Bangladeshi Leader Tireless in Pep Talks to People

Michael T. Kaufman, The New York Times (July 28, 1980)
Courtesy: Michael T. Kaufman/The New York Times

As he does three or four times every week, President Ziaur Rahman recently flew to villages and country towns in Bangladesh to exhort cheering crowds to produce more food and have fewer children.

In this river port, the 43-year-old President walked into crowds waiting for his helicopter. He shook hands. He visited schools where adults and children were learning to read. He congratulated women who had joined village militia forces. He appealed for greater voluntary efforts to develop what is considered the poorest large country in Asia.

For many of the President’s urban-based critics, this sort of evangelistic nationalism is a waste of time. They say it is calculated only to build up the President and his political organization. Mr. Zia does not deny that he is trying through his trips to strengthen party organisation at the grassroots, but he defends his travels and cheerleading approach as essential if progress is to be made in this country of 90 million people.

Need for Village Self-Reliance

“To mobilize people, to motivate them for action is the most important thing I can do,” President Zia said as his helicopter flew over glistening patches of yellow jute and green rice. He explained that the theme of his countryside sermons was always the same: the need for self-reliance in the villages. “Every village must be given a voice in social and economic decisions and we must work to convert people into manpower,” he said. The President’s energy level is very high. He has walked as much as 12 miles between villages. He has spent hours digging canals with villagers.

“He only needs three or four hours of sleep a night and he nearly drives us mad,” said one aide who explained that after a day’s tour of a village, the President returns to Dacca, the capital, where he usually works until 2 or 3 A.M. dictating reports, reviewing projects and tending to administrative details. “He thinks everybody is like he is,” said the aide. So far Mr. Zia says he has taken his campaign for “a peaceful revolution that has four points” to 10,000 of the 68,000 villages.

Plan to Double Food Production

The first point, he said, is a national commitment to double food production in five years through expanded irrigation, the introduction of high-yield varieties and the cultivation of all available land.

The second point is to encourage a mass literacy campaign involving hundreds of thousands of volunteers.

The third is family planning and population control.

The fourth is the establishment of volunteer militia forces that can be used for both police and development work.

In the dry season, President Zia laid greater stress on increasing food production and in his village appearances he urged country people to build canals so that fields that lay fallow in dry periods could become productive year-round. As a result, 250 canals were started and 176 were completed, all with the use of volunteer labor, and 600,000 acres were, converted to year-round cultivation.

“Next year,” said the President, “we have approved village proposals for 700 additional canals which would irrigate; one-and-a-half million acres.” Among foreign diplomats and the legion of experts working for international and voluntary agencies, the canal program has won high marks. `

Suspicious of One-Man Shows

“To tell you the truth,” said a Western diplomat, “I was very skeptical when the President started going out to the countryside. I am basically suspicious of one-man shows. But you have to hand it to him, he is making things work.”

On his visit here, the President repeatedly referred to canal building but most of the emphasis was on the literacy program and population control. “We are just beginning to stress family planning,” he told a visitor. “Until now we have not been too forceful. We had to deal with the problem of religious conservatism but now we have won over the religious leaders through patient discussions.

On such a campaign it is better to move slowly and cautiously and lay the groundwork for a program that will be completely voluntary and successful. The women are keen now and we are moving in a big way.”

By far the most controversial part of the program is the village militia forces. Some of Mr. Zia’s increasingly isolated opponents have questioned whether these mostly young people have been organized for development work or to help the President’s Bangladesh National Party.

Tailoring Speech to Audience

In light of the President’s visits, such confusion is understandable. At several stops, he addressed nonpartisan crowds, and there he emphasized development. Other gatherings were of local party workers who have taken over village government. The masses of unemployed youths, some of them quite rough, have joined the party and in some places, they are said to be bullying the opposition. It has been a problem for any party, however, whether to absorb these elements or leave them for the opposition.

President Zia sees no ambiguity in simultaneously rallying support for party and nation-building. He explained that Bangladesh was politically undeveloped, not having had a chance to build administrative structures like other post-colonial countries. “We have always been ruled as a province, first by British India and then by Pakistan,” he has said.

“Our independence is only nine years old.” His party is only two years old and it is a hodgepodge of people with no clear ideological contours beyond the popularity of the President. Its members include former Maoists and former advocates of continued union with Pakistan.

The desire for Security and Stability

According to some of his confidants, Mr. Zia is eager that a party be forged that will outlast him and provide security and stability for development. It is in furtherance of this objective, say the confidants, that the President has gone to the countryside to establish his base. “If the countryside develops, the country will automatically develop,” said the President during his helicopter interview.

As a result of such statements, Mr. Zia’s major opposition is now centered among the urban elite, including intellectuals, Government workers and labor leaders. But this opposition is dwarfed by the high esteem that is demonstrated every few days when the President enters a village.

Some of Mr. Zia’s critics say the campaign in the countryside underscores his need for adulation. They say he seems intent on building a personality cult and establishing the one-man rule. This is disputed by his supporters, who point out that he travels without much security or pomp.

The verdict of several diplomats here is that for the moment President Zia has not been corrupted by power.

“He seems to be going out, first of all, to genuinely encourage development and mass participation,” said a Western diplomat. “His secondary motive appears to be to build political institutions that will survive after he is gone.

“And finally, he seems to be exploiting the outpourings of popular support, using them as a shield against the opposition parties and against the opportunists in his own party who might like to see him leave.”


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