‘The Iron Lady’

bdnews24 desk
Published : 23 March 2019, 03:23 PM
Updated : 23 March 2019, 03:23 PM

Featured image:
2017: Sheikh Hasina at the UN General Assembly. © Saiful Islam Kollol

A record fourth term, but not unexpected. No one — not even the UK's 'The Economist' which often comes up with not-so-well-researched pieces on Bangladesh — predicted Sheikh Hasina wouldn't return to her now-habitual role as prime minister.

The 30 Dec 2018 vote was indeed too predictable. The only dampener to the muted celebrations was the margins by which her nominees won. The numbers – both the margins and members elected – were so unusual that she had to ask her party activists and supporters to keep the volume of the victory orchestra as low as possible.

Doing anything for 10 years at a stretch is surely a habit-forming exercise. Fifteen in all, in two stints since 1996. Pre-teens in December 2008, when she swept to power to begin her second stint as the all-powerful head of government, have known only her as the arbiter of their future. Now add another five years to the tally at the end of the tenure, which takes us to early 2024.

Men and women who are in their early- to mid-20s today will probably find it difficult to imagine anyone else doing the job. In Bangladesh there are 53 million people between the ages of 18 and 35, making up nearly a third of one of the world's most densely populated countries. Any discussion of a successor to the septuagenarian even leaves many seasoned political analysts with no confident guess, let alone an answer. Her Harvard-educated, US-based son? The Canada-based daughter who promotes the cause of special children, locally and globally? Her London-based sister? The now-in-Dhaka nephew whom she, recently, proclaimed publicly to be "my most favourite"? That discussion, one can presume, will wait for another couple of years, at least.

She will be, officially, 76 years of age if and when she completes her current, third consecutive term.

A fifth term, going by the current height of confidence she exudes? Again, probably too early to talk about that. Anything is possible, considering the next-door example of nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia.

… to the height of political power

Her long trek, nearly 40 years as a politician at the top, to the fourth term has been full of turbulence, with the weather often extremely unpredictable. She is a great survivor during the bumpy ride, and those myriad experiences have given her confidence, ruthlessness and, at the same time, the ability to be empathetic to many causes. Throughout her travails, she was all by herself, carrying the baton, with Sheikh Rehana, the only other survivor of the 15 Aug 1975 massacre by the rebel army majors, opting to stay in London for various reasons. Known for her laid-back approach to life while she was a young woman, as her younger sibling so vividly describes with a tinge of humour in the documentary, "A Daughter's Tale", she is now the most hard-working public figure anyone can think of.

The 1996 win was remarkable. That was the Awami League's return after 21 years. That was her first time in government. She made mistakes and, by many indications, had learnt her lessons from the 1991 debacle. But many more remained unlearnt, which she probably realised only after a rout on 1 Oct 2001, an election day she thought would be a cakewalk judging by her body language and certain other actions when she had handed the reins to a retired judge-led caretaker administration months earlier. Many would remember the triumphalist rally she organised in the capital in July that year marking the start of what she apparently thought would be a temporary, 90-day break from the top job.

In just 10 years, she got the second biggest electoral shock of her life.

The 2001 election showed how a civil servant-controlled election management machine could be manipulated even under the so-called neutral caretakers. Hasina sensed it quickly, and so decided, privately, to boycott the vote with just a couple of weeks to go but, as a confidante of the Awami League chief told me at the time, was convinced to stay in the race by at least two caretaker cabinet members who promised that they would take care of her concerns. Little did she know the two could do, even if they really wanted to, very little to change the plans hatched across the administrative cobweb that actually conducted a national election in Bangladesh. She may have remembered the lessons, as well as the treachery by some members in that Latifur Rahman-led unelected interim government in later years, as she prepared for elections in January 2014 and then again in December 2018.

The first real electoral lesson

The 1991 loss had been shocking. Some party stalwarts had already started doling out favours as sure-to-become ministers. The result was a very disturbing wake-up call. She had failed to foresee a force, lurking within the Bangladesh establishment, hell-bent and fully organised to make sure a Hasina-led team was never in government. The 1975 murderers and their backers went all out to galvanise the anti-Awami League elements in all segments of the society — those in the election management process included — to deliver the unexpected. The widow of Lt Gen Ziaur Rahman, the first military ruler and one of those young majors in 1971 who were made military leaders of 12 geographical regions in the armed phase of Bangladesh's long independence movement, which her father led and orchestrated over many years, became the head of government. Even on Election Day, Khaleda Zia was openly talking about the rejection of results until she realised that her party had registered a stunning win she could only have dreamed of. At 46, the housewife-turned-politician was driven to the swearing-in ceremony as a shocked Hasina and tens of millions of her supporters watched in disbelief. Hasina was no strangers to election losses.

In 1986, when her last-minute decision to participate in the parliamentary election shocked many, her party experienced a heavily-rigged election conducted by the henchmen of Bangladesh's second military dictator, Lt Gen HM Ershad. In 1979, she had witnessed, sitting helplessly in a secluded apartment in New Delhi, manipulation in the voting for the country's second parliament, with Lt Gen Zia dictating terms. But 1991 was different. It was a caretaker government, led by the sitting chief justice in an unprecedented but unanimous arrangement given legal cover in a subsequent constitutional amendment, supervising the national election for the first time in the nation's history.

So what went wrong for the party that had led Bangladesh to independence? Awami League, which alleged "subtle rigging" and threatened agitation, began soul-searching after the 1991 debacle.

The rhetoric around rigging charges soon subsided as the change in the form of government received bipartisan support in parliament. Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy with charter changes that gave the prime minister unlimited powers to run the state as head of government, reducing the head of state into a puppet of the leader of the majority party in parliament. BNP's lawyer-ministers, who drafted the constitutional amendment, didn't for a moment consider that the party could lose power some day. Acrimonious debates in and outside parliament marked much of the political atmosphere until it reached a point of no return with the Awami League demanding a non-party caretaker administration. A parliamentary by-election, in 1995, gave all the fuel to the fire already ignited by local and several other by-elections during Khaleda's reign as prime minister.

The party waged a fierce campaign to force the BNP government to agree to introduce, with permanent changes to the constitution, nonparty caretakers to oversee national elections, much in line with the one-off one installed in December 1990, after the ouster of Gen Ershad as a result of a mass revolt triggered jointly by both the major parties.

Even as Hasina's Awami League forced Khaleda to change the constitution, the parliament which gave the stamp of approval to the new law was the result of an undisputedly-farcical election held on 15 Feb 1996. And to top it all, a key leader of the self-confessed 1975 murderers, sacked half colonel Abdur Rashid, was allowed to become the leader of the opposition in that parliament, the sixth in the country's history.

Very soon, it was time for the seventh. Hasina knew she had to make it at any cost on 12 Jun 1996. A second loss to Khaleda's BNP in five years would have all but wiped off her party, with the 1975 killers of the likes of Rashid being handed national leadership roles. Twenty-one years was already too long a time to survive repeated assaults in an immensely adverse political environment.

Series of attempts on life

There were at least eight direct and serious attempts on Hasina's life between late 1987 and 2004, apart from occasional gunshots at her Dhanmondi Road 32 home in the 1980s even when Hasina was in residence.

Bullets repeatedly missed Hasina. On 24 Jan 1988, in Chittagong's Laldighi Maidan, gunshots sprayed from all corners killed at least 30 of her party activists. Hasina escaped, miraculously. A second attempt was made almost immediately afterwards as she was leaving the party rally of hundreds of thousands.

The ones after the return of the right-wing forces under the umbrella of the BNP-led four-party alliance were far more lethal. The grenades thrown at her on 21 Aug 2004 in front of her party headquarters in downtown Dhaka were deadlier than anything seen in a public rally in Bangladesh. At least 22 died, including Ivy Rahman, the wife of a top party leader who would be president five years later. Scores, including Hasina herself, suffered injuries to varying degrees. Many still carry splinters while Hasina has since required periodic medical attention for damage to her ears, among other injuries.

She finally made it in the June 1996 vote. But the road to the polls under non-party caretakers wasn't smooth.

Pro-Hasina professional groups created a platform to garner support from anyone who was anyone in the country and was willing to take the plunge. Civil servants joined the Janatar Mancha or people's platform making Khaleda's departure inevitable in favour of what Hasina demanded – a non-party interim cabinet to oversee national elections, which she herself would disband exactly 15 years later under different circumstances and with a different set of arguments.

Rebranding and makeover

The 1991 setback had led to a call for a party rebranding. Some even went to the extent of suggesting Hasina herself needed a makeover, much like what Margaret Thatcher went through under the supervision of public relations company Satchi & Satchi. Hasina needed to match Khaleda — often glamorously clad in glitzy French chiffon sarees, a major upgrade from the middle-class lifestyle that she had as the wife of the otherwise frugal military officer-turned-dictator. With well over half the population living below the poverty line in the 1980s and early 1990s, queens and kings in those poorly-made Dhaka films still attracted audiences in theatre halls across Bangladesh. So did the housewife turned prime minister. The colonial hangover of a large section of the poverty-stricken population helped her cause. Even the much-hated Gen Ershad, widely perceived as the most corrupt ruler in Bangladesh's history, was seen by his constituents in the northern Rangpur region as a royal who had some 'usual kingly habits and flaws', as a Rangpurite put it when the fallen dictator returned, within three months of a disgraceful exit from power, to all five parliamentary seats he contested.

A look on Khaleda as PM

At only 36, the widow of the slain general was clearly enjoying her new-found freedom following the May 1981 assassination of her husband. There was a massive shift from being a middle-class housewife to one with the opulence made available by her party's wealthy members; life only got better after the 1991 victory while her ministers ran the show with a reasonable degree of independence as she took little interest in serious governance or public policy issues.

As a shell-shocked Hasina was smarting from the election defeat, proceedings in the seventh parliament produced more cacophony than substance with poor handling by a speaker who would, in less than six months, be made president. Abdur Rahman Biswas, whose portrait hangs in the Bangabhavan alongside other presidents of the republic, was a collaborator of the Pakistan army in 1971.

Hasina had all the reasons to be jittery. A five-year wait seemed like an eternity. While she continued her campaign to challenge the government's actions on many different fronts, Khaleda, while presiding over the state proceedings, sowed the seeds of many future discords. Her son Tarique Rahman was hardly visible but wielded enough clout to help personal friends win lucrative government contracts, acquiring in the process the taste of real political power, which reached a different level at the second BNP opportunity that was 2001-06.

The 1991 election produced another great irony. Ershad bounced back through the same ballot boxes he had made mockery of in all possible ways when he was an unaccountable head of government for nearly nine years, but still landed in jail. Three decades on, the prospect of going back to jail still scares him more than anything, and he finds it difficult to forgive Khaleda for those five years in Dhaka Central Jail, the now-abandoned prison complex that is now home to the former prime minister serving 10 years for corruption. The Awami League, in later years especially after the December 2008 win, took full advantage of Ershad's fears about returning to the life of a prisoner. A great lover of the good life, Ershad needed to be a Hasina ally in return for the inaction from government prosecutors regarding his many corruption charges.

The former general's fears were such that, when asked by this writer weeks before the 2001 election if an alliance with the Awami League was a possibility under an arrangement that would make him president, he likened the secluded high-security presidential palace to a prison. "Listen, I was the most powerful president in this country. I'll never be (a figurehead) president and live in the Bangabhavan. That's a jail-khana (prison house)." From 1982-90, he was indeed extremely powerful, could do anything he wanted to and get away with it. He was not accountable to anyone, not even to himself or his conscience — in fact he has not been known to have any, which is what everyone tried to capitalise on. Tarique Rahman met and tried to woo him before the planned 22 Jan 2007 election, which was later abandoned after the military-orchestrated 1/11 caretaker takeover. Two years later, Hasina was clearly a better choice, and Ershad joined her Grand Alliance that won the election by a landslide.

Over the following 10 years, Ershad quite often reminded everyone of his "cancel-my-last-announcement" habit (the anachronistic acronym was a reference to CMLA, which stood for Chief Martial Law Administrator, the position the then army chief appointed himself to on 24 Mar 1982 and in which he made a supreme mockery of the state's decision-making process). Hasina played far smarter than the mischievous former dictator, keeping him in her political cage but sparing him the Old Dhaka prison — his worst nightmare.

Following Hasina's defeat in the first post-Ershad election, the party's handling of the media was criticised, among other issues. In one meeting, in early 1991, this writer was privy to discussions as the youngest member of a four-strong team that took a detour through the small gate that connected the neighbouring house that is now part of the museum that preserves the memories of Bangladesh's independence leader. (The monumental home to Bangladesh's first first-family is now a sure thing on the itinerary of visiting dignitaries on state visits — from the Indian prime minister to the US secretary of state to Hollywood celebrity Angelina Jolie.)

Hasina, with her party's then publicity secretary Mohammad Nasim by her side, listened and nodded in approval when respected journalist Waheedul Haque, once a fearless critic of the 1972-75 handling of state affairs by her father, suggested she change the way the media is interacted with. Waheedul Haque, like many other liberal intellectuals, by then had come to realise (after the 1975 events and the subsequent martial law) that Hasina's Awami League was a much better option than any other in protecting secular values and all things Bengali. She was clearly impressed by arguments put forward by the man who gave birth to many great Bengali institutions, including the Pahela Boishakh celebrations, now probably the biggest festival on Bangladesh's national calendar which cuts across religions and socio-economic classes.

Transformation and the winner takes it all

A keen watcher has noted the evolution. A still-grieving young woman in her 30s when she returned home on 17 May 1981, famously-photographed in front of that Dhanmondi house raising her hands in prayer and seeking retribution, she quickly changed into a feisty politician dodging not just often state-sponsored assassins' bullets but also navigating, both gracefully and ruthlessly, through the machinations of the wily party elders she called uncles. Kamal Hossain, her father's young law and foreign minister, was sorted and reduced to insignificance; Abdul Kader Siddique, the maverick 1971 war hero, lost relevance; Abdur Razzaque, who once claimed to be the political heir to the independence leader in an almost direct challenge to Hasina's role as the successor, eventually fell into line.

The latter, allegedly alongside three others, took one final swipe, in the 2007-08 army days and failed spectacularly. Hasina won decisively on 29 Dec 2008, and took it all.

The last of the party titans learnt the hard way that it was futile to fight her. The emergency-time "reformers", a euphemism for the four front-ranking conspirators or collaborators of the 2007-08 military regime with a civilian face, were all ignored when she formed her Cabinet in January 2009. Chairing the parliamentary committees was clearly below their perceived stature in the party, leaving the disgruntled lot to some not-so-public living room activity. But it is difficult to keep things under wraps in Dhaka's not-so-large social circles. A couple of newspapers or more failed to carry forward the agenda. The likes of Amir Hossain Amu, the late Suranjit Sengupta and Tofail Ahmed — having failed and been caught with their pants down — apparently stopped conspiring and made unceremonious returns to their Cabinet roles, much later than the 6 Jan 2009 swearing-in of her surprise cabinet.

After the 2008 election she was soon the undisputed leader of the party once again. Even the 25-26 Feb Pilkhana carnage could not make any dent to her spirits or her hold on state power. Who else in Bangladesh would have the guts to go and hear those angry young officers speak out loudly at that cantonment hall? Anyone who got to listen to the leaked, unofficial recordings of the proceedings in the Senakunja would bet 'absolutely no one'. Flanked by very loyal lieutenant Matia Chowdhury she listened, responded to emotional as well as not-very-courteous calls for punishment of the perpetrators. She came back and acted quietly but decisively in the days and months that followed. She showed, emphatically, she was not ready to take any nonsense from those unruly men in uniform. As someone wrote somewhere a few years later about the prospect of an extra-constitutional intervention: "she is twice the man all the generals in the Bangladesh army would be put together". Propaganda and loud conspiracy theories did not destabilise her to an extent that would throw her off track.

But it did damage her fledgling government. Many of her plans — maybe some of the reform agenda — were shelved. The late February events, with 50-odd army officers perishing in the line of duty, did actually unnerve her 50-day-old government.

Once again, she bounced back and reined in rebels of all descriptions anywhere in Bangladesh. Hasina knew the tasks at hand and got down to business in no time.

Key achievements

The 2001-06 BNP-Jamaat government was widely blamed for its failure to augment electricity generation. Khaleda's son Tarique and one of his friends with a "businessman" tag, if anecdotes from power generation entrepreneurs were anything to go by, nipped all these projects in the bud. While their personal greed took precedence over national interest, there was not enough electricity on the national grid to fuel the factories or feed middle-class homes even in the capital Dhaka; transmission poles were produced by private manufacturers and procured by the government but no electricity was generated, creating a problem that would probably take decades for Bangladesh to solve.

Hasina and her energy advisor Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, a 1971 war hero and a co-accused in a corruption case instituted by the military-dictated caretakers, plotted a quick-fix, criticised by many as too costly but hailed by others as a fair-enough price for much-needed growth and development. A new law was enacted giving immunity to the decision-makers against any possible violation of government procurement rules. And it worked, despite many allegations and credible instances of nepotism.

The numbers speak for themselves

Per capita income more than trebled, electricity output quadrupled, total investment sextupled, the size of the national budget increased more than seven-fold and national revenue grew nearly five-and-a-half times. Even in 2010-11, inflation was not so flattering, at nearly 11 percent; it came down to almost half at the end of the financial year to June 2018. Forex reserves shot up by a staggering 10 times from when her rival Khaleda left government in late 2006. External trade flourished, going up by well over 200 percent, despite prolonged shutdown enforced by the opposition from 2012 through to the first half of 2015.

Dogged determination

One of the key 2008 campaign promises she had to deliver on was the trial of 1971 war criminals. She had already started the process, stalled though by the 2001-06 BNP-Jamaat regime, of bringing to book her father's killers. A law indemnifying the 15 Aug 1975 assassination of her entire family, save the two surviving siblings, had duly been struck down as soon as she was at the helm in 1996. The appeals process at the highest court was kept hanging by the succeeding BNP regime for years, which she restored in no time. Her second five-year term saw the arrogant assassins, who were rewarded or rehabilitated by Gen Zia and then Gen Ershad continuing with all that, sent to the gallows, barring those already dead or absconding. Some of the 1975 carnage convicts are refuged in countries such as Canada or the UK where capital punishment is forbidden but she hasn't stopped chasing them.

The early days of her second term saw her prepare for the big challenge — the trial of these war criminals, many of whom were now top leaders of right-wing political parties, having already served as ministers or members of parliament. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the party whose entire top brass led the list of the accused, posed the biggest challenge. The party had money, accumulated over nearly 35 years since 1975 through burgeoning business conglomerates as well as support from some middle-eastern backers, and a militant political cadre with the ability to cause mayhem on the streets across the country. They — officially in alliance with BNP — showed their mettle almost throughout Hasina's 2009-14 term. Hundreds died in clashes, arson, terror attacks. Government estimates put the cost to the national economy at billions of dollars. In one audacious attempt, on 5 May 2013, exactly three months after the launch of the Ganojagaran Mancha demanding death to the war criminals when a tribunal gave Jamaat's Abdul Quader Molla life in jail, they planned to barge into the Secretariat, the seat of government, from a massive rally of madrasa students in downtown Motijheel under the banner of Hefazat-e-Islam. Intelligence had it that Jamaat activists in large numbers lay hidden in the huge rally, ready to pounce on the target. The government responded decisively as darkness descended on the capital's business district to disperse a crowd of tens of thousands of apparently innocent students with stun guns. One of the smartest such operations to date in the country resulted in injuries to many of the panicked village students running for safety. Regular police contingents, with no live bullets, were denied a lead role in the operation amid fears there could be angry retaliation for provocative attacks on, and the killings of, their colleagues in the preceding days.

