He played one against the other and by doing so managed to forestall a large-scale political movement for a long time.
Ershad was in much demand by both the political parties, whether in power or in opposition, since 1991, a fact that he did not fail to recognise or hesitate to exploit to the fullest advantage. It speaks as much of his political shrewdness as of the moral bankruptcy of politics in Bangladesh. His success is that he has made the JP and Ershad relevant in Bangladesh politics. And that was possible because he did not choose to run anyway after being ousted. He did not have to face a bloody exit from politics but unlike other military rulers elsewhere who chose exile, Ershad preferred to stay on and face the consequences. He risked imprisonment, all for the sake of his political future, of making himself relevant in the long run. And that confidence stemmed from his belief in the fact that he had substantive popular support. How does one rationalise JP’s winning not only 35 seats in the election held so soon after Ershad was deposed and jailed, but also the fact that he himself won all the five seats he contested while in custody? And JP has continued to be the third largest party in the elections held since 1991.
Interestingly, turmoil seemed to favour his stars. Sent on a course abroad so as to sideline him, the subsequent painful developments in the country furthered his career, catapulting him in the army hierarchy. He invoked the ire of many when President Zia chose him, unexpectedly (conforming though to the army seniority), over other freedom fighter officers, as the army chief. That was Zia’s way of snuffing some senior freedom fighter officers, more ambitious but perhaps more proficient and professionally competent but less pliant to him, whom Zia considered a threat. And one would not be remiss in suggesting that the killing of Zia had much to do with this decision of his.
Ershad’s predilection for politics was revealed very soon after Zia’s assassination. He openly propagated in the media the right of the armed forces to participate in the country’s politics. This argument, which added a new matrix to the civil-military relations, was propped up on the view that since the armed forces had a direct part in the birth of the country, they deserved not only a role in, but also a say about, how the nascent state should be governed. But that did nothing more than only ruffle a few feathers and raise a few hackles in the political circles. The political powers were very circumspect about the army, President Sattar choosing discretion over valour, although he was known to have stood firm on certain issues like taking very stringent action against the striking T&T workers or refusing the Airforce Chief’s recommendation to sack a few senior air force officers causing the chief himself to resign.
The bloodless coup of March 1982 was a manifestation of his ambition. From martial law administrator to being the president was a predictable step, Ershad acting like a camel in the tent. Of course, like all military rulers, he projected the government he had dislodged as corrupt, inefficient and incompetent, promised better deal and dangled the issue of election as the proverbial carrot. Regrettably, but not surprisingly, the other major political party was “not unhappy” with the change. That to Ershad was a signal of approval.
Ershad’s election in 1986 was only possible when the AL chose to break ranks with the other alliances and decided to participate. But the promised election—free, fair and open—came, but only after Ershad was removed through a popular uprising and abandoned by the army, in 1991. But in the nine years in between, Ershad wrought many changes in the country’s political character and governance. A momentous change was made in the administrative structure of the country with the introduction of the upazila system, which among other things attempted to allow a bottom-up approach to development planning rather than a top-down one. The system was vehemently opposed by the BNP. He tried but failed to decentralise the judiciary on the ground that it would violate the unitary character of the state as envisaged in the constitution.
Ershad played on the sentiments of the majority and made Islam the state religion. It was motivated more by politics than religion, an expedient to garner popular support. But, interestingly, none of the two parties that has alternated as the ruling party since 1991, tried to change that status. Although the latest amendment has reinstated the principle of secularism, it has also reaffirmed Islam as the state religion. The answer that one must seek is why the strongest protagonist of secularism—the AL—feels no qualm to live with the apparent contradiction. Why did the AL, in spite of having a majority in parliament, not take it upon themselves to amend the constitution and do away with Islam as the state religion?
He was criticised for his policies during his tenure, the intensity rising in tandem with the gradual enlargement of political space for the parties and loosening of the control on the media, a control which was very subtly applied. He used charm and allure to win over a section of the media, but couldn’t buy the pliancy of the rest. He thrived on controversy, being continually at the centre of controversy even to the last day. Controversy and confusion did not end even after his death till he was laid to rest.
But if Ershad had his critics, he had also managed to create a great deal of support at the grassroots level although localised to a particular region of the country. Road communication was greatly improved between the centre and the north and eastern part of the country. Administration was decentralised and the system of local government was reinvigorated.
Ershad has been accused of destroying democracy but look at the current state of democracy in the country during the period following his. He is the only head of state to have been jailed for corruption, but his deeds have paled into insignificance by what the country has witnessed during the successive governments after his. His student wing had been accused of defiling the academic atmosphere in the educational institutions. What do we see now? And what about the rule of law, state of governance and law and order? Was it any worse than what we see now?
If compared to the present state of affairs with some of Ershad’s policies regarding the media and freedom of speech, political coercion of the opponents and political space, the rule of law, human rights even during the autocratic and pseudo-democratic eras, Ershad would fare better.
Admittedly, Ershad was a mixed bag of positives and negatives. Let history be the judge of which of the two would live on and which should be interred with his bones. We must not forget that history treats everyone fairly and never forgives.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.