REVISITING THE FALL OF ERSHAD – DREAMS COME UNTRUE
Politicians were quick to bury the 1990 pledges for people, turned their back on democracy for power
The mass upsurge that brought down the autocratic regime of HM Ershad on December 6, 1990 added yet another glorious chapter to the history of democratic movements in this country.
Twenty-one years on, the spirit that brought the nation together against a dictator has dimmed thanks to the politics of lust for power, bitterness and corruption.
The popular uprising was spearheaded by two firebrand leaders — Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina, who led the 8-party alliance and BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia, who headed the seven-party alliance. The pro-left five-party alliance also played a key role in forging political unity, a rarity in Bangladesh.
As years of anti-Ershad agitation gained momentum and appeared to reach a climax in late 1990, the three alliances formulated a historic framework pledging to oust Ershad and hold general elections under a non-party caretaker government.
The declaration galvanized the nation into shedding blood, defying curfew and bullets, resistance that finally ended the nine-year rule of the dictator. The international community praised the courage, commitment and sacrifice of the Bengali nation for the establishment of democracy.
The three alliances in November 1990 also declared a code of conduct for their component parties to uphold the spirit and objectives of the War of Independence and to establish genuine democracy by forcing Ershad, his cronies and their corrupt policies from power.
According to the agreed code of conduct, the three alliances promised that Ershad would not be accommodated by any of the parties. The alliances also promised to show respect to each other’s political views and demonstrate mutual tolerance. They also pledged to refrain from political mudslinging and not question the patriotism and religious belief of others.
People across the spectrum placed their trust in the historic declaration and the code of conduct and stood behind the leadership of the three alliances. Ershad had to submit to the violent mass upsurge and announce his resignation.
The announcement spread like wildfire, sending tens of thousands of cheering crowds on to the streets of Dhaka and other cities to celebrate their victory against injustice, falsehood, corruption and dictatorial rule. It was Bangladesh’s second biggest celebration after the nation’s victory in the Liberation War on December 16, 1971.
The earliest sign of a crack in this rare political unity was seen when BNP nominated at the 1991 election at least two former bureaucrats who had been close to Ershad.
Soon after the election, the Awami League adopted a stance that saw further cracks in the unity. In the polls BNP emerged as the single largest party, but fell short of 151 seats in the 300-member parliament to form a government on its own. The formation of the government was delayed as BNP failed in its unofficial bid to get support from the AL and its allies.
In a desperate bid to take office BNP then begged and got support from the Jamaat-e-Islami, conveniently forgetting its commitment to upholding the spirit of the War of Liberation.
Then BNP gave Freedom Partyspearheaded by the killers of Bangabandhua free hand to counter the AL on the streets. The AL, on the other hand, backed the Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee to strengthen public opinion against the anti-liberation forces.
The bitterness continued to grow and people’s hopes for a conflict-free political regime began evaporating. Parliament witnessed frequent boycotts and walkouts by the opposition.
Following severe rigging in a by-election in Magura in 1994, the bitterness between the two main parties became so severe that the AL MPs resigned from parliament en masse and waged a movement for a caretaker government.
The period 1995-early 1996 was overshadowed by non-stop hartals, violence and hopelessness as the AL stood firm in its demand for a caretaker government while BNP remained determined to hold election under its governance.
In February 1996, BNP went ahead with a one-party election but could not sustain the government as there was no public support for it. The BNP finally agreed to make room for a caretaker government to oversee elections.
Ironically the tables have now turned. The AL is now firm about holding elections on its watch, while the BNP has threatened to boycott the next election if a caretaker government is not formed.
After the 1996 general election, Awami League formed its cabinet through horse trading with Ershad and his party. As part of the deal Awami League had to induct Ershad’s cronies albeit those widely known for their corruption while in power into Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet.
By then politicians like Moudud Ahmed or AKM Mosharraf Hossain who were blacklisted for their proximity to Ershad were being rehabilitated in BNP as well.
In 1998, the BNP formed an alliance with Ershad although that did not last long.
The dreams of the people had already shattered by then. Following the 2001 election, the AL rejected the polls result and BNP this time went for an offensive strategy.
Quite contrary to the three alliances’ understanding, BNP’s tilt towards anti-liberation forces became loud and clear after 2001. This also paved way for extremist Islamist groups to establish a reign of terror through grenade attacks on AL and pro-liberation groups. This time the rightists with help from some top BNP leaders were trying to eliminate the AL leadership.
By the time the 2006 elections came, the two main parties were racing with each other to drag Ershad on their side. The BNP initially constituted the four-party alliance with Ershad’s Jatiya Party but later he deserted the alliance.
And this time, the nation saw how BNP remained hell bent to manipulate the election through forming a puppet caretaker government and election commission. The end result was a two-year military backed caretaker government regime where the political parties faced severe backlashes from the army.
When the stage was set for the December 2008 elections, everyone was hopeful about some qualitative changes in politics given the experience of the military-backed caretaker government.
This hope lingered despite the fact that at the 2008 elections, the AL formed a grand alliance with Ershad and other left and right wing groups.
But after the current government was installed through professing a ‘charter of change’the nation has observed that nothing has changed. The two major parties have revived their mutual hatred and distrust in full swing and are busy shaping whatever strategies they need to stay in power. That includes AL’s scrapping of the caretaker government system and BNP’s support for anti-liberation forces.
All the while corruption has remained with subsequent governments, the same as in Ershad’s government.
The people’s expectations for a society free of conflict and corruption remain a far cry.