Saturday, February 05, 2005

BANGLADESH: Dynastic leadership and fallout


+ A poet's son may not necessarily be a poet, a player's son does not necessarily turn out to be a player, but how strange in our country a political leader's son or daughter seems sure to emerge as a political leader as if by a law of succession. This is because in the former cases the qualities are to be gained first and foremost and capabilities shall have to be proved in the publicly held solid tests of efficiency and proficiency while in the latter this is a simple domestic process where a sibling is anointed as a leader by the father or mother guarded by flocks of 'supporters' (stooges). +


Dynastic leadership and fallout
AR Shamsul Islam

In all fairness it can be said that in Bangladesh much of shaping the government as democratic depends on the two chief political parties -- the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL). It is they that have formed the government and the opposition in tandem, no matter in whatever name the government is called -- the alliance government or coalition government.

To put democracy in Bangladesh on a firm footing it is a precondition that the political parties, mainly the two chief parties, should exercise democratic culture within the partyfold. Unfortunately this is not happening particularly in case of two principal political parties. Far from making decisions on the basis of free, fair discussions these are being, sometimes indiscreetly, dictated by the party chiefs. To make things worse a tendency towards a dynastic leadership is increasingly developing.

The leadership of two chief political parties is more than necessarily centre based and family oriented. We have a splendid constitution, democratic in letter and spirit. But unfortunately the political parties coming to power through the process of constitution more than often court a leadership that turn to be almost authoritarian quite reluctant to be tolerant of others' views and prone to decide everything by itself.

As a result the culture of democracy within the party goes off and the party keeps on being dictated from the highest rung. One is to dictate and all others are to obey almost blindly. There are lot of stories, for instance to quote one: Last year when the AL General Secretary Abdul Jalil declared 30 April deadline for forcing fall of the ruling coalition government even lot of partymen, let alone outsiders, got stunned. It was not beyond their wit's end to understand who really prescribed the deadline and ordered it to be publicly announced but no one could raise a finger against it. There were many in the party high command to question its substance and viability but they kept them restrained. Ultimately when it ended in a fiasco some senior party members could at best satisfy their resentment by biting General Secretary Abdul Jalil, charging him what arithmetic drove him to pronounce a deadline that enacted a farcical suicidal drama for the party. Jalil simply fumbled in his reply with a tacit reference to the leader of the party. The matter ended there. None dared to keep it up with the party chief. Had there been democratic culture in the party the disaster could easily be averted.

A poet's son may not necessarily be a poet, a player's son does not necessarily turn out to be a player, but how strange in our country a political leader's son or daughter seems sure to emerge as a political leader as if by a law of succession. This is because in the former cases the qualities are to be gained first and foremost and capabilities shall have to be proved in the publicly held solid tests of efficiency and proficiency while in the latter this is a simple domestic process where a sibling is anointed as a leader by the father or mother guarded by flocks of 'supporters' (stooges).

'First deserve, then desire' is an axiom that often goes missing in our political dictionary. Rather what practice is menacingly gaining ground is you first desire, particularly when in a familial advantageous position, and then you will be made to look like gaining all the virtues through wild propaganda manipulations.

As artless sycophancy develops as a great political virtue there is an unhealthy competition to get closer to the party chief. In the melee the young activists are in territorial disadvantage than the senior ones. As such when there is a prospect of a sibling to assume important leadership of the party the young turks jump into the occasion to priorities their claim to future dividends.

As evident everything in the party goes at the pleasure of the leader. The pleasure may not always be benign. Sometimes it may falter from being wise as well. At times it may turn out to be stained with nepotism. And the result is the anoinment of a son or daughter to succeed to a pivotal position of party leadership. Obviously, if need be and the chief desires to remain off the scene, there is no dearth of political priests to perform that holistic job in the public.

So far in Bangladesh the Awami League has been headed by two generations of the Mujibs -- Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his daughter Sheikh Hasina. The third generation of party leadership may be in the offing. In the BNP Ziaur Rahman led the party. His wife Begum Khaleda Zia is now heading it. Her son Tareq Rahman, now holding the post of Senior Joint Secretary General of the party, has by this time advanced far with rejuvenating works of the party at grassroots level.

Even in the middle and lower rungs of party leadership a tendency for familial replacement is on the increase in respect of both the main parties.

Further, outside those two political parties, another political party, Ershad faction of Bangladesh Jatiya (BJP) has also proved to be prone to family leadership. Ershad enjoys the top leadership of the party, in his absence his wife Roushan Ershad got it and now there are reportedly attempts to push it to his second wife Bidisha also.

There are other countries in South Asia where dynastic party leadership has evolved. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are the countries for instance. In India, since her independence in 1947, the Congress has been ruled by the Nehrus in three generations and the fourth generation is in the wings. Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi and Rajiv's Italian born widow Sonia Gandhi have headed the Congress. Rajiv's daughter Priyanka and son Rahul, who has already won a parliamentary berth, are supposed to be offing as the fourth generation of Congress leadership.

In Pakistan, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has been led by the Bhuttos, namely Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto, in two generations since the party's birth in 1967.

Sir Lanka's Freedom Party (SLFP) has been led by the Bandarnaikes in two generations by SD Bandarnaike and Sirimavo Bandarnaike and now their daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Even in the most advanced and educated countries of the outside world, too, there are instances of dynastic leadership in party and national politics. We may quote the Kennedys, the Clintons and Bush family in the USA and the Churchills in the UK. The existing President of the USA had his grandfather a Senator and father a former President. Kennedy family has presented a President of the country and an existing Governor of California. Clinton spouse herself is a Senator and possible Presidential candidate in future. The Churchills of the UK had become a part and parcel of the Conservative party and national politics for over a hundred years that had passed through many a trubulent period of the history of Britain.

The examples cited above cannot, however, condone the fatal propensity of the main political parties of our country for clan leadership. Noticeably, other countries have had one vital difference with Bangladesh in this matter. Obviously in those countries the leadership is achieved in a democratic process through unhindered ballot. The dynastic background may have thrown some weight on the polls but it could not make a clean sweep.

The fall-out of this game of dynastic leadership in Bangladesh may prove costly to the nation. Firstly, it will discourage the potential talented individuals to do politics for fear of finding no chance for vertical promotion in the party hierarchy. Secondly, this may create a vacuum in efficient party leadership plunging the party and nation in darkness. Thirdly, this will corrode the spirit of democracy in the party that in turn will make the party leadership and national leadership authoritarian, despotic, exploiting and persecuting. Fourthly, a sort of proprietary attitude may be created in the minds of the leaders who may look down upon the country and their party exclusively as their own making treating these like fiefdoms ordained to be ruled by their families. Fifthly, the party will get crowded with selfseeking yesmen causing conscientious, independent, dedicated workers to exit. Sixthly, creative thinking, updating party strategies to answer the challenge of time will be driven to the back bench. Seventhly, the party leadership will become stagnant, backdated, arrogant that may ultimately not bode well for the organisation.

AR Shamsul Islam is retired Principal Govt. Mahila College, Pabna.