Sheikh Hasina’s Politics of Power

Syed Badrul Ahsan The Daily Star August 1, 2012

At the height of the non-cooperation movement in March 1971, Bangabandhu was asked by one of the many foreign journalists then in Dhaka whether he was not worried about his defiance of the Pakistan government. His response was straight and fierce. “What do you mean government? I am the government,” he said. It was a mark of the supreme confidence with which he was providing leadership to the Bengali nationalist struggle at the time.

On Monday, it was another demonstration of confidence which came our way when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appeared on the BBC’s HardTalk programme. Anyone who has seen Tim Sebastian or Stephen Sackur operate will have a fairly rough idea of how agonising it can be for those who have appeared or intend to appear before them. There are a very good number of people in Bangladesh who clearly feel Sheikh Hasina ought not to have appeared before Sackur. Again, there are those who believe she was not being able to articulate her views in an organised manner on the programme. Neither of the two opinions is something you can quite agree with.

No change in politics

If anything, the Bangladesh leader was in her element before Sackur. You may not agree with her responses to his questions. Indeed, she could have been more assertive and certainly more logical in her presentation of views. Frankly, she could have done herself a whole lot of good by not trying to defend herself over some controversial moves made by her government in the three and a half years it has been in office. In other words, there is a whole swathe of reasons that might inform you that her answers to Sackur did not quite tally with your take on the conditions that were being talked about on HardTalk. But that the prime minister did not flinch at the questions, the reality that she did not lose her composure, is a truth you cannot quite deny, even if politically as well as ideologically you are at a great remove from her.

The truth today is that Sheikh Hasina wields a huge degree of authority, perhaps a whole lot more than the power wielded by Bangabandhu in his time. Around the Father of the Nation were figures with whom he had conducted the movement for the Six Points and then the struggle for liberation. Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, A.H.M. Quamruzzaman and M. Mansoor Ali were not men who grew or lived in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s shadow. They reached the higher perches of leadership through their distinctive, separate struggles. In Sheikh Hasina’s case, there is almost a feeling of unchallenged authority she employs both in her party and in the administration of the state. No minister speaks or steps out of line, for the prime minister is in absolute charge.

Which of course leads you to that overwhelming question: to what extent does such extraordinary authority translate into purposeful leadership? The answer is simple, to the extent of its being obvious: there are all the places where Sheikh Hasina has faltered over the years, moments when her comments on national issues and personalities could have been more subtle. You see her point somewhat when she comes down hard on those who, in the days of the emergency when politics was in a state of banishment, went ahead with forming political parties that ended up in smoke. That clear sense of indignation is there. You might understand it or you might not. But you cannot ignore it.

With Sheikh Hasina, there has been that certain strain of belief which has her lapsing into the use of the first person singular every time she speaks of her government. That explains the confidence with which she tells Sackur: “I believe only I can do it.” It is a trait which has roots, again, in Bangabandhu. And it is one which is not confined to Sheikh Hasina alone. Politicians by and large have made a grab for it. Which is pretty interesting, for it is symptomatic of how politics has changed in Bangladesh in the decades since the mid-1970s.

And Sheikh Hasina has changed as well. The old caution, the careful, almost timid responses to questions have given way to a more formidable personality in national politics. The common touch which once defined Sher-e-Bangla, Moulana Bhashani and Bangabandhu is now an underpinning of her politics. She gathers widows and orphans in an embrace in all the sincerity of emotion. When she asks business leaders if they are treating their workers well, it is in the full knowledge that the working class does not exactly happen to be living in a paradise of happiness. Her sense of humour remains remarkable and so does her pulse on politics at the grassroots. She is at her best when she lets spontaneity take over, when formal speeches are put aside.

At sixty five, Sheikh Hasina has transformed herself into one of the two most powerful political leaders in Bangladesh’s history, the other being Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. You may agree with her politics or you may take serious issue with her, but you cannot quite dismiss the reality of her place in history. There are all the dangers she lives with, risks that also vicariously confront those who have traditionally kept faith with the spirit of 1971. Which is why she now needs to bring together all those forces, intellectual and social, that once sustained her father’s politics, in a wider coalition. She has brought Bangabandhu’s killers to justice. She has caused the war crimes trials to commence, to the relief of the country. So far so good.

In a larger sense, though, Sheikh Hasina needs to reach out to the whole country, across the spectrum, if she means to change it for the better. And then, of course, will come the pivotal question in national politics: after Sheikh Hasina, who?

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star. E-mail: