Breaking Bangladesh’s Dynastic Conundrum

For the first time in three decades, an opportunity exists in Bangladesh for a new challenger of genuine merit and capacity to step into the ring and stake his or her claim, ending the outsized political presence of Sheikh Hasina Wajid and Khaleda Zia.

Posted on 01/29/15
By Zafar Sobhan | Via Dhaka Tribune
(Image by ViewsWeek)
(Image by ViewsWeek)

The time has come for Bangladeshis to contemplate what comes next.

 

For the past quarter of a century our political life has been dominated by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. An entire generation of Bangladeshis has been born who has seen no prime minister other than them, and can scarcely imagine political life without their outsize presence.

 

Even during the days of the caretaker government, they dominated the political landscape with their absence, and even when outside the country or incarcerated, the political conversation focused squarely on their future.

 

It was apparent from very early on in 2007 that the brave new world promised by the caretaker government would never materialize, and that it was only a matter of time before one or the other of the two ladies would return to power through a democratically contested election.

 

Even in those difficult days for the AL and BNP, few doubted that the two ladies would be back and fewer still could imagine a future for the country without one of them at the helm.

 

But in the year 2015, with the Prime Minister 67 years old and Khaleda Zia two years older, for the first time in a generation, Bangladeshis must seriously contemplate what the world might look like after they have both retired from politics.

 

In 2019, Sheikh Hasina will be 71 years old and Khaleda Zia 73. It is not impossible that they would continue to lead both their parties and (for one of them) the nation. But we are now standing at the threshold of the potentially most significant shift in politics in Bangladesh since the end of the Ershad era in 1990.

 

It has long been assumed that both ladies would be succeeded by their sons, Sajeeb Wazed Joy and Tarique Rahman, respectively.

 

But as the example of India has shown, it could be that the power of political dynasties and the magic of a storied name will no longer hold as much sway over the voters as they once did.

 

It could be that the next handover of power within the parties will mark their coming of age, and they will be transformed from two family businesses into genuine political parties in which merit and popular opinion matter more than lineage and the feudal loyalty of party members.

 

Some might argue that we are not yet ready for this as a society, and that the AL and BNP merely reflect the reality of our greater society at large. But this is not entirely true. It is worth recalling that neither Sheikh Mujib nor Ziaur Rahman were themselves dynastic leaders, and that both of them rose to the heights of power through dint of their own merit and efforts.

 

Similarly, while it is true that both the Prime Minister and Khaleda Zia attained their party leadership due to who they were, and that both were at the time untested, with nothing to recommend them save their ability to unite their respective parties’ warring factions behind them, they could not have stayed at the helm of power in their parties and reached the highest office of the state had there existed any political leader with the stature and the popularity to take them on.

 

Now it is true that they have been helped immeasurably by our single constituency, first-past-the-post electoral system, which makes it inordinately hard for new parties to come into existence, and that the organizational structure of their own parties makes it all but impossible for a challenge to be brought from within.

 

But it is also true that in the past three decades Bangladesh has not generated a fresh, new political leader capable of challenging them and exposing their weaknesses.

 

Now, love him or hate him, there is no denying the fact that Narendra Modi is a formidable politician with remarkable political skill. He also has an impressive track record in governance and has proved himself to be an able administrator.

 

Seeing him in action, it is apparent that he is the most accomplished political figure India has seen since the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and he looks set to dominate Indian politics for at least the next decade, commanding as much authority and wielding as much power as Mrs Gandhi and her father did before him.

 

The timing was perfect for him. The opportunity to unseat the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty did not exist before last year. It is true that they had lost the occasional election, but none of their losses were cataclysmic. None of them heralded a changing of the guard, the dawning of a new era.

 

Part of what made the timing perfect for Modi was that he faced a young heir apparent as his opponent, and that in comparison to Modi, Rahul Gandhi came across as callow and insubstantial, with insufficient real world experience or connection to the average voter.

 

These may have been words that could have been applied to Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in the early 1980s, but by the time they were running for election in the 1990s, it was no longer true. They had made their bones.

 

But with the time approaching when they will have to pass on the baton of leadership, for the first time in three decades the opportunity exists for a new challenger of genuine merit and capacity to step into the ring and stake his or her claim.

 

The only question is: Is there anybody out there with the ambition to rise to the challenge and with the ability to make voters take a second look?

 

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune, a leasing newspaper of Bangladesh. Click here to go to the original.

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