A tale of two Rahmans
This country was created by two Rahmans, and you’re a Rahman, you’ll do fine here — a friend said something to that effect in a facebook message recently.
Dear reader, I am not in any way or form related to either of these two founding Rahmans. And as far as I know, neither is one of the Rahmans I am going to talk about. The other Rahman I’ll discuss is the son, and presumptive heir, of one the founding Rahmans. Could the unrelated Rahman (not me) be the one to break the grip on power that the two dead Rahmans have held over us for so long?
Okay, if that para is too much of a riddle, here is the basic idea: BNP’s heir apparent Tarique Rahman faces unprecedented odds; is Mahmudur Rahman a likely future leader?
Mrs Zia is old, she is ill, she doesn’t have much friend or family in the country — to put it bluntly, her life insurance premium must be pretty high. Perhaps things will not need to play out in the dramatic way as Syed Abul Maqsud describes:
খালেদা জিয়ার বিরুদ্ধে জিয়া চ্যারিটেবল ট্রাস্টের মামলার কথা পুনঃপ্রচারিত হয়েছে। বুদ্ধিদাতাদের পরামর্শে ‘অতি দ্রুত’ ওই মামলা নিষ্পত্তি হতে পারে। বেগম জিয়ার সাজা হলে, ক্যান্টনমেন্ট তো আগেই ছেড়েছেন, এবার তিনি কাশিমপুরের বাসিন্দা হবেন। তাতে বিএনপি শেষ হবে। আর তখন তাঁর জীবনের পরম পুলক অনুভব করবেন জেনারেল এরশাদ। বিএনপির সময় সাজার কারণে তিনিও একবার নির্বাচনে অংশ নিতে পারেননি। বেগম জিয়া কাশিমপুর গেলে এরশাদের অন্তিম দিনগুলো আনন্দঘন হয়ে উঠবে। তিনি গাইবেন:
‘মম চিত্তে নিতি নৃত্যে কে যে নাচে
তাতা থৈথৈ, তাতা থৈথৈ, তাতা থৈথৈ।’
বেগম জিয়া জেলে গেলে নয়াপল্টনে নেমে আসবে কবরের নীরবতা। ওদিকে বিয়েবাড়ির মতো মরিচ-বাতি জ্বলে উঠবে বনানী, তোপখানা রোড ও বঙ্গবন্ধু এভিনিউতে। চিত্ত নেচে উঠবে ওয়ার্কার্স পার্টি, জাসদ ও সাম্যবাদী দলের নেতাদেরও। খালেদাবিহীন ’৮৮ মার্কা নির্বাচনে আওয়ামী লীগ পাবে ২০১টি, জাতীয় পার্টি ৪৯, ওয়ার্কার্স পার্টি ও জাসদ প্রত্যেকে ২১টি করে, সাম্যবাদী দল ও আওয়ামী ওলামা লীগ অবশিষ্ট আসন।
Perhaps it will be much more mundane.
When the current chairperson is gone, what will happen to BNP?
Khaleda Zia doesn’t need a will, like Benazir Bhutto, to bequeth the party to her son. BNP chose Tarique Rahman as its number two in the party council in December 2009. Presumably he will step in as the party’s leader in his mother’s absence.
And then what?
Tarique faces charges that, if convicted, will carry a death sentence. Does he have the moral courage to return to Bangladesh and face these charges? Whether he is guilty or innocent is not the point here. Neither does it matter whether the courts are of the antipodean marsupial variety. Sheikh Mujib was certainly guilty of wanting to destroy Ayub-Yahya’s Pakistan, and he most definitely did not face a fair trial in various military tribunals and conspiracy cases. But he faced those trials head on, risking his life, and lived reap the political benefits.
Can one expect the same from Tarique?
Nothing we know about this pampered (not anymore so) young man makes me think the answer is in the affirmative. Unless political climate changes, it’s hard to see Tarique returning to Bangladesh.
Can he then play a part in changing political climate from exile? Hard to see how.
Will he lead an election campaign from his London apartment? Will he direct a popular uprising? Scoff, and more scoff — surely that’s the appropriate answer. Will he be part of some ‘conspiracy’? He can try, but why would any would be conspirator want him involved?
Rather, the history of political unravelling suggests that the current power-dispensation will unwind in a very unpredictable manner, and the beneficiary will be someone who commands a political oranisation in Bangladesh.
Can Mahmudur Rahman be such a person?
Consider his pluses.
Unlike Tarique, whose only qualification seems to be his birth, Mahmud has had a stellar professional life thus far. An engineering degree from BUET and an MBA from IBA — how many of our politicians can cite qualifications from two of the country’s finest institutions?
