|#1945||551||October 23, 2018||By Col Rajeev Kapoor|
The world seems to be moving towards a new and disconcerting geopolitical and geo-economic phase which is not just multipolar, but also multi-conceptual. Amidst this tumultuous geopolitical flux and conundrum, India is facing certain exigent regional challenges with multidimensional ramifications. Impending Bangladesh general elections, likely in the next two months, have brought forth certain incertitude and scepticism for India.
The last election of January 2014, with a turnout of just 22%, was marred with controversies. Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the election, claiming abrogation by the Awami League-led government of a constitutional provision, enacted in 1998 that allows for a caretaker government to take the reins of the state in the run-up to the elections.[i] Last elections were also infamous for widespread violence over the trial of war criminals, resulting in the conviction of two senior BNP leaders and a host of top office bearers aligned to radical Jamaat-e-Islami, a key BNP ally.[ii] Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League eventually won more than half the seats unopposed.
The political arena of Bangladesh mainly revolves around two major parties —Bangladesh National Party and the incumbent Bangladesh Awami league. Since 1991, either of the two “Begums” have ruled Bangladesh as prime ministers.
These two parties, known to be hedging against each other, have maintained drastically different worldviews and followed divergent foreign policies when in power. While the Awami League since Mujibur Rahman has sought and maintained bonhomie with India and the US; the BNP has explored a relationship with Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia during its tenure. Thus India’s relations with Bangladesh have time and again oscillated between the two, depending upon who was in power.[iii]
Unraveling Current Political Situation
Since last elections, Khaleda has been handed a five-year sentence for graft and is barred from contesting the elections.[iv] Her son, Tarique Rahman has been sentenced to life along with 19 others on 10 Oct 2018, over the 2004 grenade attack that killed 24 people and injured 500 others including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. This predicament has made BNP close to being leaderless today, with no one to step into Khaleda’s shoes. Conversely, Hasina’s core support base of 35-37 percent voters appears to be intact.[v]
So the key question emerging now is, can Sheikh Hasina do it again?
If Khaleda is not able to overturn the verdict in a higher court, Awami League surely would have an edge in the forthcoming polls.
However, “there’s more to this than meets the eye” as host of significant reasons indicate that these elections might not be a repeat of the 2014 edition. Besides, Bangladesh’s record of political vengeance might go against Hasina.
Apparently, there is a strong undercurrent and considerable disquiet among the people about increasing executive control of the judiciary (the last Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was chased out of the country on trumped-up charges of corruption); increasing reliance on the security forces — specially the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) —for governance; state’s stranglehold over the media; and the enforced disappearances of dissidents. Bangladeshis appear fed up with the aggrandisement of power in Hasina’s hands.
Factors like high inflation, rising current account deficit, unemployment, corruption and extreme poverty which stands at 12.9%, according to the World Bank’s Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016, are also presumed to generate strong anti-incumbency headwinds, thwarting the ruling party’s ambition of returning to power.[vi]
Hasina’swidely acknowledged moderate image, of preventing Bangladesh’s slide into the quagmire of being another terrorist haven in South Asia, has been tarnished too. Her olive branch to Hefatzat-e-Islam (protector of Islam), a radical non-political force, to keep the Islamic votes divided is being viewed as an opportunist move to stay in power. The election of 169 Jamatis on Awami League ticket, in the last village-level Union Parishad, has also drawn flak from Bangladeshi moderates and the International community.[vii] However, Hasina’s advantage is Bangladesh’s growth story –GDP rose 7.2% in 2017 and the expected growth in 2018 is 6.9%.
On the contrary, Khaleda and her BNP, though appearing to be in destitute, have ample reasons to fancy their chances of winning the upcoming elections. Khaleda’sstaying in jail and still contesting the election instead of boycotting them is likely to be seen by the voters as heroic, garnering the sympathy votes for her.[viii]
Whilst BNP’s chief ally, Jamaat-e-Islami has been decimated and its prominent leaders either killed or convicted, it still retains considerable street power through its youth wing, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir.
