Watch out for turbulence in Bangladesh - Politically charged

  0 comments   |     by Pratim Ranjan Bose

On August 8, Indian High Commissioner in Bangladesh, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, made two important statements. First, that External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj would visit Dhaka in September to attend the fourth joint consultative commission meeting between the two nations. Second, he underlined India’s interest in upholding democratic values. “We’re all democracies. We all believe in free and fair elections,” he was quoted saying in Bangladeshi media.

The comments came amid speculation in Bangladesh over the return of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League to power in the next election, due before January 2019, for a third consecutive term — through another opposition-free election. India has had a stable relationship with Bangladesh since Hasina came to power in January 2009, thanks to her directing Bangladeshi politics towards cooperative growth. It helped India maintain peace and pursue growth in the North-East. And the popular perception is she returnedfor a second term in January 2014 with Indian support.

Politically charged

The allegations are exaggerated. In 2014, the principal Opposition, Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), fell back on the time-tested tactics of boycotting the election. .

Meanwhile, Hasina introduced a new law allowing the government to hold the election without dissolution of parliament. This was controversial, to say the least and, the BNP was right in opposing it. But the problem was they also sided with the radical Jamaat-e- Islami, which was violently opposing Hasina’s attempt to try the collaborators of the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation War.

As the special court started convicting known criminals (MPs and ministers, among them) from the BNP and Jamaat camps, waves of violence rocked Bangladesh all through 2013, in which about 200 people were killed. Hasina’s support-base, minority Hindus, were victimised. The BNP thought this was enough to foil Hasina’s attempt to hold the election on time.

But the strategy backfired. Hasina went ahead with the election with some signboard opposition parties, riding on support from the liberal camp. Only 12 of the 40 parties registered with the Election Commission participated in the polls. The Awami League won 153 out of 300 seats, unopposed. India, recognised the Awami League’s win as a sensible alternative to terror and regional instability. The West, led by the US, followed India’s stand.

New realities

With India committing an $8 billion line of credit to Bangladesh and Dhaka reciprocating attempts to improve connectivity and facilitate trade and investment, relations improved. However, the ground realities in Bangladesh have also undergone vast changes in the meantime. Economically, Bangladesh gained , as is evident from its rising growth curve. From 6 per cent in FY14, GDP growth reached 7.24 per cent in FY17. In 2010, India was the first country to offer a sizeable, $1 billion assistance — including $200 million aid for preparatory work on on the Padma bridge — to Dhaka. That was when multilateral agencies were pulling out from the project, alleging lack of transparency. Today, the Indian line of credit is a fraction of China’s offer of $24 billion.

However, the changes are not as encouraging on the political front. Jamaat’s back is broken. Many of its leaders have been either killed, or are on the run. With Hasina acquiring its assets, Jamaat is also financially weak. But a new Islamist force emerged in 2013 through Hefajat-e-Islam (Protector of Islam). Hefajat runs approximately 14,000 unregulated Qawmi Madrasas and are probably more conservative than Jamaat in demanding the removal of every trace of liberalism in Bangladeshi society, from women’s empowerment to freedom of speech. The Awami League, the secular-liberal face of Bangladeshi politics, was found making compromises with Hefajat.

The design became apparent by the end-2016 when school textbooks were doctored to suit radical Islamist tastes. Early this year, the government recognised degrees awarded by Qawmi Madrasas, which had been under the scanner since 2003 for alleged links to terror. Liberal Bangladeshis believe this would lead to lowering the entry barrier in government jobs and higher education.

For the ruling party, witnessing a sharp drop in popularity — both due to the anti-establishment factor and virtual single-party rule for the last few years — it is a strategic step to divide fundamentalist votes and ensure a win. But to common Bangladeshis, it had reduced the gap between BNP and Awami League.

Unpopular Hasina

Awami League insiders feel it would be difficult for the party to survive a bipolar poll as has been the case in Bangladesh since the return of democracy in 1990. Though the BNP is in disarray with its top leaders, including Khaleda Zia, facing numerous corruption cases, the party has a core support base and may post significant gains in the election.

The situation has opened wide opportunities for the political actors in the country. The ever opportunist Hussain Mohammad Ershad, for example, has taken a lead in dividing the Islamic vote. Bangladeshi analysts believe he is merely trying to put up a proxy opposition to Hasina, as he did in 2014. A former military dictator, Ershad is now Hasina’s special envoy while his wife Rowshan is leader of the Opposition on behalf of his Jatiya Party. He was in Delhi last month and is reportedly in talks with Hefajat to form an alliance. Hefaajat is expected to join electoral politics in 2018, directly or indirectly. However, it is not clear if they will side with Ershad who hardly has much political equity left.

A bigger question is what will Khaleda Zia do? She is a popular leader and keen to contest the next election. But what if she lands up in jail before the election or leaves the country to avoid arrest, as her son did? How will the BNP fare, with or without Zia?

Bangladesh is now bursting with questions. But for the international community, a bigger concern is Zia’s image as protector of fundamentalist forces. Will they risk supporting her in such turbulent times or should Zia promise a shift in her brand of politics? Significantly, the BNP has not resorted to their trademark anti-India rhetoric since 2014. Are they merely trying to fly under the radar or is it a new beginning in Bangladeshi politics? The answers may be known to Zia, who is now visiting London.

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