Rashed Khan Menon has now made the bold claim that no voters went to the general elections last December. At least, he did not see any voters trekking to the polling stations. In effect, the former minister was informing the nation that in December last year no elections took place or that the elections were flawed.
The point here is not whether or not the elections were credible. That is a subject on which the pundits have their points of view to offer. What is moot here is Menon's sudden explosion of ire, which many have been construing as his way of suggesting that he is not happy being a former minister or that all these allegations coming his way in relation to the casino affair are beginning to test his patience. Again, there are the reports of the authorities seeking information about his and his spouse's bank accounts. None of these can make anyone happy, least of all an individual who has been a minister in a government which continues to govern the country.
But what is of significance, for citizens, is the question of why Rashed Khan Menon has now chosen to inform us that the elections were really no elections. He was in the cabinet on Election Day and continued to be a member of the cabinet right till Sheikh Hasina gave shape to her new council of ministers a few days after the December electoral exercise. Menon would have earned the nation's respect, indeed he could have created waves, had he chosen to resign from the cabinet when he decided that the elections had become questionable. He could have done it immediately after the polling stations closed or over the next few days, before the new cabinet took office.
That Menon did not resign, that indeed he waited in the hope that he would be part of the new dispensation, turned out to be rather unfortunate for him. But now that he has chosen to speak out on the elections, there is something of a moral question which comes in here. It is impolitic for ministers, once they are no more part of the government, to vent their anger about that very government. Ethics matter because even though they may be hugely upset about their experience in office or not continuing in office, one expects former ministers and individuals of their kind to keep their silence. It is a different matter, of course, if and when they choose to write their memoirs at some point in their lives. But condemning a government after they have been part of it is not an honourable act.
Back in the mid-1960s, in the post-Tashkent period, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, despite being foreign minister in the Ayub Khan regime in Pakistan, went around grumbling about a secret clause he said had been inserted by Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ayub Khan into the Tashkent Declaration. History has proved that there was no such clause, but that did not prevent Bhutto from whipping up public sentiment on the issue against his leader. He ought to have resigned from the cabinet before coming forth with his insinuations. When he did not do that, President Ayub Khan first sent him on leave (an unprecedented move, since ministers traditionally do not go on leave). And then the President asked Bhutto to resign. When Bhutto demurred, Ayub had him know clearly that a failure to resign voluntarily would lead to his sacking. In July 1966, Bhutto resigned from the cabinet and soon launched his campaign of demagoguery against the man who had raised him to prominence.
There is the case of Khan Abdus Sabur, the Bengali politician who served Ayub Khan for a number of years as central communications minister. Ayub's diaries, published posthumously, reveal that at some point of the preparations for the Agartala Conspiracy Case by the regime, the President wondered if Sabur had also been part of the plan to dismember Pakistan. Sabur denied the charge and the matter rested there. But the record shows that during the election campaign of 1970, Sabur Khan, then canvassing support for his faction of the Muslim League, at some stage told the media that he had advised Ayub Khan against instituting the Agartala Case. He must have known that the case was false or that it would collapse. But what is pretty intriguing here is the question of why, if he felt the case was wrong or could not be defended, Sabur continued to be part of Ayub Khan's cabinet till the very last day of the regime? Why did he not leave when Ayub did not heed his advice? And what point was he trying to score by revealing his story when Ayub Khan was already a former President and politics had taken a new direction?
There are, always, the moral dimensions to leadership. Politicians are not expected to condemn, either verbally or through their actions, the men and women they have served under. When Jagjivan Ram, who had loyally served Indira Gandhi before and during the Emergency, suddenly ditched her and linked up with the opposition arrayed against her for the March 1977 elections, his act came as a shocker for people wedded to principles being part of politics. If he was worried about the repercussions of the Emergency on Indian democracy, Ram could have taken the decent path out of the government. He could and indeed should have quit the cabinet in June 1975. What he did prior to the March 1977 elections was a blatant act of opportunism. Democratic politics respects individuals whose careers and performance rest on moral principles. Jagjivan Ram failed on that score.
Tajuddin Ahmad and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman developed rather serious policy differences in the post-Liberation period. In October 1974, Bangabandhu asked Tajuddin to submit his resignation. Tajuddin Ahmad, ever the intellectual, ever the gentleman, ever the committed politician, complied and went home. In the year left of his life, before it was snuffed out in November 1975, he never made his thoughts known in public. He respected his leader, continued to be in touch with him and engaged with him on family-related occasions, such as the marriages of the sons of the Father of the Nation.
Possessed of a profoundly morals-based personality, Tajuddin Ahmad did not betray the principles on which democratic politics is grounded. Alas! There are not many who can or have been able to emulate him.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and columnist