With the death of General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, a chapter in Bangladesh’s history draws to a close. There was the intriguing and the exciting, often the disturbing, about his presence on the national political stage. In a world where military rulers simply lapse into silence or are forgotten once they go out of power, Ershad was a survivor. For nine years he ruled, as a soldier and as a man who sought to be a politician through cobbling his political party into shape. Many were the grievances against him; many were the charges of corruption of diverse kinds during his period of rule. The agitation against him began, it can safely be argued, from day one of his seizure of power in 1982. It was not to end till his forced removal from the presidency in December 1990.
In the years after his fall, Ershad clearly reinvented himself as a politician indispensable to both the political parties which had in combined fashion run him out of power but then knew they needed his political support. In power, the BNP initially persecuted him through imprisoning him. But then came a time when the party needed Ershad to counter the opposition of the Awami League. In its turn, the Awami League, for all its revulsion of Ershad and his policies, made sure that he stayed on its side as it confronted the BNP politically. It goes to the credit of the former military ruler that he was able to prove his importance to the two parties despite the loss of power.
In the long period since his departure from office in 1990, Ershad assiduously built his Jatiya Party, though there were the moments when his leadership of it was erratic and unpredictable. But there was little question it was around him that the party coalesced, that without him the JP was nowhere. To be sure, those whom he had raised to the heights of office ditched him after 1990, convinced that he was a spent force. In the event, they were proved wrong. It was always Ershad who was talk of the town, not those who turned their backs on him.
There will be, as there have been, a good number of questions about the nine years in which he governed Bangladesh as a military ruler. The question of political legitimacy always exercised him and then eluded him. There were too the many corruption charges hanging over him. Any study of the Ershad era will necessarily take these factors into account. But there are too the positive aspects of the leadership he tried to exercise, notably the upazila system, the drug policy and the communications network his government inaugurated across the country.
It is a tortuous legacy General Ershad will be symbolic of. Warts and all, he did the best he could. Our reservations are there, surely. But let us now bid farewell to a colourful player in Bangladesh’s politics, which will be quite empty without him.