Defying expectations of a great many analysts who predicted a close race, Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Alliance routed the ruling Awami League (AL) in the general elections held on Oct 1, 2001, putting Bangladesh founding father Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, Shaikh Hasina Wajid, out to pasture for the next five years. The BNP already has a two-thirds majority with at least 30-40 seats still to be declared. Showing a good head for arithmetic, Hasina Wajid lost no time crying “foul” in announcing a boycott of Parliament, acutely aware that her party has often used brute majority to amend the Constitution to suit its narrow interests rather than national ones. More than 200 foreign observers present to observe the elections have disagreed with Hasina Wajid, unanimously calling the polls generally free and fair. The lady is out in the cold without any credibility to cloak her.
From being a simple housewife, Khaleda Zia has come a long way. Serving in the Geographical Section of Military Intelligence (MI), forerunner to the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), in Dinajpur in 1963, then Capt Ziaur Rehman had seen her, still in her teens, walking to school. Belonging to a well-to-do middle class family which had emigrated to Dinajpur from Jalpaiguri, south of Darjeeling, Khaleda Zia charmed all those who came across her as a better than average army officer’s wife, and she remained that, through the tribulations of 1971 and even when her husband took over in Bangladesh in 1975 as Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA). A soldiers-led counter coup had put him in power, removing Khalid Musharraf, who as the Chief of General Staff had three days earlier removed President Khondkhar Mushtaq Ahmed, incarcerated Zia the Chief of Army Staff and sent into exile to Bangkok the Colonels who were really the power behind the Government. These Colonels had a few months earlier killed Sheikh Mujib and all members of his family in cold blood in August 1975. Removing Martial Law in 1979, Zia was directly elected President, Khaleda Zia remaining very much in the background as a housewife till his assassination in 1981. Upset by the vicious infighting within BNP for succession, she entered politics a few months later, literally leaving the frying pan in the kitchen to enter the political fire. On his death Zia did not own any plot of land, a house or a car. His bank balance was less than Taka 10000. The government of Justice Sattar, who as Vice President had taken over, passed a resolution in Parliament giving her a suitable pension and allotting her the same house Zia had been living in Dhaka Cantonment as Brigade Commander since 1973, subsequently as Chief of General Staff, Chief of Army Staff and then continued to occupy as President. She was also given ownership of the second hand 1970 vintage Toyota Corolla she was using as the President’s wife. Khaleda Zia still lives in the same house, the car must be long gone by now. Times have changed! Zia was a very honest man of humble origins and no pretensions, Khaleda Zia’s life is now one of exquisite chiffon sarees, her sons having an indulgent mother and certainly lacking the qualities of their father.
The political battles lines were very clear, Sheikh Hasina fought the elections on a secular ideology, invoking her late father’s charisma and the spirit of 1971, Khaleda Zia on her part spurred on Bangladeshi nationalistic sentiments as well as coalescing the religious Islamic affinity of the majority population. Many things backfired on Hasina Wajid, to start with there was the India-Bangladesh issue in April this year when many Indian troops were killed in a confrontation with the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). With the whole of Bangladesh wholeheartedly rooting for BDR in giving India’s Border Security Force (BSF) a bloody nose, India demanded the sacking of the Director General BDR, Maj Gen ALM Fazlur Rahman, incidentally also belonging to Dinajpur. On May 1, 2001 I had written in THE NATION ” The latent animosity between India and Bangladesh has come to the surface at a most inopportune time, pre-General Elections in Bangladesh. India has asked for the DG BDR’s head on a platter, it would be a kiss of death politically for Hasina Wajid to oblige, Bangladeshi nationalist sentiments already consider Hasina Wajid’s Awami League (AL) pro-India, this favours Khaleda Zia’s strongly anti-India Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)” unquote. Needless to say, Hasina obliged India by posting Fazal out of BDR, he became a hero, the country became swamped with strongly anti-Indian feeling. Moreover she passed over for promotion many professionally competent army officers known for expressing their anti-Indian feelings. Hasina also tried to run down Khaleda Zia’s Islamist alliance as trying to impose conservative Islamic ideology on Bangladesh, for good measure she also accused the Islamic parties as being “collaborators” of the Pakistan Army during 1971, meant mainly to solidify the 18% Hindu vote behind her. In actual fact she turned off quite a few fence-straddling Bangladeshis, Hasina was left with the Hindu vote as the core AL support. Lastly, the Osama Factor must have had some swing effect, particularly in strongly muslim Districts like Sylhet, Noakhali, Chittagong, Bogra, Jessore etc. Because of this US President Clinton had to cancel a much heralded visit to a Bangladeshi village doing his South Asian tour in 2000. For Hasina the timing was horribly wrong, Khaleda Zia was a delighted beneficiary.
