The politics of synthesis: 30 years on
Ziaur Rahman, military strongman turned a very popular politician, was killed exactly 30 years ago today. Despite the twists and turns of politics, three decades from his death, when things actually work in Bangladesh, they work along the path set by Zia. And they work because the politics of synthesis crafted by Zia had continued from the work of his predecessors, and his successors saw the merit in keeping them.
In a five-part series, I show how the Zia synthesis still defines Bangladesh’s politics and governance, economy, society and culture, and foreign policy. Not in all aspects does this blog agree with the synthesis — the disapprovals are also pointed out. Finally, the series points out how along one crucial dimension, the Zia synthesis has completely been abandoned.
The discourse about Zia is dominated by lies of various degree. This series is a modest attempt at setting the record straight.
Politics and governance
By way background: Bangladesh was under a fascist one party rule when the founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family were brutally killed by some young majors on 15 August 1975; a section of his own party captured power, celebrating the fall of ‘the Pharaoh’; this was followed by a series of coups, countercoups, and mutiny by jawans in the first week of November 1975 which saw the formation of a military junta where Major General Ziaur Rahman was the key figure. Here is a relatively nuanced account of the circumstances that saw Zia’s rise to power.
How might a typical military dictator in our part of the world behave? I guess he can hold a referendum where he wins 99% of the vote, then form a king’s party while banning his opponents from politics, and then he can continue ruling the country as president and army chief.
How might a civilian dictator in our part of the world behave? I guess he, or she, can rig an election, declare state or emergency, lock up political opponents, and declare himself president-for-life?
How did Zia behave?
Like other military men, the first thing he did upon becoming president was to hold a referendum where he won 99% of the votes. But then he did something remarkable.
While he could have used that so-called mandate to impose his own brand of ‘democracy’ that ensured personal rule without opposition (like Ayub’s basic democracy, Mujib’s ‘democracy of the oppressed’ or his namesake, Pakistan’s Zia-ul-Huq’s Islamic democracy), he allowed political parties to function, formed a party of his own, contested elections, and essentially founded the two-party system that still continues in Bangladesh.
While he could have chosen the path of Ayub and ban all politicians in the previous Awami League government, or like Mujib form a ‘national party’ of his own with a monopoly on power, or like the Pakistani Zia and Musharraf (and our Moeen) exile opposition leaders, Zia actually invited people like Kamal Hossain and Hasina Wajed back to the country to rebuild Awami League.
Was Ziaur Rahman a democrat?
No, he was not. As a unitary state with a unicameral legislature where MPs cannot vote against the party decision, where all powers are centralised in the hands of a single individual, Bangladesh is not quite a democracy today. Neither was it under Zia. Nor was it in 1972.
And in one respect, this military ‘dictator’ went one step further than any of our ‘democratic’ prime ministers. After the untimely death of Mashiur Rahman, his choice for the prime minister following the 1979 election, he asked his party’s legislators to secretly vote for their parliamentary leader. His preferred men, Badruddoza Chowdhury and Saifur Rahman, were outmanuevered by Shah Azizur Rahman, a shrewd politician with a controversial record (he collaborated with Pakistan in 1971). Zia reluctantly accepted the party decision.
Can one imagine the current prime minister subjecting herself to the party decision in this manner?
For Bangladesh to develop a genuine, lasting democratic order, major devolution of the state is needed. It is patently the case that Zia did nothing in this regard. But then again, the very survival of the republic was at stake when he assumed power. And none of his successors have made any genuine progress in this front.
Zia’s political opponents can criticise Zia for being a dictator. But their criticism rings hollow because not only are they themselves no better, in many respects they (and their predecessors) have fallen short of the standard set by Zia.
In a fascinating article on the Indian Congress party, Ramachandra Guha shows how the Indian democracy was establised by Jawaharlal Nehru, and how it survived Indira Gandhi. It is both a tragedy and irony that a military man has been closer to Nehru than any our so-called democrats.