Moreover, cannot underestimate the formidable grass-roots support for BNP, which remains strongly intact due to its political use of Islam; exploitation of factionalism and reintegration of core religious groups like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HUJI), Hizbul Tahrir and Hizbul Tawhid.
The third and fourth alternatives —like the coalition led by the former military dictator HM Ershad’s Jatiya Party and the unified group of smaller parties formed by dissidents cannot be underrated. On 15 September 2018, Prof AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury-led Just front and Dr. Kamal Hossain-led Jatiya Oikya Prokriya in a massive rally, formally announced forging of a “greater national unity.” The rally was also attended by leaders of the BNP. Such alliances & political unifications are prophesied to divide the voters and change the political equations, hurting Hasina’s prospects.[ix]
Another power centre, the Bangladeshi Army, has so far remained non-political, yet cannot be sidelined as it did intervene in 2006 to prop up a caretaker government for a period of two years. In fact, the corruption charges against Begum Khaleda were filed by the same caretaker government. Although Hasina has kept Army close to herself by doubling its size and providing it with a generous budget, but if serious questions about the elections are raised, there are chances that the Army might once again intercede.[x]
Another intriguing factor would be the minorities, especially the Hindus. Fed on BNP-Jamaat’s consistent anti-Awami League campaign, the mindset of Bangladeshi Hindus has undergone a significant change by tilting towards BNP and Jamatis. If Hindus boycott voting or vote for the BNP (even insignificantly), it will swing results in favour of BNP because polls in Bangladesh, they say, are decided by a thin margin of two to four percent. In the recent Comilla Mayoral election, the Awami league candidate lost because a sizable percentage of Hindu voters boycotted the poll in protest against the persecution of Hindus in neighbouring Brahmanbaria.[xi] Fear of this weaning support has presumably prompted Sheikh Hasina in presenting 1.5 bigha land to Dhakeswari National Temple on 16 October 2018, solving its 60-year land problem.[xii]
From an economic perspective, Dhaka’s emergence as the world’s second largest garment exporter has created a pool of Bangladeshi businessmen and industrialists in the Parliament who dominate major foreign policy and economic decision-making. An anti-India lobby in this “community” has steadily emanated due to factors like imposing of tariff and non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi goods by India.[xiii] This is likely to have an impact on election calculus.
Though it may be early to appraise the impact of these factors and political alliances suffice to deduce that if 2018 election witnesses an all-party participation in a ‘free and fair’ environment, the BNP coalition and Awami League both have an equal prospect of forming the government.
India’s Quandary: What is at Stake?
India has three looming consternations from these upcoming elections: first, India wants a non-communal government to combat terrorism and terrorist outfits; second, the new regime should treat Chinese overtures with caution; and lastly, it should widen the field of Indo-Bangladesh cooperation, maintaining friendly relations with India.
Indian Foreign Minister during her visit to Bangladesh last year said “Our foreign policy follows ‘neighbourhood first’ approach, Neighbour’s first, but Bangladesh before all."This statement, while innocuous in form, explicitly hinted the importance of Bangladesh to India.[xiv]
India desperately needs Bangladesh’s cooperation in stemming the tide of cross-border Islamic terrorism. India from last 10 years has been comfortably working with Hasina's regime and is beholden to her cooperation in preventing Islamic terror from crossing into India, and for her zero tolerance of it in Bangladesh itself.
On the contrary, such activities had always surged during BNP rule. In the past, both the Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee governments wanted to build stable relations with Khaleda’s government in Dhaka but failed.
Concomitantly, Bangladesh is also an important cog in India’s ‘Act East Policy’. Given that Bangladesh is growing at over 5% per annum from the past decade and looks set to continue to grow, it is an economic asset which India should proactively engage, emulating China. China’s investment in Bangladeshis of US$ 13.6 billion and in contrast India has notched up its Line of Credit to US$ 8 billion besides affirming $2 billion for the Rampal power project on soft terms.[xv]
With Chinese strategic footprints becoming progressively prominent in the IOR, the significance of Bangladesh in India’s maritime security has also become inevitable.
