Updated at 5:52 p.m. ET on 2018-10-23
An 81-year-old lawyer who cultivated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political career four decades ago but who has since turned against her, says he is aiming to bring back full-fledged democracy in Bangladesh amid imminent national polls.
Kamal Hossain, a former law minister, was a political protégé of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s father and the founding leader of the 47-year-old nation.
“We are united to restore democracy through free and fair elections,” Hossain told BenarNews as he announced on Oct. 13 that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had joined forces with a new political alliance headed by him. Two days later, 18 partners in a coalition led by BNP declared that they were also siding with Hossain’s alliance.
“This united front is not in the interest of any party,” he said. “We are united in the national interest.”
For decades since the late 1960s, Hossain had been involved in politics. He would be known as the lawyer who led the committee that drafted Bangladesh’s first constitution, which came into effect in December 1972 – a year after the country gained its independence from Pakistan through a vicious war.
Hossain was elected to parliament in 1970 and 1973, and Sheikh Mujibur, nicknamed Mujib, was his political guru.
Mujibur, who became prime minister under a parliamentary system adopted by his country, appointed Hossain as law minister in 1972. A year later Hossain was appointed foreign minister before also taking charge of the petroleum ministry.
But Mujibur faced challenges involving rampant poverty and allegations of rights violations and corruption. Renegade army officers assassinated him, along with his wife and several family members, during a coup in August 1975.
Hossain had received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Notre Dame University in Indiana in 1955 and a bachelor’s in civil law from Oxford University, where he earned a doctorate of philosophy in 1964.
After teaching constitutional law and international law at Queen’s College in England in the late 1950s, Hossain returned to Bangladesh, where he taught law at the University of Dhaka for five years until 1967.
Early in his legal career, Hossain worked on human rights cases before becoming a legal counsel of Mujibur, the first president of Bangladesh.
Hossain was on a bilateral visit to Yugoslavia when Mujibur was assassinated. He rejected calls from the military government to return and stayed at Oxford, where he taught and got himself immersed in legal research.
But Hossain would eventually return to Bangladesh, and in 1981 he became the ruling Awami League party’s presidential candidate. He was defeated by Acting President Abdus Sattar in the election, which, Hossain alleged, was rigged.
In 1982, rebel soldiers ousted Sattar in a coup led by army Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad. In 2010, the Supreme Court declared Ershad’s coup and martial law illegal.
As the young nation went through a series of political upheavals in the early 1980s, Hossain urged Mujibur’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, to head the Awami League (AL).
Personal conflict with Hasina
But due to feuding with Hasina, Hossain would quit the Awami League in 1991. He eventually formed his own party, Gono Forum.
Since then, Hossain has opposed Awami as the nation gears up for general elections likely to take place in December.
Last week, Hossain became the leader of an opposition conglomerate called the National Unity Front (NUF) that includes his Gono Forum party.
He took the opposition cudgels as more parties began showing interest in joining the NUF against the ruling party and its allies.
“Dr. Kamal Hossain has created a sensation in Bangladesh politics,” Emajuddin Ahamed, a former Dhaka University political science professor, told BenarNews.
He called Hossain “an educated good man, with strong commitment for democracy.”
While Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of more than 163 million people, is formally a multiparty democracy, rights activists describe the government as a “hybrid regime,” one in between a “flawed democracy” and an authoritarian state, according to East Asia Forum, a research platform.
Hossain, in his recent speeches, vowed that the new alliance would aim to restore democracy as he demanded Hasina’s resignation and the dissolution of parliament before holding the general elections under a non-party caretaker government. The ruling party rejected his demands.
His NUF alliance drew flak from Hasina who alleged in a public rally that Hossain had formed an alliance with a “corrupt” political party, apparently referring to the BNP whose top two leaders had been accused of corruption.
Hasina also described NUF as a “front of opportunists.”
“The government has been running the country in a despotic way. They want to cling to power,” lawyer Moudud Ahmad, a member of the BNP standing committee, told BenarNews.
“The attacking comments from the ruling party indicate that the front puzzled them,” he said, describing Hossain as “a light at the other end of the tunnel.”
Poor contact with the common people
But Arun Kumar Goswami, a political science professor at Jagannath University, told BenarNews that Hossain had poor contact with ordinary Bangladeshis.
“The politics Dr. Kamal Hossain wants to introduce would not work in Bangladesh,” he said. “You cannot succeed in politics here without having connection with the people.”
But Moudud Ahmad contradicted him.
“I can refer a number of politicians who succeeded with lesser contact with people than that of Dr. Kamal Hossain,” he said.
Hossain’s family hailed from southern Barisal district, but he was born on April 20, 1937 in Kolkata in British India. His family returned to Dhaka in 1947 following the creation of Pakistan and East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1972.
Political analyst Emajuddin Ahamed said Hossain’s arrival as Hasina’s potential rival comes as BNP chief and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia remained behind bars, while the main opposition party’s acting chief and Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, was in self-imposed exile.
“The BNP has been in a leadership crisis. Against this backdrop, getting Dr. Kamal Hossain as a leader is a “plus point for the BNP,” he said.
“He is excellent,” he said. “I would not be surprised if he ends up facing troubles.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version wrongly reported that all 19 of BNP's partner parties in the coalition that it heads were siding with Kamal Hossain's alliance.