The opposition propaganda machine sought to seize upon the 5 May episode, using nondescripts. Claims of 2,500 deaths proved a bit too much for the group that came up with the number. A credible figure would have probably worked.

As the opposition rode on Hefazat to try to deliver a deadly blow on Hasina's hold on power, the Jamaat-haters with direct blessings from the Hasina administration opened their own front — at Dhaka's Shahbagh Square. Until a government appeal, after an antedated change in law, ensured death penalty for Molla and his eventual execution, the Shahbagh Mancha continued to draw a staggering number of people — nonparty but not apolitical. The movement eventually lost its clout when, apparently, Hasina withdrew her support. It became clear to even those that had no clue about the behind-the-scenes arrangements providing succour and security to the tens of thousands who kept overnight vigil for weeks. Once again, Hasina showed she was the one calling the shots.

As Shahbagh rose in protest unprecedented in recent history, Hefazat and some media outfits fought the proxy war for Jamaat, inciting violent reprisals, resulting in several brutal murders of bloggers who campaigned for the death penalty for the war crimes convicts. Hasina's response to those assassinations was less than convincing to the activists. To a highly-religious Hasina, the "atheist" bloggers, as some of her supporters sought to argue, probably went a bit too far. Here, the politician Hasina, surely, weighed the options and their consequences too. She was more than just pragmatic.

Amid the Shapla Square, Motijheel drama, Hasina met a team of Hefazat men at her official home. The meeting shocked many of her supporters while others saw political maturity in the way she attempted to handle the far-right group. Five years later, as she prepared for a third straight election victory, the Hefazat supremo Allama Shafi and his team gave her a "historic" reception at Dhaka's Suhrawardy Udyan calling her a "mother" protecting their cause. The prime minister had just ordered, as she received the Hefazat chief at her official residence, recognition of their Qawmi Madrasa degrees, putting them on par with the ones awarded by the nation's universities teaching humanities, social and natural and applied sciences. Previous governments, even Khaleda's, did not find any logic behind the Qawmi demand. Gen Ershad, the wily peddler who made Islam the state religion in a move that enraged secularists, wasn't convinced either during his 1982-90 despotic rule. Hasina, if anything, made things difficult for the pro-BNP and pro-Jamaat elements in Hefazat. Her secularist supporters responded with muted criticism or kept absolutely quiet as she hobnobbed with the extreme right that violently opposed her policy to give women equal rights in inheritance, among others. Hasina had backed down in 2009 as the Qawmis took to the streets and noisily announced their arrival on the political stage. In the years that followed, school text books saw significant changes in line with the Islamists' wishes. Was the devout, practising Muslim trying to erase her anti-Islam stigma? Necessary, in a country that has more than halved its non-Muslim population to just 10 percent over the decades? Or was it another ruthless pursuit of a goal she needed to reach, given that she has learnt her lessons in the nearly 40 years at the party helm?

Hasina made things difficult for the media. All of a sudden, there were too many TV stations, all doing news and current affairs, but none strong enough to stand out or make any impact. 'Play as a team' if you want to be counted or noticed seemed to be the message for the news outlets. Even the Internet-based publishers with a much larger footprint were struggling. The information ministry solicited applications to launch a licensing process attracting thousands of applications from Internet-only news publishers but decided to keep them waiting for an indefinite period. As for other forms of media such as radio and TV, she ticked or unticked who would own or manage new outlets. As the one distributing favours at will, she has always been right in bragging at media briefings that "I gave. And I can take away too". Newly-emerged media barons — mostly businessmen or turned into ones — had all the reasons to be careful.

In control but careful

After all the chaos in her second term as prime minister, Hasina became extra careful and wasn't taking any chances. After all the murders and mayhem created by the opponents of the war crimes trial, she kept all her cards close to her chest to ensure there wasn't even the remotest possibility of a 2001 repeat. The 5 Jan 2014 election produced 153 MPs without requiring a vote at all. Questions raised about the election's legitimacy were discussed and debated in the media, with the BNP-led opposition leading calls for a re-election. A loud call for an indefinite shutdown across Bangladesh eventually gave way to life as usual throughout the country. Congratulatory messages from some foreign governments were only delayed by days or weeks; India led with statements highlighting the constitutional necessity to hold the election, the opposition or no opposition. Hasina and her government soon got down to some serious business, only once in a while spewing some tough rhetoric that only handed Khaleda and her party some much-needed space in the mainstream media.

