Afsan Chowdhury, March 2, 2019
Giving an interview after her electoral win, Bangladesh’s PM Sk.Hasina said that this is going to be her last term in office – her fourth- and she would like to retire and go back to her village home. It was met with various emotions including near panic in some Awami League circles. Various leaders and committees have called upon her to reconsider her decision and many have said that there is no way that this is possible. However, the news is no doubt unnerving for a party that is so dependent on her, it could be a reality which the party has to face one day. But is the party ready for it?
The Hasina model of governance
Sk. Hasina returned to Bangladesh from abroad where she had been in forced exile after her entire family was killed on August 15, 1975. She was stranded in Europe but later went to India and organized herself and her family and returned in 1981. Since then, she took charge of the party and soon did away with the inner party dissidents, all her seniors. Almost all were her father’s colleagues or protégés but Sk. Hasina dealt with each of them. They either fell in line or left the party and none were able to pose as a challenger. Right or wrong she reigns supreme.
This points to the absolute control she has been able to impose on the party and its workers. The situation in the 80s lasted for almost a decade till she was elected PM in 1996 that is 11 years after the mainstream, AL was thrown out of power. Though she lost power in 2001 to the BNP-Jamaat alliance, she returned in 2008 and has been there without a break.
The Martial Law regime in 2006 arrested and tried to try her but public sentiment against military rule and the attempt to try civilian political leaders was high. In the end it was the military which organized a poll and she swept to power. In 2014, BNP tried a boycott and failed and in 2018 she was returned to power with an extreme majority though her critics say the polls were rigged.
Even if it were so, the fact that there is no political fallout or unrest because of that points to the supremacy of sorts of the party which is now closer to the administration than any regime ever was. In fact, the regime is more like a cluster of ruling components rather than a single political party in power. That has been a major success of the Hasina regime and there is not much question about who rules the roost. Unlike her father, Sk. Hasina’s links with the security forces is very positive and so there is virtually no discernible threat to her and her regime.
Where do leaders end the party begins?
But the question that will inevitably pop up is where does Sk. Hasina’s regime end and the party regime begins? Can the party exist as it does now without her? Is there a political successor to her leadership? Is the party able to develop the critical alliances that she with various members of the ruling class? And is the Sk. Hasina model sustainable in the long run?
The AL leaders who are panicking are doing so for a reason. In the light of her halo, others are dimmed. She personally supervises every aspect of both politics and administration and even critical issues like elections are not handled by politicians alone but as much if not more by bureaucrats as well.
So, in a sense, she is the centre of the hub which is not just political. This is largely because of the network, alliances and stakes she has carefully built over a long period of rule stretching over a decade. Its also true that she carried a charisma that none else has.
But this is a political model in Bangladesh that applies as much to the BNP as well. The mess that this party is in has been also caused by the lack of any leadership that can take over in the absence of Khaleda Zia now in jail and her son Tariq Zia now in exile. They are no match for a fully loaded party that AL is. The lack of clout that BNP has now without its top leadership must be making the AL leaders a bit anxious when they see BNP and hear that Sk. Hasina could go missing too.
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The cause of course is the inner party development which is individual rather than organization centred. That applies to almost all the parties concerned so the problem is not about individuals but the nature of the political parties which prevents structural development.
Current BNP shows that dynastic leadership is the preferred form of function and its absence hurts. So, if the AL sees other members of the Sheikh family coming forward to take on leadership if Sk. Hasina is really serious about retiring, it will most probably be welcomed. That might be a pattern one is most likely to see.
The article appeared in the Southasianmonitor.com on 2 March 2019