General Hussein Muhammad Ershad believes that Bangladesh’s people want his Jatiyo Party to assume charge of the country against the background of the mess created by the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Moudud Ahmed thinks that the Awami League-led government has made its talks overture to the opposition only to impress people abroad. Go back to recent history, if you wish to refresh your minds on the contributions, or otherwise, made by Ershad and Moudud to Bangladesh’s politics.
Throughout the long period between 1982 and 1990, Ershad was Bangladesh’s second military strongman by virtue of his seizure of power in a military coup. And between the early 1980s and right till the triumph of the popular movement against autocracy in 1990, Moudud Ahmed served as a significant cog in the wheel of the Ershad dispensation. Today, both men travel around the country extolling the virtues of democracy. General Ershad feels his party deserves one more chance in power. Moudud Ahmed honestly believes that the party he is now part of must somehow storm back to power if democracy is to have a chance in this country.
Try remembering the times immediately after the assassination of General Ziaur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first military ruler, in May 1981, in a putsch in Chittagong. As chief of staff of the army, Ershad earned the appreciation of various sections of society through staying away from launching a coup in the aftermath of the murder. Vice President Abdus Sattar, having taken over as acting president, went on to win the presidency in his own right in November 1981 through defeating the Awami League’s Kamal Hossain at the ballot box. Within weeks of Sattar’s victory, however, Ershad’s reflections on the need for a national security council, made public through the media, raised eyebrows and then questions on what it was that he wished to do.
It was not normal that the chief of a disciplined force, which the army was and is, should be speaking openly about matters that were and are the sole prerogative of the president of the republic. President Sattar, in office on the strength of a popular mandate, should have taken action against the army chief. He did not. Four months into his election, he was overthrown in a coup d’etat led by General Ershad. Democracy, thanks to Sattar’s pusillanimity and Ershad’s ambitions, went on the backburner once more. In time, the BNP divested Sattar of its leadership and, taking a cue from the Awami League, passed the mantle on to General Zia’s widow. Moudud Ahmed, having served as a minister in the Zia regime, stayed, for the time being, loyal to Begum Zia. It was loyalty not destined to last.
At some point in the earlier part of the 1980s, Ershad the soldier and Moudud the lawyer-politician came together. These days, the former military ruler accuses the BNP of having tried to break up his Jatiyo Party. Maybe he is right, but the bigger truth is that all military rulers in our part of the world, from Ayub Khan to Ziaul Haq to Ziaur Rahman to Ershad, have systematically attempted to destroy established political parties by drawing their leading figures into their corner through a variety of blandishments. In the Moudud case, Ershad first dispatched the man to prison and then, through mystery not difficult to fathom, freed him before luring him into his Jatiyo Party. It was on Ershad’s watch and under Ershad that Moudud Ahmed almost made it to the nation’s presidency. He was the vice president who was compelled to resign in early December 1990 to make way for Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, who then took over as acting president from an embattled Ershad.
You go through the entire trajectory of Moudud Ahmed’s career as a politician. And you are left quite surprised at this ability in him to survive in ever new metamorphoses. His public life commenced through his association with Bangabandhu’s legal team in the Agartala conspiracy case in 1968. He could have properly hitched himself to the Bangabandhu bandwagon, but by the early 1970s, something must have gone wrong between the two men. Moudud was taken into detention once the government imposed a state of emergency in the country in December 1974. There are stories of his father-in-law, the poet Jasimuddin, interceding with the Father of the Nation on the matter of his freedom. By the late 1970s, Moudud was part of the political machine General Zia was so assiduously trying to build. Between 1983 and 1990, Moudud had ditched Khaleda Zia, gone over to Ershad, risen to being deputy prime minister, then prime minister before finally making it to the vice presidency. By the mid 1990s, he was back in the BNP, to rise to a position of power again in 2001 as minister for law.
In nations around the world, military rulers like General Ershad, having fallen from power and public grace, do not ever make it back to the public domain. Politicians of shifting loyalties like Moudud Ahmed slowly recede into the forgotten regions of memory. But, yes, ours is a strangely different land. We forget and forgive. And then we fume and fret in indignation, year after year, at our lack of collective self-esteem.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.