Consequent to these potentials, Bangladesh elections are manifestly vital & crucial for India. If Bangladesh doesn’t remain politically stable and tolerant, then India may find it difficult to stop Islamic extremism from flourishing in Bangladesh. This situation would be perilous to India’s internal security and economic growth.
Plausible Scenarios and Options for India
It is imperative for India to evaluate the inferences of the possible results. Awami League’s return is not predicted to be as smooth as in 2014. Anti-incumbency can sometimes be too strong a force to resist. This implies that New Delhi cannot rule out an upset victory by the BNP led opposition or what if, Bangladeshi voters taking a cue from India, decide to vote strategically in favour of select opposition candidates leaving the options open for a post-poll coalition?
It is indisputable that Hasina is the best bet for India and with so much at stake, the prospect of any government other than one run by the Awami League is likely to be viewed with some dismay & anxiety by India.[xvi]
But despite her coming back, the prophecy of Indo-Bangla relations seem turbulent as Hefajat-e-Islam, which she appeased in the last few years, might have a bigger say in policy making. Besides this, contentious issues like the publication of the draft NRC in Assam, which she has conveniently kept under the carpet till now, are expected to gain prominence after elections. This alliance gamble might also lead to the spread of radicalisation, especially of the Rohingyas. Contrarily, if Hasina loses the election, radical forces might take control of power with more vigour than ever.
In contrast, if the BNP manages to come to power, then India is expected to face another hostile neighbour. Although it appears that BNP has come around to the idea that its traditional attitude toward India has run into obsolescence, which it now needs to repair. A BNP delegation in fact, undertook a visit to Delhi recently to convince the Indians regarding its refashioned stance on foreign policy. The party officials are not leaving any stone unturned to earn India’s trust and in the last five years, not a single anti-India movement has been attributed to them.[xvii]
But has BNP really changed? It would be difficult to predict whether BNP will return chastised or turn the clock back on the current government’s approach against terrorist groups.
India, not being imprudent to write off Khaleda has kept channels of communication open with her. Meeting of Sushma Swaraj with Khaleda during her last visit to Dhaka in October substantiates India’s stance. India is also keen that if a powerful opposition party is in parliament, there will be less danger of elements in it seeking extra-constitutional methods to influence government or grab power.[xviii]
It would be compelling to see how India maintains egalitarianism towards Zia and Hasina, the “Battling Begums” of Bangladeshi politics.
So what does the future look like in Bangladesh? Undoubtedly it’s either Awami League or the BNP coalition. Though which ‘Begum’ finally prevails remains crucial for India but, an emerging scenario of weakened parliamentary parties due to their allegiance to groups like Hefazat Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami, poses a cardinal threat to India as well as to the region's-economic-security matrix.
To conclude, India surely prefers that Awami League stays in power, as under their regime Bangladesh has emerged as one of its closest neighbour. Barring the sole exception of Teesta water sharing, most of the pending issues were sorted out.
Nevertheless, whichever party comes to power, India should play a role of an honest broker. The Awami League can always remain India’s good friend, but the BNP need not remain India’s enemy. India should sincerely work to ensure that Bangladesh-India bilateral relations are insulated from the collateral effect of NRC and the Rohingya issue, and Bangladesh effectively continues its battle against radicalisation and terrorism.
[i]Farid Ahmed, “Bangladesh ruling party wins elections marred by boycott, violence”, CNN, January 7, 2014
[iv]“February 8th verdict may cut both ways for BNP”, The Daily Star, February 2, 2018 URL-http://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/strategically-speaking/may-cut-both-ways-bnp-1528516 Accessed: March 11, 2018.
[xiii]Zafar Sobhan, “Endgame in Bangladesh,” The Hindu, February 12, March 15, 2018.