Dhaka, Bangladesh — This is a contradictory land, awesomely beautiful and heart-breakingly poor. It is a land of river silt, plains, and mud, of chronic poverty and malnutrition, yet immense national pride.
The population explosion has eaten up the promises of this Muslim nation. Bloodshed and turmoil have marked its past. Its only two popularly elected leaders have died at assassins' hands.
Yet Bangladesh, for all its problems, may be on its way to a controlled democracy - albeit with a permanent military role.
It may, barring natural disasters and with continuing good harvests, even become self-sufficient in food within six years. It is struggling vigorously with its nightmare of a population explosion which produces 3 million children a year and has left over 50 percent of the country's peasantry without any land.
But this Bengali country could also become yet another arena in the East-West dispute. Despite denials of United States and Bangladeshi officials, reports persist of US interest in port facilities for the US Navy's Seventh Fleet in the Chittagong area, including two offshore islands in the strategic Bay of Bengal.
The Soviets, for their part, have by far the largest diplomatic mission in Dhaka, numbering some 125 people, according to one highly placed Western source. They also have a 13-man consulate in the port city of Chittagong. No other country has a consulate there.
Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad has recently expelled 14 senior Soviet officials, charging them with attempting to bring him down. When asked why the Soviets had such an inflated presence in the country - they had no substantial programs - one bewildered official replied, ''It's quite extraordinary. And we would certainly like to find out.''
Politics, like everything else in Bangladesh, is predicated on the scarcities of life. ''Lentils and rice'' remains everyone's electoral slogan for upazilla, or county-level elections, set for March 24. The elections are the last step in General Ershad's program to decentralize the government and return the people to the land. They are also intended to give the general a constituency and power base outside the armed forces.
Ershad, like so many of the third world's other military men, appears to be a reluctant military ruler. He seems to crave legitimacy and a civilian status. Thus the general, who has already proclaimed himself president, begins his march toward capturing the office in May elections, under the watchful eye of martial law.
As the country's chief martial-law administrator, the general has been described as a chameleon. His major opponents are women - one, the widow of a close friend.
The elections are ostensibly being boycotted by the country's two largest and most powerful political groups: the Awami League of the legendary Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which led the independence struggle from Pakistan in 1971; and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, founded by and now led by the widow of the popular Gen. Ziaur Rahman. Before his 1981 assassination, General Rahman had been Ershad's predecessor as chief administrator of martial law.
''If Ershad survives the month of February - the traditional time when Bangladeshis demonstrate and go to the streets - and if he can carry off the upazilla elections,'' one nonaligned diplomat said, ''then the pucky little general, who no one took seriously two years ago, will be home free, controlling the options, as long as he gives the military a permanent political role.''
It was apparent in November, when Ershad lifted his ban on political activities - although it lasted only two weeks - and announced presidential elections for May and parliamentary elections for November, that this was no real return to a Western democracy. This was to be democracy with a military twist.
From the days of partition, the Bangladeshi military has been an elitist force. The soldiers of the country, as General Ershad is at pains to explain, believe they deserve a role in the political process, since they fought the independence war. Little matter that the bulk of the present military leadership , including General Ershad himself, are repatriates from Pakistan, where they were confined at gunpoint inside the cantonments during the independence war.
Since then, the 70,000-man Bangladesh Army has not stayed in its barracks for long. In the country's 12 years of independence, there have been 18 successful or attempted coups. The most recent was Ershad's on March 24, 1982.
Thus far, the opposition politicians - despite two months of government-sponsored talks - have refused to help Ershad legitimize his rule. So have the students, the intellectuals, and the extraordinarily sluggish bureaucracy.
Barely able to mask his disdain for the country's traditional ''urban politics'' and the Dhaka elite, Ershad has tried wooing the political establishment at one moment and ignoring it the next. He has tried to transcend the establishment, appealing to the countryside, where in the often-flooded Ganges River basin, 90 percent of Bangladesh's 100 million people live.
Whether or not he has improved their living standards during his two-year rule is, according to pundits, too early to say. But in the long run Bangladeshis should benefit, say Western officials, from the General's economic thrust - the first serious effort in a decade to breathe life into the country's moribund industries.
He has reduced the public sector's hold on a fledgling economy from 17 areas to six. He has denationalized
nearly 100 cotton, textile, and jute mills, selling most back to their original owners. Many are doing quite well. Two of six banks have reverted to the private sector. But political uncertainty, an archaic system of administration, and endemic, Byzantine intrigue have combined to impede foreign capital investment by inhibiting private investors from launching new industries.
The International Monetary Fund, after a 1981 cancellation of special drawing rights, has returned to Bangladesh with a $73 million loan, after the military government acceded to rigid financial guidelines aimed at cutting inflation, reducing subsidies and the balance-of-payments deficit, and securing an economic growth rate of 3 percent a year.
But Bangladesh remains a one-product economy. Jute accounts for 62 percent of export earnings, cushioned by $650 million in remittances from workers in the Gulf, who now number some 600,000, with an additional 10,000 to 15,000 going every month.
The regime thus far has refused to bow to Western pressure to revise a sensible ban on the import of useless drugs. Although this continues as a minor irritant in its relations with Washington, American aid to Dhaka reached $170 million this year - half in Public Law 480 food assistance, the rest for population control programs and rural development.
''Our efforts, like those of the Americans,'' said one international aid official, ''correlate with the government's three main priorities. . . . Having said that,'' he continued cynically, ''they've just bought three DC-10s.''
There are also disdainful reminders from Dhaka's intellectual and cultural elite that, in line with what they call narrow cantonment thinking, the military , in one of its first official acts, ran punctuality patrols in the offices of civilian bureaucrats. It also expended valuable man-hours in painting all of Dhaka's buses blue. All trucks became the mandatory martial-law yellow, and once-colorful, artistically chaotic designs on taxis were covered with regimental black.
Yet, it did cut inflation to 11.5 percent last year, and, in 1983, foreign exchange reserves reached $420 million, the largest Bangladesh has ever had.
Nearly $2 billion is still needed annually, however, to fill the breach in the balance-of-payments account, and Bangladesh, for the coming decade, will depend on international support.
Whether Ershad's opponents will give him the tranquil political environment necessary to build an economic base is problematic, Western officials say.
Although a generally benign military ruler by third-world standards, pro-US Ershad showed in February and November last year, during large-scale, antigovernment demonstrations, that he was prepared to unleash the most Draconian measures empowered by martial law.
His quest for the presidency could be a lonely route. And if he stumbles, if demonstrators continue taking to the streets, the history of Bangladesh is a reminder that there will be yet another general waiting in the wings.