The aborted 'Presidential coup'?- B.Chowdhury's ouster
The signs were pretty ominous There had been far too many reference points since the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's (BNP) assumption of office some eight months back to indicate that we as a nation, are
in for a very rough ride.
The massive approval for the BNP that won them a landslide victory in the 1st October 2001 polls, with an unprecedented three forth majority in Parliament was not going to make things any easier for them to rule. It all started with the foiled and largely unreported military coup attempt of 3rd of October 2001 to oust Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, and elect the then Speaker of Parliament Abdul Hamid as President and thereafter declare the polls null and void - if taken in perspective the Awami League (AL) with the blessing and backing of whoever it is that sees eye to eye with them, seemed all set to get back to the game they are best at. Seize state power through intrigue and conspiracies.
The first couple of months saw the BNP pinned into a very tight corner when all it could do was remain reactive to issues that were gurgled up to keep them busy and distracted. The overblown stories of minority oppressions, Talibanization, the Far East Economic Review cover story, and importantly the endemic lawlessness that gripped our society, which BNP seemed helpless to contain or combat, saw its public image thoroughly bruised, the pre-poll promises to citizens of Bangladesh about safety and security an elusive mirage.
The law and order agenda was one of the primary reasons for the BNP to be swept to power, for during the 5 years of its rule, the AL had made 'mastaanism' an acceptable national institution, their key functionaries drunk with power, making a heyday with very open public display of their arrogant misdeeds.
The people thought that the BNP would bail them out as it was indicated in post election pledges that it had some kind of an Aladdin's lamp to rid society off the scourge. Ironically, the Aladdin that BNP delivered appeared in the form of a Home Minister, whose performance and conduct thus far has been nothing short of buffoonery reenacted to a high art form!
However, the more recent and unabated murder mayhems stories when killers disappear without a trace and as some press reports indicate end up in 'safe houses' in Kolkata, West Bengal, suggest that do what it may, the BNP is badly compromised by enemies from within and without. To make matters worse many BNP activists especially its Chattra Dal cadres were implicated and some arrested for these murders.
On the one hand the intrigues of the Opposition and on the other BNP's failure to curtail it own rank and file's over enthusiasm with new found 'power' the questionable hobnobbing of its upper echelon with several large corporate house that were largely patrons of BNP's pre-poll subscription drive, petty business opportunists, lobbyist, drug and gold mafia interest et al -, were on the verge of derailing the party's initial
To make matters worse, the BNP had in effect failed to neutralize the remnants of rabid AL sympathizers and supporters in its reluctance to inherit the stigma of a partisan bias in running of its administration.
The now forced retired Army Chief Major General Haroon ur Rashid was the key component in the spoke to the BNP's rather wobbly wheel for it was this man that for the very first time in Bangladesh's history publicly politicized the Army.
By compelling his men to take off their uniform shirt and instead sport tee-shirts emblazoned with the image of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman one remembers that he marched to a political meeting in downtown Dhaka in 2001, with the Army band in his retinue playing 'joi Bangla Banglar joi', where he made a 'clarion ca' to fight anybody that was perceived as the 'national enemy' in the AL scheme of things, not necessarily the citizens of Bangladesh.
Why this controversial character (who superceded several senior Army officers to the coveted post through his known 'closeness' to the AL chiefs sister) was retained as the Chief of the Army in the BNP regime for so long defies logic, but for all practical purpose BNP aware of sensitivities probably gave him the benefit of a doubt at the outset. It therefore seems only but plausible to suggest that he was kept under strict surveillance and his every move closely monitored.
The AL in the meantime as a counter ploy floated an Indian RAW engineered media story of his receiving a huge bribe from the BNP before the polls that ensured his 'betrayal'. The truth of course lay elsewhere. The BNP had only proved its political astuteness and maturity by giving him a leeway post election to see what other conspiracies where on the hatchery. It was a smart move that paid rich dividends, as the dramatic events of this month would prove.
2. A media savvy President and BNP's cultural inadequacies:
If anything can be said about Dr.B.Chowdhury the ex- President it can only be said in 'glowing terms' this regardless of party affiliation or bias.
