Bangladesh's general-cum-poet tries to become a president
Struggle of life and death. The path ahead which is dark, the river which breaks its banks, the weary travellers who fall back have to be set firmly on their feet. From ''Light the Golden Lamp''by H.M. Ershad, May 24, 1983Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The poem could be a tribute to a Bangladeshi village or to the author himself , the military leader of this South Asian nation.
President and chief martial-law administrator Hussain Muhammad Ershad is waging a personal struggle. He is an Army general battling both the memory of two charismatic predecessors and a divided corps of military officers.
He is also struggling with a more basic question that pervades Ban-gladeshi life: ''Are we Bengalis or are we Muslims?''
It has not always been clear if the general-cum-poet has been a military ruler representing himself or the front-man for a military junta, composed of a complex aggregate of hawks and doves, of Islamic fundamentalists and anti-Pakistan Bengalis who fought the 1971 war of independence.
One thing is clear, however. The general is part of an elitist force of Bengali generals who have long tipped the country's political balance, even before 1971.
Soft-spoken and gentle one moment, capable of ruthlessness the next, the enigmatic Ershad has proved a chameleon to both foe and friend. He assigned himself Draconian powers when he seized control of government in March 1982. The coup was bloodless and long-awaited.
Since then, he has used his limitless powers twice. He permitted political activity last November then when large-scale, anti-government demonstrations erupted on the streets. Then, having dispensed that freedom, he abruptly reined it in. On Feb. 29, he announced he would allow political activity to resume on March 26, in time for elections for the presidency and parliament on May 27.
Today he says he is happiest helicoptering among the 68,000 villages dotting the Bangladeshi countryside - villages whose harsh poverty is the focus of the general's national planning and where 75 percent of the landmass is flooded during the yearly monsoon.
Here in Bangladesh's heartland, the general who would like to become an elected president is attempting to fashion a populist image that would give him a much-needed political base. Forging ahead with a controversial program of devolving power from the capital of Dacca to the countryside, through 470 newly established upazilla councils, General Ershad is quite clear that he hopes to build a county-level apparatus that would put Tammany Hall to shame.
With their own budgets, taxing powers, and developmental plans, the upazillas are clearly aimed at denuding the power of the central parliament and weakening the traditionally urban, political party base.
The politicians have protested. So have the hawkish generals who believe politics should be laid to rest. So have the notorious middlemen of the capital, fattened by commissions for development plans initiated by the central government.
Nonetheless, the general whom most political observers underestimated continues pushing on, though lacking the charisma of those who served before him and lacking the rhetoric so indispensable to lighting the political spark. He also lacks a power base outside the Army.
Unlike many other third-world military leaders, General Ershad has never attempted to build a personality cult. No oversized billboards with his likeness cry out from Dacca's broad, treeless avenues. (The trees were perfunctorily felled by one of his many predecessors, who feared assassination threats.)