On December 29, 2012, several thousand councillors were present at the Awami League’s council session at the Institution of Engineers, Bangladesh to elect the party’s new leadership including the chief, general secretary and other office bearers. They enthusiastically re-elected Sheikh Hasina as the AL chief. But when the chief election commissioner picked the business of election to the post of the party’s general secretary, an abnormal situation prevailed; many councillors did not at all feel enthusiastic. Without any delay, two AL leaders, as advised by Hasina, proposed and supported Syed Ashraful Islam’s name for general secretary. But many councillors were seen annoyed with the proposal and they started to leave the council session. The chief election commissioner hurriedly completed the election for general secretary.
An abnormal situation prevailed as many councillors, most of them AL grassroots level leaders, were not satisfied with Ashraf’s performance during his first term as the party’s general secretary. What were Ashraf’s faults? The common allegation against him was that the AL grassroots and midlevel leaders could not reach him and he also did not keep any contact with them. Even some senior AL leaders also had the same allegations against Ashraf: he remained out of reach. He remains missing for a major part of the day! Even the Prime Minister had once reportedly told some of her party colleagues that she could not communicate with Ashraf sometimes!
Seven months after his election as general secretary for the second term, the situation has taken a volatile turn. In the ruling AL camp, Ashraf, also the LGRD minister, appears a most unfortunate man. Some MPs at a recent AL Parliamentary Party meeting ‘audaciously’ criticised him for his failure to strengthen the party; they also spoke for changing the party’s spokeperson. Just a few days later, some advisers of the AL advisery council at a meeting with the party chief Sheikh Hasina launched a blistering attack on Ashraf. And some of them advised the party chief to replace Ashraf with a senior and active AL leader. If Hasina allows party MPs and senior leaders to speak freely, it will open a floodgate of criticism and disgruntlement against Ashraf and some AL leaders and ministers.
A situation like this has not developed in a day. The party’s humiliating defeat to rival BNP in the recently held five city corporation elections has exposed the fragile state of the ruling AL. Annoyed and frustrated, leaders and workers cannot openly question and criticise Sheikh Hasina’s leadership. This is the reality of Bangladesh politics and a limitation of our democracy which always favours party’s top leaders.
However, the way the AL MPs and leaders have been criticising Syed Ashraf, second in command of the AL, also indirectly questions and criticises Hasina’s leadership to some extent. Everybody knows the truth. It was none other than Sheikh Hasina who made Ashraf her party’s second-in command in party national council in 2009. Though his performance could not make party leaders and workers happy in the first four years, Ashraf was again made general secretary in 2012. Hasina made it possible.
Ashraf’s journey as party’s general secretary was not smooth. The AL went through a major shake up. His predecessor Abdul Jalil was ousted from the post of general secretary in a humiliating way. He was forced to step down as AL general secretary on July 21, 2009 within seven months of his party coming to power. Before his resignation, the then joint general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam was acting as party’s general secretary for several months. Jalil was not allowed to assume the functions of the general secretary even after his release from jail. So, he resigned just three days ahead of the AL national council alleging that he was not being allowed to function as the party’s general secretary. He was widely regarded as loyal to AL and its chief Sheikh Hasina. But he did not get due honour from his party during the last days of his life. [Jalil died on March 6, 2013.]
Why was he forced to resign? Some media reports centring round Jalil’s resignation said Hasina became annoyed with Jalil following some comments he had made at the time of his detention during the military – backed caretaker government, and even after his release from jail.
While in detention, Jalil once said Hasina ran the party in an ‘autocratic manner’, although after his release he recanted the statement, saying he had been forced to make the comment. But Hasina did not trust Jalil, which frustrated the veteran AL leader. And later he, in and outside the parliament, strongly criticised some ministers labelling them as ‘paid agents of the DGFI’. He also criticised the practice of allowing advisers to the prime minister to be present in cabinet meetings.
The way Jalil was forced to resign as general secretary has exposed the darker side of the AL after the 2008 parliamentary polls. The AL’s rival BNP, that won the majority in the 2001 parliamentary polls, had also made such a blunder within a few months after assuming power. They forced the then elected President AQM Badruddozza Chowdhury to resign, whose loyalty to the BNP was beyond question. His departure was considered as the beginning of the downfall of the BNP-led government. The same is true for in case of Jalil whose resignation shocked many AL leaders and workers who feared for the future of the AL.
Empowered by the last council, the AL chief formed new presidium and central working committee without bigwigs like Amir Hossain Amu, Abdur Razzaque, Tofail Ahmed, Jalil and Suranjit Sengupta and some other rising leaders who were also not inducted into Hasina’s cabinet for their plan to bring reforms in the party during the caretaker government. Instead, she had chosen those in the cabinet and party who were blindly loyal to her leadership. Thus within seven months, Hasina emerged as the supreme leader both in her party and cabinet. She began the historic journey in the history of AL and of course in Bangladesh. None before Hasina was so powerful.
Yet Ashraful does not need to be worried much as he still enjoys the blessing of the AL supremo. So, he might be able to overcome the crisis and consolidate his position in the party.
But some crucial questions need to be answered. Is Ashraf alone responsible for the fragile state of the AL? Didn’t the ouster of some bigwigs from the party’s policymaking level have made the party weak? Now that Jalil is dead, has Ashraf become the new scapegoat?
Many in the AL and political analysts believe the party leaders remained largely inactive in face and fear of the rise of Hasina’s supreme leadership!
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.