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New Leadership - Is it forming?
SHAHEDUL ANAM KHAN conducts a post-mortem of the leadership crisis in Bangladesh.
The following article is predicated on two defining phrases, that of 'new leadership' and 'leadership crisis' in Bangladesh.
The word post-mortem implies investigation into something that is expired, and therefore it would be justified for the readers to ask if leadership has indeed taken leave of this country. Well, if not leadership, at least good leadership has been a rare phenomenon in Bangladesh.
If leadership entails harmonising the strengths, offsetting the weaknesses, and leading the nation to the cherished goal, I am afraid the country has not had the benefit of the service of that type of personality or a group of people capable of doing that for a long time.
It goes without saying that crises of leadership is to a large extent due to lack of dynamism in leaders that is brought about by ossified and mentally decrepit politicians who consider themselves indispensable and who do nothing to create conditions for the second and third tier of leaders to learn to take over the reins of the party.
One hears it mentioned very often that the reason for the continuing flux in Bangladesh is the lack of good leadership. But then the matter cuts both ways because it is equally true that a people get the leadership they deserve. And if we were to accept the criticism that most of the woes that ail the country are because of poor leadership, should we as voters not share in equal degree the blame for repeatedly electing people that have failed to deliver? But by the same token how are we to be blamed when the choice is limited between the devil and the deep sea?
The issue of leadership in Bangladesh had never lost its topicality, and as a matter of national concern, had never been out of public discourse. Right from the time of our liberation, but more so after democracy was reclaimed following the end of a nine-year long military in 1991, leadership in, and of, the political parties had been viewed with keen interest by the public, more so when leadership role in the case of the two major political parties, had been thrust upon the current incumbents rather than acquired by them by dint of their quality or merit as a politician. So has been the focus of the public on the quality of politicians.
But one would like to emphasise the relevance of pedigree that goes into the making of a good politician and a good leader.
Leadership is not only about being put in a place of authority. While one may 'inherit' high office of a political party, becoming a true leader, particularly in the realm of politics, is quite another matter. Leadership is quite like greatness; some are born leaders, some acquire the essential qualities, while some are put in that position not on his or her free choice but by the compulsions of circumstances.
A role of political leaders is to think ahead, but leadership is also about looking beyond one's nose and preparing others in the line to take over the baton from the leader. And it is perhaps an appropriate time to look at the entire gamut of the issue and see what went wrong and why in producing high quality leaders in Bangladesh.
It is unfortunate that those who had the potential to lead the country, and they had shown their mettle during the period of turmoil in the sixties and seventies, and during the nine months of the liberation war by serving the nation with integrity and selflessness, did not survive long enough to play their full part in a newly independent country, and those who eventually took over the reins or had leadership thrust upon them, as has been the case in respect of the two major parties, have not been able to gel the nation. And these two as well as some others feel inclined to consider the burden of leading a party, and when elected the nation, as a hereditary right.
Very few will contest the argument that Bangladesh has had the misfortune of not producing an internationally acclaimed leader except one and most of those that held the reins of power in the country have unfortunately been the victim of myopic politics that have stood between their mutating from a politician to a statesman. Politicians do not see beyond the next election, but a statesman sees beyond the next century. Ours have been busy with playing politics by ears and not looking ahead, unfortunately for us. Was it because they were not mentally and intellectually made for the job, or is it just that the quality of their personal attributes is one that is fairly representative of the quality in general in the country?
And that brings one to the fundamental question of whether leaders are born or they are shaped by the circumstances they exist in. While it is true that every situation throws up a leader, as they say, cometh the time cometh the man, but no ordinary man would do even if the time is ripe for a person to take over. There must be some natural innate qualities that are honed without the person knowing it, over the years, which help him or her to take a hold of the helm when others are confounded by the situation, and steer a safe course for the nation.
If as Harry Truman says, progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better, is true, have we had that kind of leaders that worked to change for the better? And he goes on to say that in periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. And it is true that the society has not only stood still, we have in a sense made advancement to the rear, if anything, in the last 40 years.
