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, 1983

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.)

Through a delicate and at times potentially explosive balancing act, this soldier-poet has reportedly neutralized a corps of majors and captains clamoring for Islamic reform. He has assuaged the hawks within the Army by offering them a power scheme. And part-and-parcel of the same bargain, he has placated a handful of military doves by announcing a 1984 timetable for elections, albeit under the watchful gaze of martial law.

A year ago, General Ershad tested the waters for transforming Bangladesh into an Islamic state. It was a disaster, and he quickly pulled back.

He talked of introducing Arabic into the local schools. He also proposed changing the character of Martyrs' Day, a national holiday commemorating an anti-Pakistan protest in 1952 which then, as now, was a declaration of national identity and a source of Bengali pride. General Ershad suggested the holiday be given an Islamic flare. Thousands took to the streets in protest. The Army opened fire. Hundreds were injured and at least three died.

As a result, plans for a hoped-for infusion of Saudi Arabian petrodollars were quickly put aside. So an image of a scantily clad Gina Lollobrigida still smiles from a billboard in Dacca Square, and well-heeled teen-agers fill the disco at the Sonargaon Hotel.

As opposed to the far more prudish Pakistanis, General Ershad would not dare think of introducing Islamic Shariah law, which, among other things, bans the sale and consumption of alcohol. He himself is a devout Muslim, but he is a Bengali as well.

A graduate of Dacca University, he joined the Pakistan Army having graduated from India's National Defense College. When Bangladesh launched its war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, Ershad was commanding an infantry batallion in the West Pakistan province of Sind. By the time he returned to what had been East Pakistan, Bangladesh had been born.

Almost unnoticed, in 1978 General Ershad was appointed chief of staff for the Army. He served under then-President Ziaur Rahman, an immensely popular general who was leading the country back to civilian rule. It was Zia's own mutinous Army that gunned him down in June 1981, leaving a power vacuum that, 10 months later, Ershad filled.

Today, the memory of Zia continues to trouble him. Eight months ago, Zia's handsome widow, Khaleda, emerged as a surprisingly charismatic political force.

Khaleda, demanding a return to civilian rule, heads her husband's former party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Ironically, the party was created by the Army precisely for that long-sought transition to civilian rule.

It is clear to pundits here that General Ershad would dearly love to take over the BNP. With it as a vehicle and with the widow of Ziaur Rahman on his side, he just might win an honest presidential election and bring legitimacy to his side.

The usually unflappable general was thus clearly nonplussed when Khaleda, barnstorming the countryside, demanded ''democracy first, generals and presidential elections last.''

In an acerbic speech the following day, Ershad reminded her, ''Your husband too was a chief martial-law administrator, and he, too, became President first.''

It was, in the words of an observer, one of General Ershad's most courageous acts.

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