The law of primogeniture and our political parties
he passing away of General Ershad has brought into sharp focus the question of leadership succession in major political parties. We had been spared such an eventuality for a long time—not since 1982 has a party been confronted with the question of leadership succession. The use of the word "confront" is deliberate. Given the way the parties are run and governed it would not be remiss to suggest that it has at all occurred in the minds of leadership of major parties that such a situation would ever eventuate. That it is an intra-party confrontational issue the JP would vouch for. And none of the major parties would be spared this problem eventually, although in some parties the issue may not become as apparent as in the case of JP.
The jockeying in Jatiya Party is an inevitable consequence of the way political parties are organised and run in this country. Absolutism, where the fiat of the chief and not the collective wisdom runs supreme, absence of regular party conventions to choose the leadership and the party chief—the exercise of democratic procedures in some instances which is notional at best and a sham at worst since one can display the guts to contest for the top party post only at the risk of his or her political career—the exercise of inner intra party democracy is blatantly evident. The forged unanimity in the choice for various senior party posts, almost conspiratorial in nature, precludes the need of the ballot.
But such phenomenon is not unique to Bangladesh. Most of the South Asian countries suffer from this affliction, although some are trying to come out of it. In India the oldest political party, whose formation predates the independence of the subcontinent by more than sixty years cannot do without the Gandhi tag, the pilot son had to give up his career to replace his assassinated mother. And who else could fill the Congress chief's post left vacant by the resignation of the grandson but the Gandhi daughter-in-law. And the PPP in Pakistan could not do without a Bhutto name. So, they not only had her son Bilawal Zardari made the chairman of the party while he was still at Oxford, but added "Bhutto" between Bilawal and Zardari.
In the case of JP, things might perhaps have been different had Ershad left behind a progeny old enough to join politics sooner and, as normal in the case of Bangladesh, take over the reins of the party. But Saad Ershad, again as normal, has been done the favour by given the opportunity of joining politics laterally by being given the party ticket for contesting in his late father's seat. One wonders what political credentials this young man has—very little of any consequence and even less experience if at all. But JP is in very good company in this regard. Take a stock of the Sangsad by-elections in the last several years due to the death of the incumbent. It was not the long serving local party worker who has dedicated a good part of his life to the party and who is not a political ignoramus, but either the wife or the son or, as in one instance, the sister of the deceased MP, who was given the party ticket.
While one has nothing against the off-spring or siblings or spouse following in the footsteps of their father or mother, which is common in all professions, one would certainly expect that political competence and experience would be given preference over family lineage or connection in selecting candidates for parliamentary seats or party positions. It is merit and not lineage that should get the only consideration. Surely a parliamentary seat comes with perks and privileges, but that cannot be dispensed as a manna to only those with kindred affiliation. As if a parliamentary seat is something to be inherited and the law of primogeniture followed assiduously.
General Ershad had applied the art of military command to the running of his party too. When the founder of a party assumes the sole, unquestioned and absolute authority in running the affairs of the party, obsessed with a feeling of being blessed with perpetual existence by the gods, preparing grounds for a healthy and proper change of leadership of the party, passing of the baton if you like, is the last thing in the mind of the leader, and the current spectacle is only natural. But JP or Ershad is not alone in this.
The inner squabbles of Jatiya Party, though not unpredictable, has once again come to the fore with letters and counter-letters from its two factions addressed to the Speaker of Jatiya Sangsad regarding who should or shouldn't be appointed as the leader of the opposition in parliament. Understandably, as the acting Chairman, GM Quader had taken it upon himself to address the Speaker, which did not go down well with Raushan Ershad. And both the factions were, reportedly, looking towards the government. For the time being the party has managed to stave off the prospect of another split of the party through mutual accommodation, with the two important posts going, not surprisingly, to his wife and brother.
The tussle concerns us, given the current state of our democracy and the role of an even more fragile opposition. Considering the makeup of the parliament and having experienced the role of the opposition in the last five years, an opposition which had been beholden to the government, being a part of it with a number of its MPs serving as ministers in the cabinet, what we need is an opposition with a degree of political clout that can hold the government accountable in the parliament. This is essential if democracy is to have any meaning at all, and it will be beneficial for the country and certainly for the ruling party too.
Although the JP squabbles have been temporarily resolved, we would like to suggest the various factions of the JP not to seek political benediction of the ruling party. Whatever may have been the nature of the 2019 parliamentary elections, the political parties in the parliament must make the best use of the floor of the house to achieve the greatest benefit for the people. And that can be only possible if there is a credible opposition which can keep the government constantly on its feet, something that we did not see happen in the last parliament. Raushan Ershad is a known quantity in the parliament, more so as the leader of the parliamentary opposition in the last five years. The erstwhile claimant to that role, GM Quader, deserved a chance to prove whether he could be any better.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.