Before being arrested on December 12, 1990, the just-deposed military dictator HM Ershad said he was neither repentant nor regretful of what he had done or what had happened to him.
Usurpation, massive allegations of corruption and its institutionalisation, innumerable scandals, incarceration and torture of opposing politicians, accruing the hatred of an entire generation and his ultimate downfall – nothing bothered him.
Ershad declared himself president in 1983, removing a puppet named Abul Fazal Mohammad Ahsanuddin Chowdhury, who had been appointed as chief martial law administrator by Ershad. That was possible because Ershad, as chief of army staff, had already forced the elected President Abdus Sattar, at gunpoint, to resign on March 24, 1982.
Like other dictators, he and his sycophants bragged about his development performance. Records would show that Ershad’s tenure witnessed stagnation in growth and some of his major steps were unsuccessful due to a lack of political legitimacy.
A photo of Chief Martial Law Administrator Ershad going to office riding a bicycle was published in the leading daily of that time, alongside various poems by him. The national media, either muzzled or self-censored, failed to report how his poetic genius dried up once he was ousted.
Once the political process resumed in the mid-1980s, the issue of a credible election came to the forefront of the opposition demands. In his last address to the nation – days before his exit on December 6, 1990 – following students’ demonstrations, Ershad himself admitted that a free and fair election was a national concern.
As he finally departed from the world on Sunday, the demands of his time still feel relevant.
His political career since the controversial parliamentary polls of 1986 was defined by a variety of elections: blocked, rigged, subtly-rigged, manipulated, robbed, one-sided, voting at night and also the fairest one held immediately after his fall.
General Ershad managed to revitalise his political career from detention, taking advantage of participatory elections held in February 1991. He won all five constituencies he contested from in Rangpur, his hometown.
In the subsequent three decades, Ershad, the last executive president before the country reverted to the prime ministerial form of government, would maintain the role of a virtual king-maker. His Jatiya Party supported the Awami League in forming the government in 1996. He briefly joined the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance between 1999-2000 but backed out in fear of conviction.
Ershad’s Jatiya Party formed an electoral coalition with the Awami League-led grand alliance before the January 2007 election that was postponed when the Election Commission cancelled his nomination papers. His rehabilitation in the capital was completed through his victory from the Gulshan-Banani-Cantonment constituency in the 2008 elections with Awami League’s blessing.
He once again proved who he was when the Indian external affairs secretary Sujatha Singh met him and, according to Ershad, requested him to join the 2014 elections boycotted by all opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
He discovered himself in the Combined Military Hospital ahead of the polls and as a member of parliament, notwithstanding his announcement of boycotting the polls. He was made special emissary to the prime minister – while his party was the official opposition party in parliament – despite its representation in the cabinet.
Ershad, his party, and its leaders turned into a laughing-stock as his political power and popular base became depleted.
However, Ershad’s political understanding was clearer than that of many of those who laughed at him.
He could feel the existence of an invisible rope that could have tied him at any time since he was first convicted in an arms case in 1991. Not all political observers could see the road to jail that Ershad could. He was fully aware that he was a prisoner who had no bargaining power other than buying his conditional freedom.
Still, this was a situation which was created by no one but him.
A resilient military officer, Ershad was absorbed into the Bangladesh army after his stay in Pakistan during the Liberation War, he survived coups and counter-coups in the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s.
The last bloody coup saw the killing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s founder, President Ziaur Rahman, in May 1981 when Ershad was the army chief. Ershad remained a suspect in plots before and after the Zia murder.
Ershad himself led the 1982 coup to capture state power. In his 80s, Ershad’s past was enough for his political rivals to implicate him in lawsuits. So, even after coming out of jail in 1996, he had never been able to act independently, except some abortive attempts to do politics.
In death, Ershad has found freedom from political confinement but the national issues that were valid during his time as ruler and political leader continue to haunt the people of Bangladesh.
Khawaza Main Uddin is a journalist and winner of UN MDG Award, Developing Asia Journalism Award and WFP Award.
This article first appeared in The Dhaka Tribune.