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IDSA COMMENT

Ershad’s Visit to India Whets His Political Ambition

September 10, 2012


Gen (Retd.) Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the leader of Jatiya Party and former Bangladeshi military dictator (he hates to be called so), visited India recently for a week in August at the invitation of Indian government. India appears to be worried about the political future of Bangladesh where elections are scheduled towards the end of the next year. The Jatiya party is the third largest political party in Bangladesh and part of the ruling coalition, which many in Bangladesh fear may not return to power in the next elections.

Ershad was given the honour of a state guest. During his stay in India he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Pranab Mukherjee, National Security Advisor (NSA), Shiv Shankar Menon, and foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai before embarking on his religious visit to Ajmer.

As expected, in their discussions with Gen Ershad, Indian leaders reportedly sought his views on the evolving political scene in Bangladesh and the upcoming parliamentary elections which already seem to be mired in controversy because of the abolition of the caretaker government system in Bangladesh. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is threatening to boycott the elections unless the caretaker government system is restored. In the divided polity of Bangladesh where both Awami League and the BNP get nearly the same percentage of votes barring the swing votes, the role of other small players like the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Jatiya Party led by General Ershad becomes important.

As Jamaat is a long-time ally of the BNP, the role played by Ershad is going to be important. Even before 2008 elections he was wooed vigorously by the both Awami League and the BNP. Ershad kept both parties on the tenterhook before joining the Awami League led alliance which promised to make him president. He may have also joined this alliance because he had sensed the mood of people and possibly knew that the chances of Awami League coming to power were greater. However, the promise to make Ershad president of Bangladesh was forgotten with Awami League receiving a landslide victory in the elections. This virtually made Ershad’s support redundant. In the 2008 elections the Awami League-led grand alliance had bagged 263 seats out 300, out of which Jatiya Party of Ershad secured 27 seats. The main rival BNP led four-party alliance received only 32 seats, with the remaining seats going to independent candidates. In this situation, Ershad could not claim what was promised to him yet chose to stay close to the League, because he was facing many corruption cases and needed its support to thwart those charges.

Ershad, of late, has been in the limelight for campaigning against Tipaimukh dam that Bangladesh fears India is building in the state of Manipur. He has been criticising India for not signing the Teesta water sharing agreement with Bangladesh. This agreement is of additional importance to Ershad because the irrigation system that Bangladesh plans to develop after getting assurance of Teesta water from India is going to benefit greater Rangpur area which is a stronghold of Ershad’s Jatiya Party.

It was widely reported in the Indian media that during his stay in India Ershad discussed these along with the land border issue. Indian leaders assured Ershad that India was trying to get Paschim Banga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on board before signing of the Teesta deal and they were hopeful that it would be coming soon. India also assured Ershad that it would not do anything to harm the interests of Bangladesh by building Tipaimukh dam. He was also informed that the progress on land border issue and exchange of enclaves have not been to the desired extent because the treaty needs to be ratified by the Indian parliament with a two-thirds majority, which the present government lacks. However, it was communicated to him that Manmohan Singh’s government was trying to build consensus across the party line over this issue. Though the anti-India stance recently being taken by Ershad is of a smaller scale compared to that of the BNP, he considers it necessary to retain and boost his popularity in Bangladesh. Indeed, it is important to pay attention to his future political ambitions against the backdrop of the ongoing political tussle between the government and the opposition..

The recent visit to India has enhanced the expectations of Ershad. In the last election he was hoping for the post of president, a ceremonial position in Bangladeshi political set-up; now he has stated openly that he wants to be prime minister after the next elections. In Ershad’s calculation both the BNP and the Awami League may not get the requisite number this time, while the number of seats won by his party might considerably increase and go beyond 60. In that scenario, Ershad hopes to stake claim for prime ministership. He plans to make his party contest the next elections alone, without being part of any alliance. The Jatiya party wants to put up candidates on its own and in large numbers. Ershad is perhaps looking at the next election as his last election, since age is not on his side (for he is now 82 years old); hence, he wants to make the best of it, and the political situation in the country seems to be favouring him. Though India now wants to engage all political players in Bangladesh, and with this objective it has invited Khaleda Zia to visit New Delhi sometime next month, the role of Ershad becomes important in the event of Awami League not returning to power and the elections leading to a hung house. India would perhaps not mind if Ershad cobbles up a coalition and leads the next government.