Our leaders’ penchant for big house

Published : 22 Nov 2010, 01:07 PM
Updated : 22 Nov 2010, 01:07 PM

The dust appears to have settled, at least for now, over Khaleda Zia's Cantonment house. And I thought this is time to take a dispassionate look at the whole saga that seemed to have deflected public attention from more pressing issues afflicting the nation.

I must say that I couldn't help but feel sad for Begum Zia when she wept publicly at a news conference after she was allegedly driven out of her cozy home. It was quite a spectacle to watch the second most powerful (wo)man in the country breakdown under the glare of TV cameras, especially for someone who has earned the nickname "aposh-hin netri" for her resolve, steadfastness and determination fighting against all odds.

But then, of course, it shows that we're all human beings and that we all react to certain personal loss more or less the same way irrespective of our social and financial standing. So it was pretty natural for Begum Zia to behave the way she did instead of appearing calm and resolute when she was forced to leave behind all the memories associated with the house of nearly 40 years.

That said, I must confess that my sympathy for her began to wear off as I kept thinking about the whole episode. She is certainly not the hapless widow burdened with two minor sons and no visible income to sustain her family that prompted then army chief Gen Ershad to give that house along with another big house in upscale Gulshan. (Ershad did it more for political expediency than his sympathy for her. But that's another story.)

Her financial insecurity and supposed helplessness ended nearly 30 years ago when she decided to take the helm of the Bangladesh nationalist Party in 1983. Over the years, she is not known to have suffered any financial setback. In fact, there has been a phenomenal rise in the fortunes of her immediate family members since she first became prime minister in 1991. Not to speak of her two sons who don't seem to have any difficulties marinating their families overseas without any visible sources of income, her brothers and sisters all have very comfortable lifestyles. By the way, the magic wand that transformed their lives never seemed to have touched the immediate family members of Gen. Ziaur Rahman. We actually never heard of his brothers and sisters when Zia was alive. Nor did we hear about Begum Zia's siblings during his time as president.

That is why I think it was unconscionable, repugnant and downright wrong for Begum Zia to stubbornly cling to that house situated on three acres of land, despite the fact that she has another house in Gulshan, in addition to the official residence at Minto Road earmarked for the opposition leader.

In fact, it would have been morally and politically appropriate if she had left voluntarily as soon as the controversy began. She had indeed lost her moral right to live in cantonment after she entered politics. The move perhaps would have won her public sympathy and more importantly, she would have been more accessible to her supporters and workers.

I would also blame her senior party leaders for not advising her to live outside cantonment. But then what would you expect from characters like Barrister Moudud and Khandker Delwar, both known for not having any scruple at all. Just to refresh your memory, Gen Zia sacked Moudud from his cabinet on charges of corruption. Khandker Delwar, on the other hand, reported to have regularly taken food supplies for his house from the Parliament cafeteria during his time as chief whip.

In this context, I would like to thank Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury. He is the only senior BNP leader to have the guts to publicly say that Begum Zia, as a major political figure, should have left the cantonment house and instead live in a public place.

I also found it amusing when Begum Zia called herself 'homeless'. I thought she made a mockery of the hundreds of thousands of genuine homeless people and it was an insult to their sufferings. Frankly, it would have been a great thing for Bangladesh had all its homeless people had the luxury of owning a house in Gulshan like Begum Zia.

I do not know how and when this saga would finally end and I don't think the Supreme Court hearing on Nov 29 would do much to dampen the controversy. What I do know, though, that the vast multitude have no interest in the unfolding drama.

Many think, and rightly so, that the whole affair is nothing but an ugly manifestation of the personal rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia. And I cannot blame them. What the vast majority have come to experience over the years is that these two leaders are more interested in bettering their personal and family members' fortunes than the wellbeing of the common people.

Sheikh Hasina, despite her claim of championing the cause of the have-nots,  also  demonstrated her penchant for big house when as prime minister she awarded herself the ownership of 'Gonobhaban' and another house in Dhanmondi for her sister, Sheikh Hasina. (The subsequent caretaker government cancelled the order for 'Gonobhaban' while the BNP government in 2001 cancelled Rehana's).

So folks, get ready for more drama and more chaos in the coming days. And, rest assured that the turmoil that would ensue with the threat of BNP's "all-out movement" against the government would hardly disrupt the lives of the two 'netris'. They will be safely ensconced in their big houses, served by a retinue of flunkies.

Arshad Mahmud is a senior editor and Washington Correspondent for bdnews24.com.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher