Friday, September 9, 2011

The World: Mandate For Mujib

Standing on a platform draped with white cloth to look like a boat—the campaign symbol of the Awami League —Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheik Mujibur Rahman delivered his last campaign speech at the little village of Dirai north of Dacca. The village is accessible only by boat or on foot (or, in the Prime Minister's case, by helicopter), but by the time Mujib arrived, 20,000 people had crowded in from as far as 25 miles away to hear the man they call Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal).

"I have not been able to give you two meals a day," Mujib told them. "I have not always been able to give you one meal a day. But not a single person has died of starvation." Then, reminding his audience to vote for the symbol of the boat in the country's first national election, he asked them "to put up both your hands if you have confidence in me." A forest of hands shot up, and lusty shouts of "Jot Bangla!" (Victory to Bengal) rang out.

When Bangladesh last had an election, in 1970, it was still under Pakistani rule. Mujib's Awami League won a majority, entitling him to become Prime Minister, but the Pakistani army moved in, arresting Mujib and slaughtering his followers during a nine-month civil war. Last week, just before the vote, one old villager said: "In this village we will vote 16 annas in the rupee (100%) for Bangabandhu. We love Mujib. We want to show him how much we love him." At the polls, Bangladesh's 35 million voters did indeed show their devotion to Mujib, giving the 53-year-old Prime Minister a nearly unanimous mandate. With 300 seats in the National Parliament at stake, the Awami League captured 291.

If there was a troubling element this time, it was the lack of genuine political opposition. No fewer than 15 other parties, all of them to the left of the Awami League, entered the race, but their campaigning was frequently halfhearted. Still, there were charges and counter-charges that posters were ripped down by political opponents as soon as they were put up, and at times the bitterness spilled over into violence. "I fought for democracy, went to jail for it, and I believe in it," said Mujib. "But I can't create an opposition just to show there is one."

Mujib says that his first priority now will be a campaign to increase food production. "We cannot keep on getting food from abroad as a gift," he declared last week. Even though the United Nations will continue its efforts to supply food to Bangladesh to make up the deficit in the country's food production, Mujib is anxious to prove that Bangladesh is capable, finally, of managing on its own.