At once a brilliant physician, a national award winning Television presenter, political strategist, thinker and writer, a suave gentlemen, eloquent, witty and humorous, prolific personality and the laurel of being the closest confidante of the BNP founder Ziaur Rahman, placed him naturally in a cut above the rest in the pack. His forced ouster last week therefore sent chills down the spines of both BNP and AL supporters.
The reason given for his ouster in the press and media accounts reveals a revolt among BNP's young lawmakers (retitled 'young Turks' ) who saw a 'grave betrayal' and 'conspiracy' against the party and nation by the otherwise loved and respected President. These allegations were indeed seconded by more senior and responsible members the General Secretary Mr.Mannan Bhuiyan going as far as to suggest that he had committed an 'unpardonable crime'. However for political analysts a failure to mention Ziaur Rahman as the one who declared the Independence of Bangladesh and also a failure to visit his gravesite on the 30th of May instant, seemed actions hinged on oversight or perhaps impropriety, reasons that are far too trivial for this inordinate 'punishment' if we may. There was definitely more to it, more than meet the eye.
The question is - what where they?
Post election - Dr.Chowdhury lobbied hard for the post of President. As a long time campaigner for the BNP he cited exhaustion, a need to rest and repair and given his advanced age it was a reasonable proposition and one BNP acceded to, despite grudging disapprovals from many within the party rank and files, especially those with a sense of primordial history. On face of it, BNP had not much of a choice in its selection for the post of Chief Executives office anyone to match the skills, charisma, integrity and acumen of Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, the AL appointee. Given its cultural inadequacies BNP had to elect somebody who could fit into the rather elusive term 'acceptability' of the people, BNP as well as also the AL?
Dr.B.Chowdhury's role in the pre-polls BNP tele-serial 'Shabash (bravo) Bangladesh'; was the only effective and lone counter media campaign against the AL. BNP as a rule of providence has a dire shortage of 'cultural luminaries' that are directly or indirectly needed to garner support in media or press offensives.
The media mafia in Bangladesh on the other hand, as I have long argued has been and will be in the firm grips of pro Awami League and pro India elements and that has more to do than what is termed 'acceptable' in the Bengalee middle class and neo rich a miniscule but powerful minority in the country's otherwise predominant lower middle class demography.
As Noman Erfan writes in Jai Jai Din [www.jaijaidin.com] of the 25th JUNE and I quote:
"This is a strange anathema that afflict the educated and cultured Bengalee middle class in that they desire and crave for Awami Leagues acceptance. It is a psychological trap, a mirage - and a trap that Dr.B.Chowdhury landed into 'the trap of 'acceptability' "
It was only to appease the Awami League and ensure their acceptability that he desisted from naming Ziaur Rahman as the one who proclaimed the independence of Bangladesh. To ascertain that he receives 'acceptability' B.Chowdhury he started a one-man campaign that did not have the blessings or approval of the BNP hierarchy, specially the Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Some activities even sent very incoherent and conflicting signals, bordering on the treacherous.
There are reports that he had visited attended functions that compromised BNP's position when sharing the same podium with him was none other than Sheikh Hasina the AL Chief and leader of the Opposition. This apart from the private functions he attended and he attended a whole lot of them, when the sponsors or the host were AL leaders or its functionaries. Greatly irking the BNP were reports that he visited the residence of Colonel Faruk Khan an AL functionary ostensibly to enjoy an evening of gazal again a typical Bengalee middle class haute couture exercise.
It would have been one thing if he sat back and said 'wah wah' to the singers, but Dr. B.Chowdhury took a step forward in his effort to 'act neutrally'. He promenaded the select audience by rendering a few gazals himself!
Whether or not it is proper for a President to render 'gazals'in a private function in the house of an Opposition stalwart is debatable - but what about the cost to the public ; other than the ';image of the President'?
Every time the President steps out to a venue from his official residence, half a million Taka or more, is ripped from the tax payers pocket in mobilizing no less that 7 agencies of the Government for his protection; less the traffic jams that causes delays and harassments to the public during VIP movements in Dhaka.
