The culture of politics of opportunism is quite old in Bangladesh. In fact, it has become part of our political system. Political opportunism has been interpreted as ‘a trend of thought, or a political tendency, seeking to make political capital out of situations with the main aim being that of gaining more influence, prestige, or support, instead of truly winning people over to a principled position or improving their political understanding’. After the War of Liberation, a new political scenario emerged in the country.
Many of the erstwhile political parties sided with the Pakistanis and opposed the liberation of the country. Some of them particularly right leaning parties fought alongside with the Pakistanis and actively participated in the atrocities committed against the innocent and unarmed people. These parties and their members joined the paramilitary forces, Razakar, Al Badar and Al Shams and fought against the Mukti Bahini or the freedom fighters. In fact, the Liberation War was an opportunity for these parties and their adherents to avail state favours in various forms, to grab assets and properties of the people particularly of the minorities, and penalise those with whom they have had enmities. However, as soon as Bangladesh was liberated, for logical reasons, these parties were banned.Later, officially the religion based party politics were also prohibited. The notable political parties that remained valid and functional after the war were the Awami League, National Awami Party (Bhashani and Muzaffar) and the Communist Party and some other left leaning smaller parties. Meanwhile, a new political party Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) (National Socialist Party of Bangladesh) emerged in the political arena. In fact, the JSD was formed by a breakaway fraction of the Bangladesh Chatra League, the Awami League’s student wing under the leadership of Serajul Alam Khan, ASM Abdur Rab, Shahjahan Siraj and MA Jalil. It also had an armed wing called Gonobahini. The notable leaders of the gonobahini were Colonel (retd.) Abu Taher, Hasanul Haq Inu and Kazi Aref Ahmed. The immediate aim of the JSD was to form a left leaning government for facilitating the establishment of a socialist state with new characteristics, ‘Boiganic Samajtantra’.
Against this backdrop, first general election was held in 1973 under the new Constitution that was adopted in December, 1972. The Awami League won a landslide victory winning 293 of the 300 seats. Later, in 1975 by amending the Constitution one party, ‘BAKSAL’, system was introduced. It was envisaged in the fashion of a National government. Political leaders of different political parties as well as professionals and civil and military personnel also joined the National Party.
However, before the new system could be introduced fully the government was overthrown with the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. During the period from December 1971 to August 1975, the phenomenon of political opportunism was also very much present and practiced. People in large number joined first the Awami League, the party in power and later the National Party BAKSAL to further their interests. Many of the critics of the JSD are also of the opinion that beside many other reasons for the formation of the party, one important reason was that many of the JSD leaders thought that they were left out or sidelined and deprived of various opportunities opened up after the independence of the country. A sense of frustration also prompted them to establish the party. In later days, changing political affiliations and activities of the many of the JSD leaders testify this fact.
However, politics of opportunism bloomed to its full form after the political change over through violent means in 1975. The Constitution was suspended and martial Law was declared throughout the country. Later, the martial law regime of Ziaur Rahman resorted to put on a civilian garb by floating a new political party. This has been a common practice in Pakistan for legitimising the illegitimate military rule. The formation of the new political party under state patronage opened the floodgates of opportunism.
Political parties and its leaders discarded by the people after the Liberation War, political leaders of parties with no or negligible popular support and professionals and business persons considered it as a great opportunity and joined the new political party, the Bangladesh nationalist Party (BNP). It paved them the way to occupy political positions in the government first and later legitimised them after winning questionable elections.
For many especially the professionals, they first became ministers or advisers with the rank and status of ministers and later using those positions got elected and became political leaders. This phenomenon was again repeated when General Ershad grabbed the state power forcefully by declaring martial law again throughout the country.Later, in the same way, as General Ziaur Rahman, he also floated his own political party ‘Jatiyo Party’ by using state machineries. The same phenomenon of opportunism came into full force again. Many of the elements those were there in the case of the formation of the BNP came forward to join the new party of General Ershad. Here it needs to be mentioned that many of the BNP stalwarts also joined the new party for positions of power and influence.
In reality, the politics of opportunism continued unabated at different degrees throughout the sovereign existence of the country. In the nineties of the last century, democracy was restored and general elections were held. In the first and second tenures of the BNP after the restoration of democracy this phenomenon of political opportunism continued and in some cases patronised by the party itself for furthering their narrow political interest. Patronisation of opportunism in the second tenure of the BNP was practices to such an extent that even the war criminals and their party became partners in the coalition government.
The Awami League again came to power in the mid nineties. Currently, it is continuing its third consecutive term. The political culture of opportunism is still continuing. New faces with dubious past track records have joined the party and many have risen to positions of power and influence. One may embark upon to look into the extent or degree of political opportunism under both political as well as unconstitutional different regimes. Other important aspect that may be noted in the case of developing countries that people from all walks of lives want to be associated with the party in power and its different wings, like student, youth, women and labour etc. It has become a tradition with all political parties in Bangladesh to maintain different wings to secure support bases among different sections of the population.
The association or affiliation with political parties or their different wings helps people to go to positions or power and influences. The other reason is that it also ensures them to avail business opportunities as governments in these countries still directly control sizeable state resources and through policy and other state regulatory machineries also profoundly influence particularly the industry, trade and commerce. As such, it is very difficult for popular support based political parties to completely do away with this culture of political opportunism.
It is more difficult in Bangladesh as politics is polarised to the extreme ends unlike other developing countries. However, there has to be some conscious efforts from political parties to remain on guard and discourage and contain the rise of the culture of political opportunism within the parties as well as within other wings of them. Failure in this particular area, in the long run, erodes popular support base of the political parties and they become the ultimate losers.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude).
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh.