As Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina turns 77 and the nation, once ravaged by corruption and terrorism, looks back on a “golden decade of development” she has presided over, comparisons are being drawn over her legacy and her political rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s.
Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are repositories of two distinct legacies — often naively and simplistically described by the western press as the “Battle of the Begums.”
The two women are as different in their personal lives as night and day. Hasina is deeply spiritual and religious, socially conservative, but politically secular while Khaleda is socially outgoing, the usual military “madam”, but whose politics is closely linked to political Islam.
The Hasina-Khaleda battle is not one of personalities alone. It is more about the legacies they carry forward.
Hasina upholds her father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's legacy of national liberation and the dream of “Sonar Bangla” (Golden Bengal). This is the legacy of the fight for independence from Pakistan amidst the worst genocide in South Asia, and one of the worst in the world. It is also one of painstaking national reconstruction amidst insurmountable odds.
Khaleda has lived up to the legacy of her late husband, General Ziaur Rahman, Bangladesh's first military ruler who turned the clock back on the country's “unfinished revolution” by setting in motion a process of re-Pakistanisation which culminated in his successor General Ershad declaring Islam as the “state religion of Bangladesh.”
Bangabandhu's 1972 Constitution established secularism as a cardinal value for Bangladesh's nascent polity. Military rulers Zia and Ershad overturned it and introduced the primacy of Islam, as they legitimised the defeated forces of 1971. The military rulers set up their own parties but needed the Islamist radical groups like the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami as allies to marginalise the Awami League.
Hasina has now presided over Bangladesh's “Golden Decade of Development” after Khaleda’s half decade rule in the early part of the century. Hasina has notched an unprecedented economic turnaround that makes Bangladesh an emerging Asian Tiger from a “Basket Case” (as referred to by Kissinger) after Khaleda had reduced the country to the “second front of Islamist terror” in South Asia by presiding over a sharp surge in violent religious radicalism that one usually associates with Pakistan.
Hasina has been described by the BBC as the “voice of the vulnerable” in the global effort to tackle climate change after her role in the COP26 summit and “a force” by the Washington Post for her economic model of inclusive growth that is more focused on human development and distributive justice and less on pure growth statistics and wealth creation.
Khaleda’s is a legacy of unbridled corruption under whose shadow, son Tarique Rahman created a culture of kleptocracy. Leaked US embassy cable held him “guilty of egregious political corruption that has had a serious adverse effect on US national interests” and called him a “symbol of violent politics.”
Under Hasina, Bangladesh's GDP growth surged past 6 percent per annum and an estimated 50 million Bangladeshis have been elevated to the middle-income group. There was a slump in the poverty level from 38 percent in 2006 to 24 percent in 2013.
Bangladesh's per capita income has soared to $1,602, past its giant neighbour India, with the poverty rate slumping further to 22.4 percent. From power generation to road building to the completion of the 6 km railroad bridge on the Padma river, Bangladesh had gained from Hasina's single-minded zeal to develop critical infrastructure that spurs industrialization and an export-driven manufacturing economy.
The signature statistics of the Khaleda Zia era were the simultaneous bomb explosions in almost all the districts of Bangladesh.
Look at the big headlines of the Khaleda era: “Cocoon of Terror”, “Deadly Cargo”, “The Next Islamist Revolution”. Now, those of the Hasina era: “Bangladesh: The next Asian Bull case”, “Life Begins at Fifty for Bangladesh”, “Unstoppable Bangladesh” and so much more.
The difference between what the two legacies have to offer is obvious and the choice made by Bangladeshis for the last whole decade points to what most in the country want.
The Pakistan model of a close unholy nexus between the state, the military-driven deep state, the radical religious groups, a section of big business and foreign powers seeking to use the country for its own strategic gains has come a cropper. Pakistan's descent into a failed state since the 1971 debacle has been steady, notwithstanding the country becoming a nuclear power. The brief experiment with that model during the Khaleda regime early in this century brought disaster for Bangladesh with Islamist terrorism, which had gained its initial ground during Khaleda's first tenure in the 1990s, gaining much ground.
As Hasina proceeded to prioritise economic and human development after her return to power in January 2009, she had to also launch an all-out campaign to stamp out these hydra-headed terror groups, which obnoxiously keep multiplying even as core factions fall apart under tough state response.
She was dead right in realising that the fight to root out Islamist terror and stamp out the linkages between some Indian rebel groups and a part of Bangladesh's security establishment (again following the Pakistani model) was as important as the pursuit of development goals and preparing the country to withstand adverse impact of climate change. The best of long-term vision can be ruined if law and order suffer and terrorism takes root.
Hasina's task in pursuing her development goals were considerably impeded not only by the proliferation of terror groups from the previous Khaleda Zia regime but also their close linkages with parties in the BNP-Jamaat led alliance. Her determination to go ahead with the 1971 War Crimes trials, a pre poll promise to her people, got some top war criminals turned opposition leaders in the crosshairs because of the substantial evidence that existed against them for their involvement in the 1971 atrocities. Many of Hasina's detractors saw in the trials an attempt to decapitate the opposition and elements in the West started crying foul over the legality of the War Crimes Trials.
Hasina persisted and did what her people wanted her to do. Put an end to the culture of impunity that stemmed out of the Pakistani atrocities and was then carried forward through the 1975 coup and the 2004 grenade attack on Hasina herself when she was in opposition.
The Khaleda Zia legacy grows out of the Pakistani military culture of total annihilation of opponents. So, if the Pakistanis went about the systematic and total annihilation of the Bengali intelligentsia in the last days of the 1971 to deprive the new nation of its brains, the 1975 coup aimed at eliminating the entire Bangabandhu family including elements of the extended family. The 2004 grenade attack on the Awami League rally, planned meticulously but executed shoddily, was an attempt to eliminate in one stroke the entire senior leadership of the Awami League which was gathered with Hasina on the makeshift podium.
Hasina would have failed the nation if her government did not pursue the perpetrators of these horrific crimes. She did not, even when accused by the Western human rights brigade who opposed the due process of law unfolding in Bangladesh during the War Crimes trials or these other massacre cases but are shy to acknowledge the 1971 massacres as a genocide, despite copious accounts by diplomats like Archer Blood.
In short, the Khaleda legacy, that rests its legitimacy with falsehood is a “Legacy of Blood”, the apt title of a bestseller by celebrated journalist Anthony Mascarenhas, who detailed the 1975 coup and the patronage that General Zia and later his wife extended to the perpetrators of the coup by giving them diplomatic postings.
If the Khaleda legacy is one of blood and more blood (the BNP's petrol bombings that burnt countless innocents to death), the Hasina legacy is one of development and growth, one of upholding the glory of Bengali language and culture (like her father, she delivers her UN speeches in Bangla) that gives the nation its unique identity.
The choice is obvious. Would Bangladeshis, who are outwardly mobile and hugely dynamic both at elite and grassroots level, not want the success formula of a moderate Islam centric secular polity to anchor the national economic and human development to continue with a professional military guarding national frontiers and the police and paramilitary ensuring internal law and order? And a foreign policy which balances all major powers and neighbours intelligently to foster the key goal of national prosperity? As the countdown to the next parliament polls begins, amidst Hasina's efforts for enactment of a minority commission and some of her partymen demanding a return to the 1972 secular constitution, Bangladeshis will have to take a call.
Sukharanjan Dasgupta is a Kolkata-based commentator and author of “Midnight Massacre” on the August 15, 1975 coup. Views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.