In his book titled “Sheikh Hasina Hakyik Wa Asatir” (translated in Bangla by Dr Abdur Rashid and his co-authors), Egyptian writer Muhsin Al Arishi refers to the homecoming of Sheikh Hasina to Bangladesh after six years of Bangabandhu’s assassination as the ‘return of his soul’. Indeed, the homecoming of Sheikh Hasina on 17 May 1981 was an epoch-making event in the political landscape of Bangladesh. One cannot even imagine the odds she had to face 39 years ago just because she was a daughter of Bangabandhu. She and her sister Sheikh Rehana were miraculously saved by an accident of history as they happened to be out of the country.
After losing all their loved ones they drifted from one place to another in a foreign land without any clue what was kept in store in their fate. Thanks to the bold intervention of late ambassador (and later honorable speaker) Mr. Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, they could at least find a place to stay in Delhi with the support of late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Her motherly affection gave some comfort to the daughters of Bangabandhu during those days of lonely solitude. Though she had lost her family members, Sheikh Hasina never lost hope. She always felt that she was carrying the soul of Bangabandhu with her. She could always hear her father’s voice and strengthened her resolve to return to Bangladesh and fulfil her father’s dreams.In the absence of Bangabandhu, Bangladesh had become a rudderless ship. It was moving in the opposite direction of where he had wished to steer it. His deep aspirations for multi-faceted freedom of the people and his relentless struggle for independence were suddenly dashed to the ground. The anti-liberation forces not only obtained power to run the government, but also tried to systematically erase the fundamental principles embedded in the constitution formulated by Bangabandhu and his team. In those dark days, if you look through the history pages it would be as if Bangabandhu did not even exist. The nation was indeed drifting away from ‘light to darkness’. After almost a half a decade in political and social isolation Sheikh Hasina made up her mind and started campaigning to bring the killers of Bangabandhu to justice. She travelled to the UK in 1980 to join the international well-wishers of Bangladesh and Bangabandhu in raising her voice against those killers. In the meantime, the Awami League, which had fallen into disarray after 15 August 1975, started reorganizing itself. Sheikh Hasina was elected the chief of the party and the senior leaders went to Delhi to invite her to take charge of the responsibility bestowed upon her. She decided to come back and fight for justice and democracy in Bangladesh. She touched the ground of Bangladesh on 17 May 1981 in the late afternoon. There were heavy rains on that afternoon to welcome her. Youths, women, and political activists were eagerly waiting to welcome her. The road to Dhanmondi from the airport was fully packed by the freedom-loving people of Bangladesh. Women in particular were overjoyed with her return as they saw in her a leadership that could reflect the inclusive policy terrain her father had begun to build for the nation. And indeed, the masses actually felt that with her return the soul of Bangabandhu also returned to his dearest Bangladesh. And hence, her homecoming is considered by many as the beginning of the end of an anti-Bangladesh nightmare. This was also the historic moment of beginning the journey towards the ‘Sonar Bangla’ (Golden Bengal) of Bangabandhu’s dreams. When she was moving towards Dhanmondi from the airport the driver kept the windows of the car open so that onlookers could see the glimpse of the daughter of Bangabandhu. Despite the challenging weather, hundreds and thousands of people turned up to welcome her. As she came to Manik Mia Avenue she was overwhelmed by the crowds cheering slogans to welcome her. She grew highly emotional and spoke out for the first time as a political leader. She was measured but firm. She said, “I have come to stay beside the people of Bangladesh. I have taken part in the struggle for freedom. I have not come to be leader of Awami League. I want to stay beside you as your sister, as your daughter, and as a worker of Awami League, who believes in the ideals of Bangabandhu.” And she kept her word. She first went to Road no. 32 to see her family house. But the security did not even allow her to go near the gate. She then sat on the road and prayed for the departed souls of her near ones.
Then began her real political struggle for democracy, for which she faced bullets and bombs a number of times. Sheer luck and the blessings of the Almighty saved her from inevitable death. Yet, she never gave up. Her steadfastness and clear political articulations, in alignment with those of Bangabandhu, made her a mature political leader who earned support across the country. Her struggle against the authoritarian regime helped bring about the democratic transition of governance in Bangladesh. Even though she marginally missed the chance to become the first Prime Minister of the post-authoritarian government, she continued her struggle for democratic and inclusive politics even as an opposition leader. She finally got elected as the Prime Minister of the Government of Bangladesh in 1996 and immediately implemented sweeping reforms for pro-poor governance. She introduced a number of social safety net programs and boldly faced the devastating flood of 1998 without allowing anyone to die of hunger and starvation. She, in fact, turned the natural disaster an opportunity for people’s mobilization for inclusive development. Her first term as a Prime Minister is also well-known for bringing peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Even after she could not continue her incumbency in 2001, she kept pushing for democratic rule. Her clear intolerance of harboring war criminals and terrorism made many enemies, for which she almost lost her life by a number of deadly attacks including a grenade attack. She returned with flying colors in the 2008 General Election and formed the government to implement Vision 2021 Agenda.