AL should never be under-estimated, unfortunately in the “first past the post democratic electoral system”, a small majority of votes can give the perception of an “overwhelming mandate” in the number of seats, a la Mian Nawaz Sharif in 1997. Hasina Wajid has the support of a hard core of die-hard AL workers, very much like PPP Jiyalas, these form AL’s street-troopers, dedicated workers capable of rendering major sacrifices. Hasina’s protest is bad news for Bangladesh economically, politically it may not matter. Street protests can tie-up the urban areas and hurt the economy. The AL has used this weapon before against a BNP Government and will do so again. India has lost big despite its open and blatant support for Hasina Wajid, they will not be averse to keeping the future Khaleda Zia government off-balance. Former President Lt Gen (Retd) H M Ershad had been disqualified from contesting and was forced by government blackmail to break Jatiyo Party’s alliance with BNP, lost out most. Jatiyo Party broke into three as a result, one being merged with BNP and one faction led by Anwar Hussain Manju going with AL. Ershad’s mainstream Jatiyo Party did win 13 seats. If he had stayed with Khaleda Zia, he would have got many more seats, she would certainly have honoured her commitment to make him President.
History will record that one of the greatest strategic blunders of the 20th century committed by any one nation, other than Germany invading Russia in the Second World War and Japanese bombing Pearl Harbour thereby allowing the great US industrial base to enter the war, was India’s helping of in the creation of Bangladesh. From one country prone to blackmail, India is now sandwiched between two strong muslim nations. Pre-1971, Pakistan had a permanent internal problem (East and West Pakistanis perennially against each other) and a rather precarious external position in its Eastern wing, these problems and weaknesses were exploited by India at will. With the bulk of the Pakistan Armed Forces in (then) West Pakistan on the basis of what is certainly the looniest strategic theory of all time, “the defence of the East lies in the West”, the second one being “Afghanistan gives Pakistan strategic depth”, Pakistan was open to constant blackmail by the Indians threatening to militarily overrunning (then) East Pakistan. There was not much more than a division plus (four brigades) pre-1971. Even during the height of the 1971 war, Pakistan Army had a maximum three and half light infantry Divisions, bereft of most of their transportation, their artillery and armour complement. The Air Force had barely one squadron operating from one base and the Pakistan Navy a few fast patrol boats and minesweepers. In contrast the present Bangladesh Army by itself has the better part of fully equipped, well trained half a dozen plus Infantry Divisions. The Infantry Division in Chittagong and Chitagong Hill Tracks has more men than Pakistan’s entire Eastern Command in 1970. Given that 90% of Bangladesh territory borders India, one may well ask who and what does Bangladesh fear? Every time a Bangladeshi soldier fires a weapon, it is an even bet he will hit an Indian.
Khaleda Zia will have to be really thick-skinned to ignore the blatant manner India supported Hasina Wajid’s AL, with money, media and moral support. As is the norm in any nation’s relations with its neighbours, she will no doubt have to be civil for appearances sake. While one doesn’t expect a hate-fest, one doesn’t expect the love-fest that Hasina Wajid’s Bangladesh had with Indian either. In her internal re-organization the PM-to be is lucky that the Caretaker Government got rid of a host of pro-AL bureaucrats from crucial posts in creating a level playing field. She will thus have a far easier time filling the slots. Begum Zia will also have to clean out the stables of the foreign ministry, most High Commissioners and Ambassadors being rabid AL sympathizers having strong New Delhi connections. Some of their utterances in the India-Pakistan context have to be heard to be believed. These diplomats gave Bangladesh an unnecessary secular image, far from what Bangladesh really is, an Islamic State with a fairly moderate Hindu minority population. So don’t be surprised if in her first order of business, a lot of diplomats get sacked, shuffled around or simply recalled.
One thing is certain, the geo-political balance has changed positively in Pakistan’s favour. For some time Pakistan was virtually isolated in South Asia as governments in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal acted decidedly pro-Indian. Over the past few months they may not have become pro-Pakistan but they have certainly become far more neutral than what they were. Given a sea change to a positive ambience with the western world because of dramatic recent developments, Pakistan may well begin to enjoy the association of the countries in the sub-continent as equal partners. In Khaleda-ising Hasina, Begum Zia may have won a national mandate, but one with significant geo-political implications for the whole of South Asia.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).