Sheikh Hasina, Kamal Hossain ... of what is, of what might have been

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Syed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 00:47, Dec 30, 2018 | Updated : 17:40, Feb 06, 2019

Syed Badrul AhsanThe general election today, barring a repudiation of predictions already made, is not likely to throw up miracles or an upset. There is the likelihood of Sheikh Hasina coasting to victory for a record consecutive third term in power, which is quite saying something. There is little question that she happens to be one of the most powerful heads of government in the history of the country, the other being Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Her hold on the Awami League remains firm, indeed appears to be growing more so with every passing day. As head of government, she has demonstrated flair and confidence which has rarely been observed in any of her predecessors save the Father of the Nation. To her followers and detractors alike, Sheikh Hasina is today the embodiment of politics in the country, an individual who seems ready to go on and on in governing the nation. At 71, she is at ease in exercising her leadership. None of her party colleagues comes close to her in popular appeal. Her charisma has endured.
If the election today is a revalidation of Sheikh Hasina’s politics, it is also a pointer to the resurgence of the 82-year-old Kamal Hossain. No one is in any doubt about the historical role the former foreign minister has played in galvanising the opposition into a condition where it has directly confronted the ruling Awami League.
For the very first time in Bangladesh’s history and in his own career, Dr. Kamal Hossain has stepped beyond his reputation as a lawyer, beyond his celebrated past as chairman of the nation’s constitution drafting committee back in 1972, beyond his enviable record as minister for law and then of foreign affairs in Bangabandhu’s government, to inform the country that he is prepared to give a shake to the status quo politics the nation has been in for years.
Of course, there are all the elements arrayed against him, in certainly a good degree of justification, over his leadership of a political alliance which has for its principal component the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). And now that he himself has expressed his displeasure over the grant of 25 nominations by the BNP to the Jamaat-e-Islami, one quite understands the predicament he is in.
Even so, Kamal Hossain will be remembered in the times to come for the courage he called forth in himself to shape a credible opposition to the ruling dispensation. And that is where the serious irony comes in.
Sheikh Hasina’s strident criticism of Kamal Hossain’s politics is in a way a reflection of her acknowledgement of his importance on the national political canvas. For his part, Kamal Hossain’s focus on Sheikh Hasina is a sign of his belief that she matters, that her brand of politics ought to be his target. REUTERS/file photoHad politics flowed along a natural pattern in this country, Kamal Hossain and Sheikh Hasina would be a formidable team in national politics. But that was how the dream took form and substance in the early 1980s, when Hossain played a pivotal role in ensuring that Sheikh Hasina takes charge of the Awami League.
Those were times of joy, of great expectations. Hope was in the air and the future beckoned on the day Sheikh Hasina came home to Bangladesh six years after the murder of her family and the four national leaders. If Hasina was symbolic of political leadership, Kamal Hossain was the intellectual who would add meat to the bones of a party ready to go out into the world again.
In November 1981, the song in millions of Bengali souls was for the Awami League to take a firm step toward reasserting moral authority in the country through Kamal Hossain’s seeking the nation’s presidency. In the event, he lost. But his candidacy was an initial hint of how a Hasina-Kamal team could work wonders, in much the same way that a Mujib-Tajuddin combination had caused a sea-change in Bengali political evolution in the 1960s and in the heady days of March 1971.
We go back to that question of irony. A supremely depressing aspect of Bangladesh’s history was the falling-out between Bangabandhu and Tajuddin in the mid-1970s. It was history being repeated when in the early 1990s Sheikh Hasina and Kamal Hossain opted to go their separate ways. Bangladesh was not destined to have its version of a Mao Zedong-Zhou En-lai power team in China. Neither did it have the opportunity of building its own response to the Gandhi-Nehru structure of moral and political leadership in India.
The irony goes on.
Sheikh Hasina remains the repository of politics embodied by the boat symbol of her party. Kamal Hossain, whose past pronouncements in condemnation of the BNP’s sheaf of paddy are part of the record, is today the standard-bearer of politics resting on that very symbol.
Sheikh Hasina’s strident criticism of Kamal Hossain’s politics is in a way a reflection of her acknowledgement of his importance on the national political canvas. For his part, Kamal Hossain’s focus on Sheikh Hasina is a sign of his belief that she matters, that her brand of politics ought to be his target.
This morning, Sheikh Hasina will expect the nation to express itself in favour of continuity; and Dr. Kamal Hossain will wait for people to go out in droves to cast their ballots and thereby cause a vote revolution. At the end of the day, both politicians — one the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the other the trusted aide of the Father of the Nation — will be deserving of our collective respect.
Both have given us reason to believe in the power of politics to cause change, to shape dreams. Both have forged politics in their own, discrete fashion. Both are part of our historical narrative. Both are part of heritage, our own, distinctively our own.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age

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