At 73, Sheikh Hasina may have many years still to go as the leader of the Awami League, a position she has already held close to 40 years — but the question of who will replace her (whenever that may be) remains a matter of public importance in Bangladesh. Though it remains an issue of intrigue and discussion in Dhaka’s living rooms, leader succession within the Awami League is one of the many subjects that Bangladeshi media tends to avoid.
The subject’s sensitivity is because Awami League leadership has become a family business — no one outside Hasina’s close knit family will be the next leader. And no media dares discuss the various attributes of those within the country’s ruling family, and grade them for their leadership qualities.
Seeking to read the runes of the Sheikh-Wazed family dynamic — perhaps rivalry may be a better word — is far from straightforward. There is little firm information and a lot of unsubstantiated rumours and speculation.
Until recently, the clear front runner was Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed Joy — who is also his mother’s ICT adviser. With a personal Facebook page of over two million followers, he has the family’s biggest social network following, through which he also acts as an informal and rather aggressive spokesperson of both his mother and the party. However, he does not have a particularly good relationship with the wider Awami League leadership and base, except for a few men whom he has reportedly pushed into key positions including Zunaid Ahmed Palak, the state minister for ICT, and Shahjahan Mahmood, the BTRC chairperson.
Although Joy himself may have the stomach for — and indeed revels in — the cut and thrust of Bangladesh’s winner-takes-all politics, he seems to have removed himself from the family competition for party leadership. Some suggest that unlike him, his American wife wants to keep well away from the country’s dirty politics. Whatever the reason, it is certainly the case that when the Covid-19 pandemic started, he flew to the United States to be with his family.
Replacing him as the new favourite is his sister, Saima Wazed Putul. This is a surprising turn of events as until recently she was very much absent from Bangladeshi politics and only came to occasional public attention when the country’s media wrote articles about her work on autism in Canada where she lived.
Putul is however, currently, living in Bangladesh and has been promoted to a number of governmental positions by her mother. Despite having no background on climate change, she has been appointed as an ambassador of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, an inter-governmental body which Sheikh Hasina herself chairs. She has also been appointed as the chairperson of the Bangladesh National Advisory Committee for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, and the International Focal Point of the Advisory Group on Disability and Disaster Risk Management of the Ministry of Disaster Management. She is also the vice-chairperson of the Centre for Research and Information (CRI), the main Awami League-affiliated think tank, and accompanies her mother to many political and diplomatic meetings. Many diplomats — and Awami League leaders — see her as someone being groomed as a successor.
However, she has young children living in Dubai with her husband, with whom she has separated, and it is difficult to see her taking up the rein of the country unless they moved to Bangladesh.
Hasina’s younger sister, Sheikh Rehana, however should not yet be ruled out of contention. She used to accompany her sister, the prime minister, to many events and was reportedly involved in the making of key governmental decisions as well as appointments. However, there have been rumours of a rift between the two sisters — possibly linked to the prominence Hasina has given to her daughter — and she seems absent from the Dhaka scene at the moment. Nonetheless, whatever the current relationship between the siblings, Rehana is eager to wield proper executive power and the current rift could certainly be temporary.
An outside bet is Rehana’s son Radwan Mujib Siddiq Bobby. Since he returned to Bangladesh after completing his education, he first worked at the United Nations as a consultant, and has preferred to wield his power and influence within the Awami League from the shadows. He oversees the Centre for Research and Information (CRI) which has acted as an effective propaganda organ for the party. In the last few weeks he has also established under his editorship a new CRI magazine, Whiteboard, whose first edition focused entirely on his grand-father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
However, Bobby is apparently no longer living in Bangladesh and has moved with his family to Thailand, raising questions about his interest in a future at the top of Bangladeshi politics.
Another person occasionally talked about as a possible successor to Hasina is the lawyer Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, the current mayor of Dhaka South. He is the son of Sheikh Fazlul Haque Mani, the nephew of Sheikh Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Although Taposh is not part of Hasina’s immediate nuclear family, he is part of the core family with both his parents assassinated in 1975 along with Mujib. His move to take on the executive position of mayor certainly suggests an ambition to move up in politics.
Although Taposh must be seen as a longshot in the succession race, if a successor amongst Hasina’s immediate family can’t be agreed, he could become the compromise family member taking over from the current prime minister.●
David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.
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