Post 1971 and our Liberation the crop of political leaders with strong popular base and long political traditions were literally decimated between 15 August and 3 November, 1975. The second string of the party leaders either joined the military bandwagon or was too scared to indulge in politics. The haste with which the fallen leaders were condemned by some of their own party men in the AL displayed not only lack of integrity and honesty but a kind of moral bankruptcy also that even in good times these people would be unfit to assume the responsibility of leading the nation.
However, there is no way that we can say exactly how well these leaders would have fared, but one can venture a guess that they would have done good deal; better than what we see now since they were not encumbered with history or did not have an axe to grind. They were more inclined to be inclusive and eclectic in their attitude
There is perhaps no instance in history where a country was faced with acute leadership crises so soon after its birth and where two top leaders were eliminated in a span of six years. The current situation is the consequence of those historical events, which has had an everlasting impact on politics and political leadership in Bangladesh.
For a good part of the two decades after liberation the political scene was hogged by people in uniform that ran a regime of pseudo-democracy. While that had certainly played a part in stunting the rise of young leadership in the political arena, it is inexplicable that the peculiar phenomenon of military dictators, who had usurped power, being preferred by the voters over hardened politicians is something that remains inexplicable. Even if we are to grant that the elections were held under a pseudo-democratic environment rejection of political candidates for example in the presidential election in 1978 where the military ruler was elected over a candidate supported by a number of parties including the Awami league, in an election that was considered to be by and large free and fair.
Looking at the development of leadership in the country at least from the mid-eighties it would not be wrong to suggest that the fault lay in the way leadership was thrust upon green and perhaps unprepared persons.
Casting the present leaders of the two major parties in the top party post was really making a virtue out of a necessity. It was really the surnames they were carrying that their party men wanted to exploit. That is something not unique to us and, looking around at the countries of the region, the two ladies should feel happy to find themselves in very illustrious company. And it is no wonder that politics in Bangladesh, or to be exact its character, has been shaped by the personal equation of the two ladies in charge of the two major political parties.
Coming to the essential question of new leadership, there is hardly any to be seen in any of the major political parties. And that is perhaps due to the way each of the political parties is run. The near autocratic manner of function with very little internal democracy of the party does not make for creating grounds for nurturing young people for leadership role.
That was amply illustrated by the comments of three top ranking party members of the ruling AL in February of 2011. While the comments certainly did not endear them to the party bosses, the underlying message should not be lost on the policymakers of the AL. It should neither be mistaken as senseless grumblings of the deprived, because what they have uttered find resonance in the minds of every politically conscious person.
The moot question is, isn't it time for leadership change which is the normal dynamics of politics in any country? That, regrettably is not so in Bangladesh. Here our leaders would like to replicate the permanence of the stream in the Solitary Reaper, and want to go on forever, at least they like to feel that they can.
Not very long ago we were pleasantly surprised, it being something quite out of the ordinary, by the opposition leader asking her party men to allow new faces to take charge of the party, and when the time comes, to run the country. That is refreshing given that we have not seen the normal transition of leadership to the new generation in this country in the 41 years of our existence.
What I have said in the past with regard to passing on the baton bears repetition. Time has come for the country to be spared of the confrontational politics stemming from the mutually shared animus between the leaders of the AL and the BNP. The country needs such people who would be able to look beyond partisan interest, and to whom politics will not all be about attaining power or holding on to it at any cost. These compulsions demand a new brand of people, young and may be not so young, to lead the parties. The million dollar question is how will that occur?
Invariably, any reference to new leadership, particularly of the two major parties, is likely to be misconstrued as propagation of the minus-2 theory. It must be emphasised that new faces do not necessarily mean the end of the road for old ones. Surely there is need for experience and wisdom that normally go with age. But that can also be questioned on the grounds that one does not necessarily acquire wisdom with age; in fact there is very little correlation between wisdom and old age.
The people in general would like to have new leadership too, and, I believe, a good many senior strata leaders of the two major parties think likewise but lack the courage to express that openly. It is my hope that very senior leaders, belonging to all the major parties take to heart the saying that all political lives, unless they are cut off in mid-stream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.
Shahedul Anam Khan is Editor, Op-Ed and Strategic Issues, The Daily Star.