This is the eighth instalment of a 10-part series on the life and work of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
On December 7, 1970, the Awami League under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won by a landslide in the first and last general election of the then-undivided East and West Pakistan. The victory gave Bangabandhu the mandate to lead the country, a mandate that he utilised in leading Bangladesh to independence.
The East Pakistan-based Awami League’s chief competitor in the election was the West Pakistan-based Peoples’ Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Voting took place in 300 constituencies, including 162 in East Pakistan and 138 in West Pakistan.
The Awami League won 160 out of the 300 seats, while the People’s Party won 81 seats (all in West Pakistan). The remaining 59 seats were split among the other parties.
Prior to the election, Bangabandhu at a discussion on the death anniversary of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy on December 5, 1969, declared that East Pakistan would be called Bangladesh from then onwards.
Subsequently, while campaigning for the election, Bangabandhu urged the people to elect Awami League candidates to ensure the implementation of the historic Six-Point demand. It was around this time that he made his election pledge to build a “Golden Bengal.”
Bangabandhu chose the boat as the symbol of the Awami League to represent the hopes of the people in the “Land of Rivers.”
When countless lives were lost to a catastrophic cyclone that had made landfall in November 1970, Bangabandhu suspended his election campaign and rushed to help survivors in the affected areas, even though the election was less than a month away.
According to researchers, Bangabandhu soon realized that he needed to win an election to earn the right to be the leader of Bangladesh. In an interview with BBC Bangla in 1969, he said he would not consider himself as a representative of the people until he had been elected.
Pakistan President Yahya Khan echoed Bangabandhu’s sentiment ahead of the election, telling reporters in Dhaka that he would not consider anyone to be representative of the people until they were elected.
However, Siddique Salik, the public relations officer of the Pakistan army at the time, in his post-1971 book “Witness to Surrender”, wrote: “Awami League had practically won the election before the vote. The election on December 7 was just a formality.”
In addition to his electoral campaign speeches on radio and TV, Bangabandhu visited almost all the constituencies to touch base with the people. He was welcomed with open arms by almost everyone, and young people were particularly vocal in their support with chants of “Joy Bangla.”
According to the “Bongobondhupedia,” edited by Muntassir Mamoon and published by Bangladesh Shishu Academy, Bangabandhu delivered a speech on December 1, 1970, less than a week before the election.
He said: “My dearest brothers and sisters, Assalamu Alaikum. Please accept my greetings. The coming December 7 has been fixed as the date for the first general elections where you will be able to exercise your voting rights. The election is the result of unrelenting sacrifice and struggle of the people. We can take the opportunity to free the country and its people from all kinds of suffering and crisis through this election.
“Dear countrymen, I am not hungry for power. The struggle to realize the people’s demand is far greater than power. If you want to give us the responsibility to place your opinions and realize your demands, then we will have to consolidate power from right now. A majority in parliament will give us that power because it is the key to realizing all our demands. That is why, at this critical juncture of history, I want to place only one request to you: Please cast your vote for 'boat' and elect Awami League candidates in all the constituencies,” he added.
After the election, the movement for an independent Bangladesh gained momentum and heralded the start of a new chapter in history.