OZY introduced you to Hossain Toufique Imam earlier this month. He is a political adviser to the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has just won a landslide reelection.
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Short, bald and soft-spoken, Hossain Toufique Imam wouldn’t dare take credit for any of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s accomplishments. But as the nation of 165 million prepares for a high-stakes election on Dec. 31 amid a surge in Islamic extremist threats, the hand of Hasina’s 79-year-old political adviser can be felt — just as it has since the nation’s founding.
Imam was the first Cabinet secretary — the top bureaucrat — of Bangladesh after it won its independence from Pakistan in 1971. For the following three decades, he served successive governments in different administrative capacities. As a part of Hasina’s core team for the past 10 years, Imam’s forceful yet restrained touch has helped guide the prime minister’s responses to some of her biggest challenges: a military mutiny in 2009, a standoff in the capital, Dhaka, with Islamists in 2013, and an election boycott by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) followed by street clashes and arson in 2014.
Now, he is plotting how to convince Bangladesh’s voters to elect the ruling Awami League to power for another five years against a united opposition coalition, by emphasizing the nation’s safety fears as well as its stunning economic successes. “There is no other party that understands Bangladesh’s security threat,” says Imam. “We also expect that voters of all ranks will value the importance of continuity of leadership for sustained economic growth at a high rate.”
[Imam is] considered more important than most ministers in Bangladesh.
Rajiv Bhatia, former Indian diplomat
Imam’s long career in public life was shaped by the events leading up to Bangladesh’s independence. In school in the early 1950s, he witnessed the popular movement for the recognition of Bengali as the official language of what was then East Pakistan. Imam joined the East Pakistan Students Union and campaigned for the United Front, which counted as one of its leaders Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s father, who would become independent Bangladesh’s first leader. Imam stayed active in student politics in Bangladesh and then at the London School of Economics, where he studied in 1967–68, as student protests were brewing across Europe.
Today, Imam has a reputation of outsize influence, one that exists beyond Bangladesh’s borders. At a January 2015 talk in New Delhi, former Indian diplomat Rajiv Bhatia introduced Imam — who doesn’t hold any formal executive position in government — as someone “considered more important than most ministers in Bangladesh.” A February 2009 U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks listed Imam as among Hasina’s closest confidants (many others were her family members), calling him a “trusted adviser.”
Imam’s clout is widely recognized in Bangladeshi political circles. The Awami League’s campaign manifesto of promises for the coming elections, released on December 18, “bears his stamp,” says Giasuddin Molla, a professor of political science at Dhaka University, while adding that Hasina also turns to other key aides, including foreign policy adviser Gauhar Rizvi and parliament speaker Shireen Chaudhury for suggestions.
But Imam’s significance to the Awami League isn’t restricted to electoral politics. Almost immediately after Hasina took office again in 2008 — she had been in power from 1996 to 2001 — she faced a mutiny by some members of the Bangladesh Rifles, a unit of the country’s military. The rebels killed 57 officers of the army. An angry army wanted to retaliate with brute force. But Imam, along with a handful of others, stood by Hasina in insisting against the use of force. Instead, Hasina visited the army barracks and met soldiers who had lost colleagues. The mutineers were arrested and the Bangladesh Rifles reorganized. Imam was picked by Hasina to participate in the government’s investigation into the incident.
A little more than four years later, on the night of May 5, 2013, tens of thousands of activists of the Islamist Hefazat-e-Islam group laid siege to Shapla Square in the heart of Dhaka. They wanted Hasina’s administration to bring in a blasphemy law, make Islamic education mandatory and crack down on atheist bloggers who were taking on the Islamists. Sensing a coup of sorts, Hasina’s advisers devised a counter-strategy. Military units blocked all but one exit route and used rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the protesters. Imam was central to the planning. “The handling and diffusion of the evolving crisis was one of the finest moments of our government in which I had a role to play,” he recalls.
A few months later, the opposition BNP boycotted the January 2014 elections, demanding that they be held under an unelected caretaker government, and not under Hasina. Efforts at resolving the crisis failed, and street battles exploded across Bangladesh. “The idea was to totally paralyze the government machinery and show to the world that the elections were not held properly,” says Imam. Hasina went ahead with the elections and — without much of a contest — won. Imam led government delegations to convince the international community that the Hasina government wasn’t to blame for the lopsided elections.
Not everyone was convinced then, and some remain critical. Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says Hasina and her team have “seriously diminished democracy” by their failure to take the opposition along. Imam has faced criticism over comments in 2014 where he appeared to suggest that the government would help students with the Awami League in their college examinations, though the political adviser insisted he was misrepresented in media reports.
Imam himself concedes there are some things the Hasina government could have done better. The government has focused more recently on modernizing education in madrassas, but Imam says it could have done so much earlier to “avert many unpleasant situations” — such as radicalization in seminaries.
Like many secular Bangladeshis, Imam draws a link between today’s Islamists and the pro-Pakistan militias that killed millions and raped thousands of women in 1971, during the country’s war of liberation. And irrespective of what happens in the elections, the battle against what he calls “anti-liberation forces” is what will continue to drive him. “We must be able to save the nation from their venomous touch,” he says.
Imam turns 80 in January, but even to his enemies, his significance hasn’t waned. In 2015, the Bangladesh terrorist group Ansarullah Bangla Team sent a death threat to him.
For his party and leader, Imam remains an invaluable firefighter. The BNP is accusing the Election Commission, which conducts the vote, of trying to influence the 2018 elections in favor of the Awami League. Imam is leading the government’s defense, both in public and in private with foreign diplomats — the power broker always in action.
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