Throughout her life as a politician, Hasina has baffled analysts as well as her rivals. What transpired between her and the ruling generals in the 1980s remained a mystery. Was her participation in the 1986 election part of a strategy or a mistake or "an act of betrayal" as her detractors at the time charged her with? History will take some more time to pronounce a verdict. A victory in 1991 would be a vindication of that decision. The 22-party 22 Mar procession that marched through the streets of Dhaka raised high hopes in 1986 about Ershad being pushed to a corner. Talk of a Hasina-Khaleda joint assault with each running in 150 constituencies scared the general into changing the law, restricting one single candidate to a maximum of five seats. Both leaders of the two major alliances decided to boycott the vote but Hasina changed her mind at the last minute. That was late March 1986. Rival students clashed on the Dhaka University campus, with her opponents calling her an Ershad 'collaborator', killing one on 30 Mar.

As leader of the official opposition in a parliament that survived only two years, she often took to the streets and was soon leading the oust-Ershad campaign alongside Khaleda's BNP as well as an alliance of the left parties. The 1988 election, boycotted by both the major parties, was a bit of a joke — both in terms of turnout and the kind of people assembled to play the official opposition. And in two years, in early December 1990, Ershad was out of office, lodged in a special jail in Dhaka's wealthy Gulshan neighbourhood, a caretaker government formed, an election that Hasina took for granted but lost, another five years out in the cold before the ceremonial motorcade took her to the Bangabhavan in June 1996.

Strange bedfellows

In the early 1990s she forged an unlikely alliance — obviously not the kind Khaleda did to secure what turned out to be a stunning comeback in 2001 — with even Jamaat-e-Islami to garner support for a caretaker administration to oversee national election. She needed to stop BNP from prolonging or perpetuating its hold on power through the 1996 election. But did that justify the alliance or at least sitting side by side with the likes of Ghulam Azam, a man who later narrowly escaped hanging for war crimes because of his age?

She wielded so much street power at the time that the general's wife succumbed to the pressure and amended the constitution to make way for a nonparty interim government installed in 1996. (The 15 Feb election that saw a 1975 murderer enter parliament as leader of the official opposition only hardened Hasina's resolve. Ironically, that parliament cleared the constitutional changes needed for the election-time caretakers she had been pressing for.)

Fast forward to December 2018. With 77 percent of the total votes cast, she and her allies won all but seven seats. Her opponents called it the worst election in credibility terms.

The quality of the 30 Dec election has been questioned by the entire opposition in chorus and will continue to be questioned for a long time to come. As results came in with constituency after constituency going the Awami League way by massive margins, a senior left-wing politician branded the vote "worse than any other in Bangladesh's history".

Worse than the country's first military ruler (then) Maj Gen Zia's 1977 referendum? His 1979 parliamentary election in which current president Abdul Hamid, who actually won by all accounts, was denied victory through doctored official documents after he reportedly refused to become a minister in the still-serving General's cabinet? Worse than the Lt Gen Ershad referendum in 1985? His parliamentary elections in 1986 and 1988? Worse than the 15 Feb 1996 vote that Khaleda presided over?

For the president of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, Mujahidul Islam Selim, a former ally of Hasina, answers to all the questions were an instant, and angry, 'yes' in a 3am live interview. His party's 74 candidates could only poll a meagre 0.01 or less percent of the vote with all of them alleging irregularities unseen in their lifetime. (Their best performance in 1991 brought them slightly over 1 percent of votes with five candidates returning). None, however, went to the courts set up to hear charges of rigging.

Serious — with legal ramifications— discussions can only begin after the vanquished put together some credible evidence that courts in Bangladesh will take into cognisance.

In 2019, the agenda must be setting the priorities right. Much of 2018 was spent focusing on an election that eventually went erroneously right for Hasina.

At the end of a decade, she is undoubtedly all set to prove a left-wing friend-turned-foe horribly wrong. Ayub Khan, Pakistan's terrible dictator, was ousted just three months after celebrating the so-called decade of development, Selim, the Communist leader, warned Hasina on election night, suggesting a similar fate awaited Bangladesh's longest-serving head of government.

The quality of her governance has come under scrutiny at home and abroad but little did she care about what others, including countries such as the United States, thought of her actions.

Hillary Clinton, the then US secretary of state, called to lobby for personal friend Muhammad Yunus, the sacked chief executive of the micro-lender Grameen Bank which both the military rulers helped found (with the second one issuing a martial law ordinance on the advice of his finance minister AMA Muhith who also served Hasina in the same capacity for 10 years) and the 1996-2001 Hasina administration went all the way to protect the former Chittagong University teacher amid a serious onslaught from donors such as Norway's NORAD. Later, after the so-called banker-to-the-poor's failed bid to float a political party with support from the ruling military-controlled caretakers while a ban was enforced on all political leaders, the 2006 Nobel peace co-laureate was soon a villain who sought to vilify both the top political leaders. His 2007-08 adventure was forgotten by neither, although Khaleda was persuaded by party comrades to side with him in a clearly politically-expedient ploy when a Danish documentary-maker exposed his 1990s antics regarding donor money handling and Hasina launched a tirade against the "usurer". In a battle between Hasina's weak PR machine and Yunus' excellent networking skills, the showman won, with support he galvanised from his high-profile international friends he cultivated across the world over many years. But at home, he lost his job as bank chief executive for far exceeding the age limit prescribed by the regulators. Yunus sold his regulator-enforced exit as unlawful removal from his rightful role as Grameen Bank CEO. His friends abroad believed him and kept issuing statements that in Bangladesh fell on deaf ears. He challenged the loss of his job when he was seven years past any other bank head in Bangladesh in a protracted legal procedure, taking it up to the Supreme Court, but eventually lost. Hasina's team failed to explain the real story to a group of influential Yunus sympathisers on the world stage.

A second US secretary of state called to stop the hanging of convicted war criminals. So did other international figures including a high-profile head of state of a Muslim country. She answered the calls, listened, but went ahead doing what she thought was right. All of them, all top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, had to walk to the gallows. All the millions spent on lobbyists in Washington DC, London and other capitals went down the drain as she remained resolute in executing the 1971 war criminals. In what would be seen as a major contribution to Bangladesh's standing in the international community, Hasina changed the long-held perceptions about Western influence on the country. Not only has she defied or ignored pressure put through diplomatic channels, publicly or privately, through human rights groups in their countless statements, through multilateral lenders such as the World Bank, through international media some of which have been describing her as an 'Iron Lady', especially since her latest election victory, the gritty politician has gone to great lengths in proving that she can deliver too.  The mega projects such as bridging the mighty Padma (funded by China) or reviving the decades-old Rooppur nuclear plant (supported by Russia) or going ahead with the coal-fired power plant (backed by India) near the world heritage site of the Sundarbans are some examples of the dogged determination of a workaholic prime minister. She chose to ignore international friends and warnings of a debt trap while welcoming massive Chinese funds that have given birth to projects allegedly with costs much higher than usual. Hasina, according to many, has been superb in doing the delicate balancing act involving China, India, Russia as well as the Western powers, including the US and the European Union — the latter two being the biggest destinations of Bangladesh's exports.

Work, work, work

Hasina is indeed a workaholic. A four-hour sleep is followed by special night prayers in the small hours in addition to the five mandatory prayers. Her staff keeps rotating, but hers is an 18/20-hour shift. Much younger civil servants, whose retirement age she raised to 59 from 57, simply cannot cope with her speed. As she grows older, she apparently gets quicker.

At 72, Hasina looks to have the stamina of a 45-year-old and seems to have the athleticism of a 30-year-old. Immaculately wrapping herself in elegant sarees, she at the same time displays the poise of an elderly lady when she appears at countless events every week — now more often through video connectivity — reaching out to millions live and many more through the digital media, both mainstream and social.

By contrast, her archrival, now languishing in jail, would start her day in the evening at the party chairperson's office keeping scores of news reporters in wait, often until midnight, for their top line. The other lady, at home, is still awake after a long day browsing through dozens of files presented to her for policy or administrative decisions.

That's about running the government. In party affairs, she picks committees, names office bearers. Procedures follow her, she doesn't have to follow them. More often than not, she is officially authorised to make those decisions on behalf of the party central committee. But one has to acknowledge her party's constitution is more democratic in nature than the other major party, the BNP.

There are hundreds of anecdotes about her amazing micromanagement skills. She probably personally knows the key party functionaries in all upazilas or sub-districts — which number nearly 500. There lies her strength, and the party rank and file are well aware of that rare quality.

One diehard supporter recalls one particular episode — in a 10am-10pm town hall meeting in northern Rangpur, she heard almost everyone and answered each and every question. "It was gruelling. Only prayer breaks (she took) as far as I remember."

One may not agree with all her decisions but all her civil servants admire her passion to deliver that she deems right. Much like her father? She surely does not possess the extraordinary oratory skills of the man who led the creation of Bangladesh as a modern nation state through a bloody war of independence but, to many with firsthand experience of watching both as well as outsiders, she probably has proven herself to be a better governor. She will be a very, very hard act to follow.

It's not just micro-managing to the lowest local government level, which is not really considered an admirable quality in most democratic cultures, it's also the wide range of areas she covers, again all by herself, with an astonishing attention to detail.

She is known to have dealt with the warring National Press Club factions ahead of its election, with quarrelling groups of pro-government Dhaka University teachers who can't decide on their panel before an election for powerful administrative positions, disputes between those seeking to lead business lobby groups. Healthcare issues of national celebrities of all descriptions require her attention. Even, as one anecdote has it, an utterly insignificant Dhaka Club executive committee election recently stole some of her time!

