By winning third straight term following Dec. 30 elections, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has emerged as the strongest leader of Bangladesh. She is the only leader in South Asia who has become prime minister for a fourth time.
But her victory is marred by controversies that are unlikely to die down soon. The opposition has already rejected the poll outcome and met foreign diplomats stationed in Dhaka calling upon the international community to pressure the Hasina regime to hold a fresh election under a neutral caretaker government.
Hasina’sAwami League-led alliance won 288 of the 298 parliamentary seats contested, a feat reserved for the likes of Saddam Husein; her main rival Khaleda Zia of main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party was in jail on corruption charges and barred from election process; JamaatIslami, a religio-political force to reckon with, was banned on charges of collaborating with Pakistan Army during the war of Independence; and Jatiya Party of former military dictator H.M. Ershad which was the main opposition in the outgoing parliament was in the fray as an ally of the ruling party.
American and European governments have expressed their reservations while the United Nations has called for an independent and impartial investigation into the election which was marred by accusations of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation and violence that claimed 19 lives.
“We urge the authorities to carry out prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigations into all alleged acts of violence and human rights violations related to the elections, with a view to holding accountable those responsible, regardless of their political affiliations,” the UN said.
The United States expressed concern about “credible reports of harassment, intimidation, and violence” but said it wanted to continue to work with Bangladesh.
The European Union, too, condemned the election-day violence. Similarly, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged an independent investigation into the alleged irregularities.
“International donors, the United Nations and friends of Bangladesh should remember that elections are about the rights of voters, not those in power,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement.
But India and China have gone against the tide. The two regional powers have patted Sheikh Hasina for her victory. In fact Prime Minister NarendraModi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Hasina.
“Spoke to Sheikh HasinaJi and congratulated her on the resounding victory in the Bangladesh elections. Wished her the very best for the tenure ahead. Reiterated India’s continued commitment to work together for the development of Bangladesh and further strengthening of our bilateral relations,”Modi wrote on Twitter.
It’s no secret that Hasina is India’s darling. The policy-makers in the North Block consider her ‘secular’ and ‘forward-looking’ and believe that with her at the helm of affairs India’s strategic interests are best served. The election outcome has sent a sense of relief in New Delhi which was wary of BNP’s return to power.
India’s experience with BNP regime led by Khaleda Zia during 2001-06 was anything but pleasant. So India’s backing of Sheikh Hasina is understandable. During last 10 years India and Bangladesh have enjoyed extremely warm relations.
Since 2014, when Modi came to power, the two leaders have developed special bond. There have been “10 meetings between the two prime ministers, six video conferences and five telephone calls in the last five years.”
Moreover, “19 development projects were inaugurated jointly by the two leaders, and they signed over 90 bilateral agreements in new areas like space, IT, electronics, cyber-security, civil nuclear energy among others,” says a report in the Indian Express.
But there is a flip side to such achievements. New Delhi has invested so much in one party that any change in equation will put its national interest in jeopardy. By putting her opponents in jail and managing over 90 percent seats in parliament Hasina appears to have consolidated power. But the question is for how long? Those persecuted by her regime will surely raise their heads – sooner or later.
Whenever that happens, it would have a direct bearing on India. We have seen this in early 1970s when India was obliged to host hundreds and thousands of refugees from East Pakistan.
The heat generated 50 years back are felt in India till date. The ongoing political crisis in Assam and other north-eastern states over Citizenship Amendment Bill is directly linked with the violent agitation that culminated in the creation of Bangladesh.
An estimated 30 lakh people were killed and up to one crore uprooted. Three lakh stranded Pakistanis, popularly known as Bihari Muslims, are still languishing in “66 crowded camps in Dhaka and 13 other regions across Bangladesh”. Perhaps, after Palestinians, they are the second biggest persecuted and stateless lot of humans.
We should be mindful of the time when Hasina regime is challenged by the street power. Since India has chosen to identify with the regime, New Delhi will have to face the consequences. No tyrant has existed forever.
In the recent past, we have seen Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and hosts of dictators from South America to East Europe to the Middle East surrendering to popular revolts despite strong backings of Super powers.
So what happens when history repeats itself in Bangladesh. Mass agitation and political violence is not uncommon in the country. The strong-arm tactics applied by Hasina should serve as warning bell for one and all.
It’s high time India reviews its policy viz a viz Bangladesh. There must be some sort of communication with BNP and other opposition parties including JamaatIslami. It helps in times of crisis. Who is communal and who is not should not bother us.
After all even we are ruled by a right-wing party rooted in a Hindu fascist organisation. The BNP is willing to mend its ties with India.
“We seek friendship with India. And contrary to the perception in India, we don’t believe in communalism, fundamentalism,” MirzaFakhrul Islam Alamgir, the party’s face in the absence of Khaleda Zia, told the Indian Express during election campaign.
Currently Indian policy-makers are in the process of adjusting to the changing equations in Afghanistan. The policy of “no engagement with the Taleban” is being reviewed in the light of ongoing talks that the US, Russia, Iran and Pakistan are having with the Taleban.
Army Chief General BipinRawat’s recent statement is a clear indication of the thinking in New Delhi. He said if a number of countries were talking to the Taleban, and if India has an interest in Afghanistan, then “we should also join the bandwagon”.
Same policy need be applied in dealing with BNP, JamaatIslami and all other parties in Bangladesh. We have much more at stake in the country than Afghanistan. It’s in our backyard with which we share 4,156 km-long international border, connecting five of our states.
Hence a peaceful and stable Bangladesh is in India’s national interest. Prime Minister Modi should use his good offices to ensure that.
He should express India’s concerns over reports of rigged election and continued harassment and intimidation of opposition leaders. Hasina should know that she can’t take India for granted.