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In Bangladesh, the president is just a ceremonial figurehead of the republic. Former president Shahabuddin Ahmed has aptly summed up his job: "I don't have anything worthwhile to do except offering prayers at the mazars." But even this innocuous action can incite the political class into plotting his ouster, as President Baddruddoza Chowdhury's recent resignation testifies.
Prof Chowdhury, 71, a renowned physician and a gifted orator, resigned after the parliamentary wing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) adopted a resolution condemning him for his alleged disrespect towards Gen Ziaur Rahman, the slain founder of the party, and even threatening an impeachment motion. What miffed the party bosses was his refusal to offer prayer at Gen Zia's mazar on his death anniversary on May 30, and the omission of his name as the "announcer of independence" in the president's message the same day.
Independent observers, however, feel the president only upheld the dignity and impartiality of the highest office by his refusal to lay wreaths at Gen Zia's mazar. The president took this decision to avoid the embarrassment of extending the same respect to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his death anniversary, something the BNP stalwarts could have never accepted. The Bangladesh polity is bitterly divided between BNP supporters who claim Gen Zia announced the liberation of the country, and their detractors in the Awami League who argue it was Mujibur Rahman instead.
Chowdhury, the BNP's founding secretary general, was disappointed at the party's response. "I could have stayed on. But I decided to resign for the greater interest of democracy. It's sad that no senior party leader ever bothered to contact me for any clarification.... If I hadn't (resigned) the situation could have gotten worse," the outgoing president declared.
His cryptic remark only bolstered the argument that the conspiracy to remove him was aimed at elevating Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's son, Tarek Rahman, in the party hierarchy. For one, the idea to condemn the president publicly was mooted by the BNP's young MPs owing allegiance to Tarek, the same people who demanded a higher and more important post for the rising son of Bangladesh.
Analysts believe the main agenda of the parliamentary party was to fashion a promotion for Tarek—and then groom him to take over from his mother. Prof Chowdhury was condemned for his ostensible disloyalty because he was believed to be an obstacle in the implementation of the grand design. Says political analyst Dr Serajul Islam Chowdhury: "True, the president has no power to block any prime ministerial decision but he was most likely to exercise his moral authority in obstructing what is considered highly undemocratic—perpetuating family rule. Prof Chowdhury had already demonstrated his moral authority by his recent refusal to endorse Begum Zia's decision to appoint a controversial Dhaka University professor to the post of chairman, Public Service Commission. The PM acquiesced. There's no reason for her to feel comfortable with someone like Prof Chowdhury sitting on her head."
Her silence in the BNP party meet was interpreted as an endorsement of the young Turks' demand, prompting even senior leaders like finance minister Saifur Rahman and the local government minister Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, who's also the party's secretary general, to join the chorus condemning the president in a harsh language. But their tactic boomeranged. Tarek's appointment as the joint secretary general of the BNP almost immediately after the president's resignation surprised party stalwarts, including Bhuiyan.
"After Prof Chowdhury, Bhuiyan is the biggest loser in the power struggle," says columnist Mohiuddin Ahmed. "Tell me who's going to seek his blessings any more when Tarek is around." Adds Serajul Chowdhury: "I can see the moderates are losing ground. They're not only moderates but also pro-liberation forces in the BNP." Since pro-liberation forces are seen as soft towards India, diplomatic observers say improvement of diplomatic relations with India could now be put on indefinite hold.
There are already media reports that Tarek would soon be inducted into the cabinet, a step away from the crown prince's final takeover. Says Serajul Chowdhury: "It's just a matter of time before you see the creation of a dynastic rule. It's a pity they haven't learned any lesson from the disastrous consequences of similar attempts in the subcontinent."
But those drunk on power prefer disastrous hangover to moderation.