Presidents Chowdhur's 'cultural acceptability' exercises saw his daily itinerary crammed with needless 'social functions' some as bizarre as his intended visit to Chatkhil in Noakhali to attend the circumcision ceremony of his grandson in a Government helicopter on 21st June 2002 the day he was forced to resign! Austerity thy name is the BNP President?
3. Skeleton's in cup board' ; Where is the dead body?
As the lone high profile survivor of the 30th May 1980 assassination of President Ziaur Rahman Dr.B.Chowdhury had been the object of deep suspicion within the BNP hierarchy for long. The accounts of his escape from the Chittagong have been inconsistent and unacceptable ; as much as the fact that those military officers found guilty and executed subsequently were merely the ones that carried out the assassination. The conspiracy behind the assassination never came up for close public scrutiny and hence in the hushed circle of politicians, the villain in General Ershad was never revealed thanks again to ALs nodding approval to this hated dictator..
The history of Bangladesh will remain incomplete till all assassinations of our national leaders are made public and it seems only natural that manipulations are made to compromise important political functionaries in discharging their responsibilities based on insider knowledge into the conspiracies. The AL for instance whipped up the Ziaur Rahman murder case while in power, and while not a single hearing came up in court, political analysts believe this was an AL ploy to keep Dr.B.Chowdhury in check ; a psychological blackmail tactics as such.
Event since the Prime Minster Khaleda Zia left for the US for her knee operation a distance had already occurred in her close official and family relationship with the President. Other than hurtful off the cuff comments about the Prime Ministers knee condition ; Dr.Chowdhury had suggested that the only way to save Khaleda Zia is by amputating her leg -the more questionable role of sitting in a closed door ninety minute long meeting with General Haroon ur Rashid at the office of the Military Secretary to The President General Mansoor's after all guest had departed following the Eid-e-Miladun-nabi function at Banga Bhavan on 21st May 2002, indicate that Dr.B. Chowdhury did not exercise discretion in his conduct.
Specifically, with Haroon ur Rashid it was not as if he was not aware of things brewing in earnest within the Government following the publication of the Army Chief's name in the White Paper and his audacious use of the Army press wing (ISPR) in countering his position ; when it is the duty of the Ministry of Defense to do so Dr.Chowdhury seemed to have burnt his boat. There are also allegations that he did not support General Haroon's removal and the nail to his coffin was thus sealed.
There were other allegations about the General that B.Chowdhury should have known. During the long absence of the Prime Minister between 3rd May 2002 and 4th of June 2002, General Haroon paid three unscheduled and unwarranted visit to the Prime Minster's Office in a show of arrogance and authority and met 'like minded' officials within the PMO to emphasize that he is in control and in power.
Following the ouster of General Haroon ur Rashid, on the 16th of June 2002 several developments in quick succession confirmed the existence of deep-rooted conspiracy to unseat the BNP Governments by means most foul. Dr.B.Chowdhury's distance from the Prime Minister, his insistence of an ex-officio power baser, his hobnobbing with the AL cartel and the controversial business association of his son Mahi B. Chowdhury a BNP lawmaker with Asaduzzaman Noor MP of the AL probably caused his ultimate doom.
Mahi B. Chowdhury's sudden prop up in the media circles specially his receiving an hourly slot in the Bangladesh Televisions (BTV) effective 1st of July 2002 and his recent public announcement that he did not 'misuse' his power and position for the slot, but rather 'used' them to air programs created by his company Independent Republic, plus his open association with Noor, a known media mafia baron was not taken lightly within BNP 'young Turks' as also the hierarchy. That his father-in-law is the owner of the country's largest jewelry firm set him aside for greater suspicion when hints were made to some BNP leaders links with gold smuggling in the BNP Parliamentary Party meetings.
More importantly, Sheikh Hasina's three long parleys with retired pro-AL Generals following Haroon uz Zaman's ouster and an unnecessary comment of 'no dead body in Zia's gravesite; reveal that:
1) a conspiracy was brewing and to protect the beleaguered President from exposure she schemed,
2) to divert speculations to the effect that the President did not visit the gravesite after assumption of office as he knew that there is no dead body there and did not want to scandalize the Presidency.
All said and done the stage seems now set to see how the media mafia will act up in defense of B.Chowdhury's damaged image. They were not found wanting and in his defense the pro AL media has jumped in with full steam.
His pronouncements that 'BNP will have to pay an exacting price in six months' for ousting him, reveals only the hidden agenda of a conspiracy that the media was a party to and one that went awry. The media and AL had expected the BNP to act foolishly ' what they were not prepared for in their subtle machinations is a realization that BNP may be foolish but not exactly STUPID!
The ex President is therefore left with no choice but to keep us entertained. His almost daily discourses since his ouster with any and sundry members of the Press to defend his position shows that he has a few skeletons to hide up his cupboard and the inconsistencies of his comments that is a hallmark of his personality was never more pronounced than now.
On the one hand he mentioned that he had nothing to do with politics anymore; yet the next day as an after thought, he goes public by saying that he is prepared to advise any political party? He badly needs a support base and knows that while AL may give it to him for exigency only to protect themselves - Dr.B.Chowdhury should also know too well that the AL is a master at betrayal and it will not think twice before disowning him.
Also there is no need to 'rub-in' to the general public his philanthrophical deed of serving the poor free or 'treating BNP members who are today opposed to him' as these are well-documented facts of his life yet one that most doctors indulge in. A philanthrophical or noble gesture does not come hand in hand with any condition of life long allegiance or loyalty, especially on matters of national interest is a fact that should not elude Dr.Chowdhury.
4. What was likely to happen : The aborted 'Presidential coup' :
The buzz in Dhaka has been extremely strong that the BNP is going for a Presidential form of Government. For weeks this has been debated in various political circles and the AL wary that with a three forth majority in Parliament the BNP could well go for such a change made efforts to play up to the rumors and devise counter strategies. The appointment of Tareq Rahman the PM's son two days after the Presidents ouster, as the Additional General Secretary in the BNP further fueled such speculations. It was even suggested that the Prime Minister would step in as President while Tareq Rahman would become Prime Minister and democracy reduced to a rubber stamp Parliament. In reality, BNP strategist to shake up the AL leadership deliberately planted this Presidential form of Government rumor! After all efforts at bringing the obnoxious Sheikh Hasina to Parliament failed and her relentless intrigues both at home and abroad continued - this seemed one of the many efforts that paid handsomely.
However the matter to ruminate is what was the AL up to, and why did the name of Dr.B.Chowdhury head their list of priority for their move?
With the Presidential form of Government rumor at its peek, AL strategist together with a long ousted senior AL leader, a top lawyer together with a handful of Dhaka University teachers and two Editors of Dhaka newspaper who operate in tandem to publish a vernacular and English language Daily edition quickly mooted the idea for the formation of a National Government in connivance with the AL that would in effect neutralize the election process and allow for a short term Government of three years of so, with leading professionals, bureaucrats, and members from the so-called civil society at the helms of affair .
At the time of writing this piece, the effort is ongoing and one has only to wait and brace back for articles in Dhaka newspaper to advance the idea for such a government. It was rumored that a section of the Army has been mobilized to oust the BNP Government by blaming it for its failure to curb the law and order situation - reminiscent of Justice Satter ouster by General Ershad. To head the incumbent Government as was part of the conspiracy and is now obvious was no one else but dear the beloved Dr.Badrudozza Chowdhury!
Bangladesh has had it share of Military coups and Civil Service coups; yet what was aborted last week was a Presidential coup, a coup that could have only happened with the backing of the Army at the cost of many lives.
We were that close - and as I close this piece, Bangladesh looks like all set to be a South Asian flash point. If Sheikh Hasina's insidious insistence on a Civil War is allowed to play its own course a benevolent 'democratic dictator' is not to far away on the Bangladesh political horizon - a dictatorship that will have the support and blessing of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League.
Rejected by the people, with no chance for another stint at power this seems the only available option open to AL and its vicious power hungry avatars.
First Published June 27th 2002