The major campaign of her governance has been establishing ‘Digital Bangladesh’ to ensure inclusive sustainable development. The other milestone of her long spell of power has been ensuring justice for the murders of Bangabandhu and others on 15 August 1975, as well as for war crimes and jail killing. Her strong stance against religious radicalized terrorism and other forms of terrorism have earned many laurels for her regime. In addition, her emphasis on inclusive growth and financial inclusion strategies have created stronger ground for sustainable development. She has always been forward-looking and prefers long-term development goal setting. Her push for a perspective plan, eight year plans and the Delta-Plan speak volumes about her visionary leadership. And her campaign for climate-friendly development has also brought in a lot of awards and appreciation. She has received a number of awards for her humanitarian and inclusive approach to development including faster digitization of the economy and society. She is rated as one of the most successful women leaders by Forbes and as a powerful leader by the Foreign Policy.
This year’s homecoming day has come at a time when she is deeply involved in fighting the unprecedented global pandemic. Today’s national crisis is the spread of corona virus and sudden stoppage of the economy, leading to the income loss of millions of people involved in informal and services sectors. Similarly the wage payment to forty million plus RMG workers through mobile financial services has been yet another of her farsighted transparent management decisions. She has been fighting this pandemic from the front. Her strong leadership has been crucial in mobilizing more than hundred thousand Taka’s stimulus packages to keep the economy floating as well as addressing the health issues in a planned manner. Although the health sector has been perennially underfunded and underdeveloped, she has been taking fast decisions to recruit more doctors and other health workers in addition to other related supports. Yet, this sector remains a challenging weak spot which she is trying hard to mend. This year’s budget is destined to give more support to this lagging sector. Her hands on management of relief and food support to the needy through field-level administration and local governments is also well taken.
The recent launch of cash support to five million poor workers in the informal sector through mobile financial services will remain a milestone decision for leakage-free social security measure in the years to come. This will pave the way for more transparent and accountable pro-poor development strategy for Bangladesh. Her proactive leadership for promoting agriculture has already elevated Bangladesh to be the third largest rice producing country in the world. Self-sufficiencies in the productions of vegetables, fish, poultry and livestock are some of her other accomplishments. Although the marketing and continuation of supply chains in agriculture remains a big challenge due to rising infections, her government has been trying to keep the economy afloat. In the light of the Keynsian economics, she has been pushing local administration to not only give support for easing migrant labor movement to complete harvesting of boro paddy in hoar areas but also encouraged them to buy vegetables to give back to those who were getting relief and food support. Her digital government is moving fast to create a nationwide online platform coordinating with innovative start-ups to ensure smooth marketing and delivery of agricultural products including seasonal fruits like mangoes and lichis. The government may as well procure these fruits to distribute to police and BGB barracks, all jails and public hospitals to bolster consumption and hold the demand for these items. Her government is also contemplating of expanding the farmers markets up to the district level with necessary linkage with e-commerce platforms up to the district and upazila levels. Besides short-term measures she is talking about medium to long-term planning for the recovery of the pandemic-hit economy and society. However, things still look uncertain and we all have to remain on guard to fight this disaster. There is, certainly no scope for complacence in this fight against this invisible enemy.
Let me share some data to demonstrate how much she had been able to steer the economy to a vibrant growth trajectory till recently. Last year Bangladesh witnessed the highest growth rate (8.15% plus) in the Asia and Pacific region. If we compare the macro-economic indicators of Bangladesh between the time when she stepped into Bangladesh as a political leader in 1981 and today, we can grasp how much value she has added to the development of Bangladesh. Back in 1981, the total size of the economy was only about 20 billion US dollars. It is now 300 billion plus USD. The per capita income was then only 248 USD. It is now 1909 USD. The total exports was then 6.26 billion USD. Last fiscal year it was about 40 billion USD. The remittances and total foreign exchange reserves were respectively 4.18 billion USD and 1.59 billion USD. The two figures were respectively 16.4 billion USD and 32.7 billion USD last fiscal year. The poverty was then 73% of population. This was reduced to 20.5% last year.This year Bangladesh cannot expect a similar growth figure. However, given the stunning performance of agriculture and stimulus given to MSMEs through various kinds of refinances, I am optimistic that Bangladesh will be able to uphold its higher level of domestic consumption and demand to record a reasonable growth rate which will be surely better than its regional peers. This will help compensate to some extent the loss of demand due to falling remittances and exports. However, it is still very uncertain to say which way this pandemic will take a turn. We need a down-to-earth, pragmatic, proactive and farsighted leader to fight this invisible enemy. And here Sheikh Hasina who is, leading from the front indeed, excels more than many of her peers. Two of our late top intellectuals, Professor Zillur Rahman Siddiqui and National Professor Salahuddin Ahmed, among many of her passionate well-wishers, called her ‘harbinger of change’ and believed that history will recognize her successful leadership in due course of time (see Ali Habib edited “Timir Hononer Netri” ie “A leader who pierces through darkness”). Despite many challenges piling up, I am confident that she will be able to navigate through this difficult phase of the pandemic if we all stand by her and keep the economy and society afloat. Her strong measures against fifty plus local government representatives--mostly from her own party--involved in corruption and preference for transparent cash transfer to the needy provide hope that she will leave a legacy of strong leadership.
The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor at Dhaka University and a former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]