He has been a successful executive — drawing a multi-million taka salary from Beximco back in the 1990s — as well as entreprenuer — he left his father-in-law’s business to start his own. And he has done this without the cronyism and patronage that taints most of our major business owners.
Even as he served in a cabinet level post in the last BNP government, the 1/11 regime didn’t arrest him as part of its anti-corruption drive, mainly because there wasn’t any whiff of corruption or any rumour questioning his personal honesty. Surely a rarity in Bangladesh. And it’s not like he was silent about that regime. In fact, his was one of the first voice that publicly called the coup by its name and protested it in no uncertain terms.
Of course the current government has gone after him. But consider the reason for the government’s ire. May be it is pure rumour mongering, may be not. One thing is certain, it took guts to challenge the
crown prince the Prime Minister’s son publicly.
So the government arrested him, tried to gag his newspaper, tried and failed to connect him to the so-called Uttara conspiracy, and then had him convicted for, well I am not sure what he was convicted for.
Unlike Tarique and so many others, Mahmud didn’t cut any deal. Rather, he pleaded not guilty, accepted the punishment, and served seven months in jail. And now he is publishing his prison diary in a daily series which is dissmenitated electronically in real time, and which will be published as a book come next February (okay, this is speculation on my part).
As an aside, read the series, and compare with his columns from 2007. Mahmud has improved a lot as a writer. These prison pieces are laced with human stories about various inmates — one can easily see the author trying his hand at short story or TV drama. And then there are glimpses about his own likes and dislikes — he reads Indian writers like Shankar, is reminded of Tagore’s poetry on a monsoon afternoon, and likes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Oh, here is a gem, he is so morally upright that he refused to share a meal with a corrupt person like Giyasuddin Al Mamoon.
Anyway, back to Mahmud’s story. Since publishing the December 2009 news item linking Mr Wajed with corruption, Mahmud has been travelling the length and breadth of the country. These days, wherever he goes, he is met by all and sundry anti-AL folks, and he talks about his relentess struggle against injustice and for the truth. I don’t have any hard statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mahmudur Rahman is the most popular person after Khaleda Zia in the 43% of Bangladesh that did not vote for the Grand Alliance in December 2008.
So, Mahmudur Rahman has a strong biography, money and a way with words. If Bangladesh was like any ‘normal’ country, these would be enough to launch an election campaign. If the government eliminates Tarique Rahman as a factor in our politics, will Bangladesh become a more normal country?
And if it does, how will a Mahmudur Rahman led BNP (or whatever party is the centre of the anti-AL politics) perform?
Here things become not-so-clear for Mahmud. His personal narrative and political positioning seems to suggest that for him to win power, Bangladesh will have to change in a radically different direction.
Consider his personal narrative first.
Open a random piece by him and you will be reminded endlessly about how he comes from a middle class background, how he is the salt of the earth, and how different he is from those rich elites of Gulshan-Banani (you know, the kind that reads the Daily Star). Never mind the fact that this is utterly hypocritical, that he is every bit part of that Gulshanite society. More important point is, there is no evidence whatsoever that this kind of class envy or resentment is at all attractive to the average Bangladeshi.
Ours is a society of aspiration, of the upwardly mobile. Take any random Bengali Muslim businessman, bureaucrat, media personality and go back two, three generations, and you have the peasantry of rural East Bengal. We don’t hate the rich, we aspire to be the rich. There is a reason why the politics of class struggle completely flopped in Bangladesh.
Ours is also a closely-knit homogenous society. I am always struck by how well informed the ‘person on the street’ in Dhaka is. They know the score. And I suspect they will see through Mahmudur Rahman when he says ‘Daily Star readers hate me because of class difference’.
And if this pretentious personal narrative is not problematic enough, consider his bigger political vision.
He talks about Bangladesh being at the frontline of the global clash of civilisation. He talks about his struggle being not just against Awami rule (which the anti-AL base readily identifies with) but also against global imperialism and Indian hegemony. India may well be an electoral factor in our politics again, but Bangladesh is just not the country where an anti-India, anti-west, anti-rich populism thrives in and of itself. Certainly not if its leader has Delwar Hossain Sayeedi and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury as brothers-in-arms (while Mahmudur Rahman refuses to share food with Mamoon the corrupt, he addresses the two accused war criminals as bhai).
Whatever the future holds, Mahmudur Rahman’s rise thus far has certainly been stellar. Let’s see how the story plays out for this Rahman, even as the curtain draws on the other, London-exiled, one.