Who is caught in the knot: Ershad or Hasina?
ON Sunday evening, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's International Affairs Advisor Gowher Rizvi visited Jatiya Party (JP) Chairman H.M. Ershad at the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) to know about Ershad's health condition. Rizvi did it in a clever way. He took his family with him, perhaps in a bid to give an impression that his visit was a social call. But the present political situation will no way lead people to believe that the visit was merely social. As the media have been reporting, the government has been desperately trying to persuade Ershad to contest the January 5 election set to be held amid boycott by the BNP-led opposition alliance. So, it is apparent that Rizvi's visit to the CMH was a part of the government's ongoing effort. Did Rizvi try to convince Ershad to announce his comeback to the January 5 parliamentary polls?
Everybody knows the story, thanks to almost free flow of information and the desperation of Hasina's government to hold a one-sided election. Ershad-led JP was a partner of AL-led grand electoral alliance. But he left the alliance in the middle of November as part of the new knot tied according to the government strategy, to contest the election alone. In the absence of BNP-led opposition, Ershad's party was supposed to act as the opposition in the arranged battle of ballots. Ershad agreed with the strategy and tied the new knot with Hasina's government and party. He negotiated with Hasina and succeeded in compelling her to induct half a dozen of his party leaders in her election time cabinet. Everything was going according to the strategy.
But the former military dictator, ousted from power on December 6, 1990, upset the government's game plan on December 3, a day after completion of filing of nomination papers for the January 5 polls, by making a sudden announcement that his party would not contest the polls as, he said, the atmosphere for an inclusive election was absent. Since then the government started hectic negotiations with Ershad to make him change his decision to boycott the election. But this time Ershad remained rigid in his stance.
The government policymakers then opened negotiation with some of Ershad' s party leaders, including those who were inducted in the election time cabinet. But this could not bring the desired result for the AL. In such a situation, Ershad wrote to the Election Commission on December 12, asking it not to allocate his party's electoral symbol 'Plough' to anybody, saying his party had decided to boycott this election. He asked party leaders to withdraw the nomination papers they had filed. His letter to the EC showed his determination not to contest in the election.
A few hours after he sent the letter, members of Rab and a powerful intelligence agency, who had kept Ershad's house cordoned off since his announcement to quit the polls and election time government, finally picked him up. He was admitted to the CMH on December 12 at midnight. Why? The Rab officials claimed Ershad was ill. Ershad rejected the Rab's claim through sending message to his followers.
The prime minister's office might have made a mistake by releasing a photograph on Rizvi's visit to Ershad on Sunday. In the photograph published in different newspapers, Ershad was looking 'healthy.' He was not lying on the bed. The former general was shaking his hands with Rizvi with a smiling face. Seeing the photograph no one can believe that Ershad is ill enough to get admitted to the hospital. Do the government policymakers, including the prime minister, believe that Ershad is ill? If they do not believe it, then why are they asking people to believe so? Poor Ershad was frequently criticising the government and the one-sided election. So, confining him in the hospital seemed to be good way to keep him away from the scene.
Rizvi did not make the 'courtesy visit' suddenly. He along with AL senior leader Tofail Ahmed met Raushan Ershad at her Gulshan residence on Friday evening. The AL leaders left after around 45 minutes. They, however, did not make any comment to waiting newsmen about their visit. Was it a “courtesy call”?
It is clear that the government is now trying to convince Raushan to lead a faction of Jatiya Party to take part in the election. It may happen. Hasina may take the credit again for splitting the dictator's party as she did when she was in power during 1996-2001. Raushan is yet to make any announcement regarding her joining the polls. She is taking time, perhaps to get something more in the bargaining. She knows well that the government is caught in the process of holding a one-sided election. So, it badly needs the support of Jatiya Party to get some strength to overcome the disaster. The ruling AL has already become generous. It withdrew its candidates to ensure 20 Jatiya Party leaders to get elected uncontested. Interestingly, some of them have already expressed their unwillingness to contest the elections. But they are going to be elected MPs.
But the drama will continue even after the election, if Ershad and some of his loyal leaders who are going to get elected unopposed remain rigid in their stance. The government has been able to ensure their election as MPs against their will. But what will happen if they refuse to take oath as MPs after the election? Will the government again force them to take oath and perform as opposition MPs in parliament? Those who will take oath willingly and join the parliament proceedings may even face risk of losing membership in parliament for going against the Jatiya Party decision. Because, the notorious Article 70 still exists in the constitution.
In the whole drama which is unfolding, Ershad has little to lose. He may, moreover, gain something by taking a stance against the one-sided election in which more than half of parliamentary aspirants are going to get elected unopposed. So, he may try to clean some dirt from his flip-flop character. In this process, the AL may face one of the biggest humiliations in its history. The way the situation is developing the AL may not be able to save itself from being trapped. The party policymakers may not agree with this now, but history will evaluate how Hasina and her AL desperately relied on a former dictator to give some credibility to the one-sided election.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.