When Gowher Rizvi criticised Sheikh Hasina

In an article written 30 years ago, Rizvi criticised Sheikh Hasina for her role in losing the 1991 elections — and praised Khaleda Zia.

When Gowher Rizvi criticised Sheikh Hasina
Gowher Rizvi, international affairs advisor to the Bangladeshi prime minister, speaks at the launching ceremony for the magazine "The Belt and Road" in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 20th 2019. Photo: Xinhua/Alamy Live News

Gowher Rizvi, the Bangladeshi prime minister’s foreign affairs advisor, is a renowned professor with decades of research experience. In his career, he has authored numerous books and articles on history, democracy, human rights, and international affairs. Within the Awami League, the party which he has always supported, no one who can match his academic prestige. 

In 1991, he wrote an article, “Bangladesh: Towards civil society, in The World Today journal, published by the prestigious Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, to explain the surprise defeat of the Awami League (AL) and the victory of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the elections that year, where Khaleda Zia, the then leader of the BNP, became the first elected woman prime minister in the history of the country. It was the election that took place after the fall of General Ershad in 1990.

It is interesting now to look back at what Gowher Rizvi said 30 years ago about the two parties, when — though a supporter of the Awami League at that time — he led a less partisan life than he does now.

Sheikh Hasina: Awami Leagues’ best asset and greatest liability

Gowher Rizvi held Sheikh Hasina responsible for the defeat of Awami League. “[H]er responsibility for the defeat was inescapable. She is her party’s best asset as well as its greatest liability,” he wrote. While, he claimed, Hasina was a tireless campaigner, who could pull large crowds and had an instinctive feel for the pulse of rural Bangladesh, “her real problem arises from her inability to strike a working relationship with the senior leaders of [the] party. […] As a consequence, she has inducted into the party large numbers of younger people, better suited for their enthusiasm than political finesse or intellectual subtlety.” He added that “many of the country’s best brains, who once adorned the AL,” have drifted away “and those whose loyalty has prevented them from defecting have been effectively marginalised.” As a result, he said, the party “has failed to project itself as a credible alternative to the military rulers.”

Another of Hasina’s blunders, according to Rizvi, was her insistence on treating General Ershad and Khaleda Zia equally responsible for corruption and the undermining of democracy in Bangladesh which, he said, was seen by “many of the voters […] as a slander.” 

“To the great majority of the voters under 30, [Shiekh] Mujib is at best a figure from the distant part, whereas many of the younger generation have distinct memories of the diminutive Zia, the charismatic hero of the liberation war and indefatigable president who romped around the countryside invoking the greatness of the Bengali nation,” Rizvi wrote. 

The professor also criticised the televised address given by Sheikh Hasina, where she spoke about her determination to bring to justice the assassins of her father. Rizvi argued that this “was seen by many as vindictive and implicit insinuation of Zia’s involvement in the grisly murder of Mujib and much of his family. It was a mistake which lost many votes, especially those of the younger floating voters. The election was a time to look forward, not renew past recriminations.”

The man who eventually became Hasina’s international affairs advisor, however, argued that what “probably did the greatest damage to the AL was its alleged subservience to India”. Though Rizvi himself argued that this was not factually correct, “Many of the voters (including the well-informed urban intelligentsia) were convinced that under an AL government the country would be reduced to an Indian province” blaming “a casual remark by Sheikh Hasina that Hindus dispossessed of their land under Ershad would have their land restored.” The remark, Rizvi argued, “at once brought slogans about the return of Hindu landowners and the dispossession of the Moslem peasants.”

Uncompromising Khaleda led BNP to victory

“To argue that the AL lost the election does not explain the impressive victory of the BNP”, Rizvi wrote of the party’s victory, which he argued did not expect to win.

Professor Rizvi argued that “the most important single factor in the BNP’s victory […] was Khaleda Zia’s image.” He pointed out that the pro-BNP media “had assiduously projected Khaleda as the uncompromising opponent of Ershad and, in contrast to Hasina, a champion of united opposition. This was largely true; but also the only strategy available to Khaleda.”

“In Bangladesh confrontational politics can win high popular dividend. The ability to stand up against governmental oppression, to boycott elections, to refuse offices of profit or to suffer imprisonment are considered evidence of personal sacrifices,” Rizvi argued. “From the moment Khaleda was installed as the leader of the BNP, she has publicly remained opposed to participation in any election held while Ershad was in power.”  This, the academic claimed, was in contrast to Sheikh Hasina.

“The uncompromising posture of Khaleda greatly endeared her to the young who largely compensated for the BNP’s lack of party organisation at the grassroots level,” Rizvi also wrote in the article. He pointed out that BNP’s student group Jatiotabadi Chatra Dal (JCD) won 270 of 321 students unions across the country which in the past were the strongholds of Awami League’s student wing.  These students, who have family roots in the villages, carried forward the message of BNP to the remotest villages of the country. “[The students] were not only instrumental in overthrowing Ershad but have also shown their capacity for popular mobilisation.”

Rizvi also pointed to the business community’s support for the BNP which could claim credit in the past for rolling back the frontiers of state control of the economy. Although Sheikh Hasina had committed the party to abandoning her father’s commitment for socialism and nationalisation, businessmen were suspicious of an “ideologically dogmatic AL.”

The academic also pointed out that the BNP’s victory was to a large extent due to the traditional caution and pragmatism of the voters. Referring to the BNP, he concluded that, “[The shrewd electorate] has installed in government a party which will provide the essential continuity, prevent further polarisation of society, be comparatively efficient and less corrupt and above all, be capable of working with the armed forces.”

Gowher Rizvi, 30 years later

About 20 years after the article was published, Gowher Rizvi became the advisor of the leader who he once criticised for detesting “uncles” — a bit like himself. 30 years back he found Awami League’s reputation of subservience to India as a major cause for their defeat, and now he has turned himself into the heart of Awami League’s close relation with India. Though he mentioned Zia as a “charismatic leader of liberation war” and “indefatigable president” to the youth, he never protested his colleagues’ persistent effort to diminish Zia. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that article, however, is that today, Rizvi would never get away with criticising Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League in this way. His less than effusive comments about Sheikh Mujib, whom he did not call Father of the Nation or Bangabandhu, would certainly be noted. Today if he repeated a similar analysis, he would likely be subjected to multiple Digital Security Act cases against him, probable protests in the streets accusing him of being pro-BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, and scathing media headlines. He could very well find himself in prison on some cooked up criminal charges. 

Putting to one side the accuracy of Rizvi’s analysis, the article is indicative of how much Bangladesh has changed in these 30 years. Then he could write this safely, today he simply could not do so.●

AKM Wahiduzzaman is a Bangladeshi academic in exile in Malaysia — he is the ICT secretary of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Gowher Rizvi, Bangladesh: Towards civil society