Some say some of these factional feuds are seen to work to her advantage. She is needed by everyone, everywhere, and for everything. And she responds, happily in most cases, and angrily in some instances, as she helps settle the dust.

Her solutions or decisions stem from her own sense of purpose or her understanding of what is right under the circumstances.

So was it the right thing to do the way the 30 Dec vote was conducted? That's the loudest question that 2018 produced on the last day of the year.

Too forgiving?

Hasina very often forgives but rarely does she forget betrayals. And she has often baffled supporters when she surprisingly rewarded even the worst of betrayers or those who had drawn their knives to stab her in the back. The most recent episode in Bangladesh's political history that exposed many back-stabbers was 2007-08, when she spent 11 months in solitary confinement.

Bangladesh, in its 47 years, has produced many kinds of "Razakars", colloquially the other name for betrayers or perpetrators of acts of treachery of various kinds — in political, social, public or private life. Razakars were one of the 1971 militia groups named after legendary forces in the early days of Islam but who, during Bangladesh's independence war, collaborated with the Pakistani army in its brutalities in the name of protecting Islam. She has punished the top leaders of the 1971 Razakars and other militia groups but, shockingly to many, she allowed, knowingly or unknowingly, many of the Razakars of 1971, 1982-90 (the Ershad martial law era) and then of the 2007-08 military days to infiltrate her inner circles.

Daring defender …

Hasina is her best defender, at home or abroad. Not even her Oxford-educated former Harvard professor Gowher Rizvi, her international advisor with Cabinet status, is good enough. Her opponents are better speakers, more eloquent and more resourceful when they propagate against her. They have more friends or even have their people in right places, more so globally, to advance their agenda — making her look like a villain everyone should detest. At home, ironically, her confidence that media is controlled by her own people is misplaced.  Here, there are more things happening between what she thinks is happening and what actually is.

While the economic and social development numbers look fabulous for her to leave a legacy any politician would be proud of anywhere in the world, her administration's pursuit of quantity rather than quality has blighted much of her achievement. Not much has progressed, in real or perceived terms, in such crucial areas as quality of healthcare or education or public services such as transport. Quality of governance in terms of rule of law and law enforcement is a question often raised by even her loyal supporters privately.

Investments — of the kind that would make qualitative upgrades possible — in police, public hospitals and schools have been less than adequate, although she has done better than any of her predecessors. One has to admit she has increased spending on social welfare significantly ever since she first took the reins in 1996.

Taxpayers continue to raise questions about value for money when it comes to service delivery. Things are way better than they were in the 1990s and early 2000s but way inferior to the kind of middle-income nation that Bangladesh hopes to become soon.

Hasina's handling of the civil service is less than what she was capable of doing. Pleasing people with bargaining power has more often been the priority than serving the real, long-term purpose. The result has been appallingly poor — there are way too many senior civil servants with high rank but not enough positions to match their status. Chaos is a euphemism to describe the situation, as hundreds with very senior rank are tasked with jobs meant for much lower-level officers. In the armed forces too, there are more senior officers than their organograms can possibly absorb.

Her anti-terror drive has earned her plaudits; many even supported her extra-legal offensive against drug dealers, but she took the most credit, globally at least, by hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees fleeing their homes and the murderous Myanmar military. The 'Iron Lady', ironically, has also been described as the 'Mother of Humanity' for her Rohingya compassion.

Eye for an eye approach

Right reactionary elements grew stronger in the many years since 1975, acquiring not just political power but also accumulating massive wealth, building business empires, expanding their footprints across the cultural, social and media spectrum. So she wanted people from her camp to match them or even surpass them. New banks came, new TV licences were given, new insurance companies were born. Lucrative power projects went to people she liked, trusted or wanted to reward for work she appreciated. Even many with strong, proven track record for trying to damage or destroy her when she was in vulnerable situations were surprisingly pulled into under her umbrella. Some of the instances were so blatant that her actions saddened many of her staunchest supporters. Many were made ministers to the utter dismay of those who suffered because of those perpetrators' actions, many were handed positions they themselves had never dreamt of—all these sent wrong signals to a large number of loyal, selfless well-wishers, many of whom made sacrifices to promote her cause. Was it just an "end justifies the means" approach from someone who herself suffered so much?

To many, she has made it, achieving most of her goals despite her failure or reluctance to reform the civil service or hand real power to local government.

So when does she call time on her extraordinary career that occupies a large chapter in Bangladesh's political history? Pundits can keep guessing, and the 'Iron Lady' surely knows how to strike when the iron is hot. But when? And who will take the baton?

2019 could see the battle-hardened Hasina seeking to groom a successor, maybe quietly, so that the chosen one is no debutante when introduced to the national and global stage.

January 2019

Toufique Imrose Khalidi is the Editor-in-Chief of bdnews24.com

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher