The Times interview: Bangladesh and the hazards of democracy

President Zia ur-Rahman of Bangladesh leaned forward in his armchair, his eyes alight with enthusiasm: “Everybody knows our problems in this country are terrible but we have our muscles and we can work, dig and grow. We can pull ourselves up. With our, bare hands we can achieve great things.”

No one knew better than President Zia that the 90 million people of one of the world’s poorest and most wretched countries needed inspiration and a vision.

He believed that his main task in life was to urge and inspire. He was intensely, though not fanatically nationalist and- was proud of Bangladesh’s new independence. His life was devoted to hauling the country by its bootstraps from the mire of degrading poverty.

In his office in Dacca in March, in one of the last interviews he gave, he told me that he had put his faith in collective effort. He genuinely believed that Bangladesh could overcome its difficulties through the unremitting labour and sweat of its people.

“Mass mobilization is the key to it all,” he said with some relish. Mobilization and motivation were his favourite words.

His army experience had taught him that strongly motivated groups of people could conquer obstacles, and he believed that what could be done with soldiers could also be done with civilians.

He set about fighting Bangadesh’s apathy. He set development targets in agriculture, health services, canal digging, road building and family planning. He spent much of his time dashing about the country in his helicopter to check on progress and to excite people with his ideas.

He went to Chittagong, l;h6re he was killed, to inspect progress on development projects.

His death is doubly tragic for Bangladesh. The country is once again thrown into turmoil and uncertainty and it has lost its great energizer. Under President Zia’s leadership, Bangladesh was enjoying an unprecedented period of stability, but that has now been jeopardized.

He knew that a threat to his position and his life lay in the ranks of some disaffected Army officers, his contemporaries, who had grown to dislike his policies (they thought him, for example, too pro-India) and resented his exercise of power.

Among the people and politicians, there was no strong opposition to him. The political parties in Bangladesh are, in any case, fragmented and torn by differences.

Although power was firmly in his hands, he made the transition from military to civilian ruler, and was inching towards a democratic system. He founded the Bangladesh National Party two years ago as his political vehicle and it lias two-thirds of the parlimentary seats.

“Martial law,” he told me, “was a stopgap. I know there are risks in moving towards democracy, but we are trying to grow leadership from the bottom to the top.”

He was a hero of the 1971 war with Pakistan but he was not a universally popular man. He was tough and could be ruthless. He made some enemies because he made no secret of his dislike of the corruption in Bangladesh and was determined to root it out.

As for himself, there was never any talk of corruption and his style of living was modest. He kept his family life very private and lived with his wife Khalida and two sons in a small house in Dacca’s military cantonment.

He has no obvious successor as president. There is no one who can match his energy and single-mindedness. The country is going to be rudderless for some time.

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