Leading from the front

In the forty-five year independent history of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina has turned out to be the most formidable of politicians to have presided over the fortunes of this country. There are, of course, all those areas where you might not quite agree with her, for all the right reasons. But, on a very broad scale, you cannot but agree that the issues she has handled since she first assumed charge as Prime Minister in 1996 and then again in 2009 have been those that would test the resolve and resilience of any other politician.
And there is something else. Where other politicians and the nation’s two military rulers have been instrumental in creating problems, most of them seemingly insurmountable, Sheikh Hasina has proved to be a problem solver. Her leadership has been firm, uncompromising and focused. You can be quite sure that she has earned her place in the pantheon of history.
And this is how she has done that.
Two of her earliest difficulties were the Ganges Water dispute with India and the long-running insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But these were also the impediments she tided over in her first administration, through deft negotiations with both the Indian leadership of the time as well as the PCJSS in the CHT. The Ganges treaty, initialed by Sheikh Hasina and HD Deve Gowda, brought a critical situation to an end that was satisfactory for both Dhaka and Delhi. In the matter of the CHT accord, there are yet a good number of hiccups and a good deal more needs to be done to reassure the indigenous community about its well-being within the political system of the country. And yet what remains a matter of relief is the fact that the CHT deal brought an armed conflict in the hills to an end.
It remains an essential component of national history that Sheikh Hasina, in office, was destined to do all those positive things democracy expects to be done. She came to office in 1996 in the shadow of all the evil that had been perpetrated in the twenty-one years in which her party, the Awami League, was kept out of power. In that shadow lurked the notorious Indemnity Ordinance, first imposed on the country by Khondokar Moshtaque to prevent any prosecution of the assassins of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his family, and then insinuated into Constitution through the Fifth Amendment by General Ziaur Rahman.
Sheikh Hasina responded to the national urge — and it was a loud urge — for the ordinance to be lifted and for the assassins to be put on trial. Hers was an act of courage, seeing that not many at the time thought the murderers could be brought to justice. Besides, her government did not have a clear majority in parliament but was in office through a coalition-building of sorts. It goes to the discredit of General Ziaur Rahman, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad and Begum Khaleda Zia that they not only did not bring the August 1975 assassins to justice but also, to our collective embarrassment, clearly condoned their criminality. It is a matter of happiness, indeed of pride, that as the daughter of the nation’s founding father, as the nation’s elected leader, Sheikh Hasina went ahead in the task of placing the assassins on trial and seeing the court send them to the gallows.
It was the lifting of a huge burden from the back of the nation. And that was not all.
In the years since she led her party back to power at the December 2008 elections, Sheikh Hasina has been instrumental in pushing back all the wrongs perpetrated on the nation by those who came before her. Her courage in the face of danger — danger as exemplified by the move to do her in at Chittagong in the Ershad years, by the violent attack on her party rally in 2004, by the muddle-headed attempt of the caretaker government to prevent her from returning home from abroad — has consistently added substance to her leadership, to her style of governance.
And here is how she has been leading the nation in these past eight years.
Sheikh Hasina and her government have brought to a decisive end the activities of Indian insurgents towards planning and launching assaults against the Indian government from Bangladesh. The country, long treated as a launching pad for violence by such organizations as ULFA and Pakistan’s ISI, violence patronized by politicians and ruling cliques whose anti-India posture was only too visible, is today a safer place.
More significantly, Sheikh Hasina’s leadership has been defined by a readiness and a resolve to set history right against a background of all the distortions that crept into it in the non-Awami League years in the country. If Bangabandhu did not get the time and the opportunity to bring the war criminals of 1971 to justice, Sheikh Hasina made sure she had both. Her return to power in January 2009 was predicated on her promise to bring the war criminals to trial. She has redeemed that pledge.
On the economy, the Awami League government has done well. The growth rate has been consistent, at more than six per cent. Agriculture has been steady, with the capable Motia Chowdhury in charge. In diplomacy, Sheikh Hasina’s leadership has placed Bangladesh in a position where the country enjoys good rapport with such leading nations as the United States, Russia, China and India. For all her abiding interest in shaping and implementing a purposeful foreign policy, Sheikh Hasina has been clear about her need to hold her own when it came to foreign nations’ worries about her government’s actions.
She has tackled the World Bank, in relation to the Padma Bridge, on her own terms. She has heard overseas leaders out on such issues as the war crimes trials and then has gone ahead with pronouncing her own judgment on them. The national interest, in the Prime Minister’s scheme of things, has been the prime underpinning of policy. That was one reason why her determination that the country maintain constitutional continuity through the election of January 2014 was translated into action. Neither her critics at home nor her fellow politicians abroad were given space where upholding political order in Bangladesh was concerned. Bangladesh knew best what was good for it. That was the firm message going from the Prime Minister to the world out there.
One of the fundamentals on which Sheikh Hasina has exercised power, between 1996 and 2001 and again since 2009, has been the realism she has brought into her politics. And, yes, she is the predominant force in national politics in these times, a head of government who is more than primus inter pares — first among equals. It is a truth not to be denied, for the government is shaped around her personality in much the same way it was focused on Bangabandhu in an earlier era.
Where Bangabandhu’s onerous task was leading the nation to freedom and then sketching the path it would take to its future, Sheikh Hasina’s burden has been one of wiping the canvas clean of the waste and the dirt and the detritus left behind by her predecessors. She has done rather well, so far. Grit and determination have been her armour. Hers has been leadership from the front.r
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor,
The Daily Observer