"No, no I can't meet you. Things are not right now. You are from India, isn't it ? They will be following you. It's not advisable for you to come here. I understand its just an interview, but should not meet you".
The voice on the other side of phone seemed nervous and unsure. It was tough to believe that he was Hossain Mohammed Ershad who ruled Bangladesh with an iron hand for eight years. This is the same man who led the army to topple President Abdus Sattar on March 24, 1982 and impose martial law. Known as one of the toughest guy in Bangladesh politics, he ruled as a dictator and ignored all demands, years together, for restoration of democracy. He had to relent, however, when two of most bitter foes in the country – Khaleda Zia and Skeikh Hasina – joined hands for once and organised a series of protests to overthrow him on December 6, 1990.
There is a reason for this lack of confidence. He is a lonely man in politics. His party – Jatiya party – is broken into three pieces. Khaleda Zia's government slapped more than 12 cases of corruption and other charges on him. He has already been jailed and kept confined. Both in the 1991 and 1996 parliamentary elections he contested from jail and won all the seats. Today, he is without allies. His party had tied up with Sheikh Hasina' Awami League for the January parliamentary elections which never happened. To stay afloat, he needs an ally who would be in power. In Bangladesh, that prediction even an astrologer would not make. He has to wait.
These days he wants to maintain a low profile because he does not want more court cases slapped against him. He nourishes the conviction that some of his former colleagues and subordinates in the army, now supporting the caretaker government, would not bother him too much.
Has he lost his relevance in Bangladesh politics? Not at all, says Anis Rahman, journalist, who has been following Ershad for some time. "Any party which wants to win the elections will need his support," Rahman says.
"I don't agree that he is a deciding factor. But certainly, he is a factor in our country's politics. There are certain areas where he is very popular," says Abdul Jalil, general secretary of Awami League.
Jalil is right when he talks about Ershad's popularity. There are regions in he northern part of the country like Sylhet and Ragpur (his birthplace), where his popularity is immense. In Rangpur he calls the shots. Interestingly, election results in these regioins are decided on very slender margins with one candidate having a winning difference of not more than 10,000. Ershad's party always bags more than the margin and becomes the deciding factor. With 18 MPs with him he provides an answer to the efforts of big parties to go to government.
The all powerful former chief of the army now spends most of his time reading books and watching TV. There are not many visitors in the imposing 12 storied building at the posh President's Park apartment in the Baridhara area where he has three floors to himself. There are some party leaders who call on him occasionally. His nine-year-old son, Arik, from the failed second marriage stays with him. He devotes a lot of time to the son and almost every evening he is out with Arik.
The 76-year-old man with an iron fist needs another chance. He is bidding time for the dark clouds to disappear. An incurable opportunist, he is waiting for the right moment.