Bangladesh: Hasina’s Polls

Bangladesh goes to poll as Sheikh Hasina faces anti-incumbency and the BNP emerges as the favourite

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Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina [ Photo credit: AP via Al Jazeera]

Bangladesh’s 12th parliamentary elections are to be held 11 days from now. The question is will it be a walkover/cakewalk for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League into her fourth consecutive and fifth overall term in office? When I was in Dhaka last month and asked people who would win the election, most including one person from our Embassy responded that if it was a free and fair election under a caretaker government Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party would win. Anti-incumbency, price rise, unemployment and corruption, the usual culprits, were quoted as reasons for people’s discontentment. In Dhaka, I witnessed mass mobilisation protests by the BNP that were countered by AL counter-protests leading to violence and wide scale arrest of BNP leaders and workers. Readymade Garment Workers – garment factories account for 85 per cent of Bangladesh’s USD 53bn exports – also called hartal over wage dispute. Since 28 October, BNP’s 12th hartal was held last week.

Former Ambassador to Bangladesh, Veena Sikri has noted that Dhaka has had elections under Army-backed and independent caretaker governments before. In the 2008 elections under the caretaker regime, AL won 260 of 300 seats. In the two following elections held sans caretaker government AL won both, with 259 and 245 seats. Begum Hasina won more seats under a caretaker government than in the one without. The question of freedom and fairness is left to the Election Commission and watchdogs, especially security forces. Similarly, on legitimacy, this time AL has given 26 seats to the third-largest Jatiyo Party and some seats to independent candidates while some 40 parties are registered to contest the elections. BNP is making the mistake of demanding a caretaker government – a provision was removed by a constitutional amendment by the Awami League – when it should be voicing people’s grievances and discontentment.

A senior journalist who must remain unnamed has said that India must do everything possible within the rule of law and concerning Bangladesh’s sovereignty to ensure BNP does not come to power as it is pathologically opposed to India. Jamat e Islami an ally of BNP which was opposed to Bangladesh’s independence and colluded with Pakistan Army’s genocide during the army crackdown, has been banned from elections and its members facing charges of treason under the Special International Tribunal set up by AL. India cannot forget that the BNP provided sanctuaries to ULFA militants. India has called an “internal matter”, the backsliding of democracy and persecution of minorities under “the authoritative Awami League government”.

I met a Hindu family belonging to the privileged class – educated, rich but most importantly, fought in the Liberation War, who are called Bada Lok/Bhadralok (intellectual). Between the very rich and the very poor, the middle class is very small.

The minorities – Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Chakmas have declined from 12 per cent to 9 per cent of the population. Hindus celebrate their festivals escorted by police within allotted timings but they are always vulnerable. The preamble to the Constitution reads: “Bangladesh is a secular country” but later the provision ‘Islamic State’ was added. Mercifully there is no Shariah or blasphemy law – yet.

India-Bangladesh relations are rated as the ‘best’ in the neighbourhood. Bangladesh has registered six to 7 per cent growth despite COVID and other international impediments overtaking India in human development indices, notably women empowerment. Trade relations are promising and zero tariffs despite no FTA. Bangladesh’s decision to join China-backed RCEP will certainly worry India. Connectivity by land, air water is highest in the region. Bar the Teesta Agreement hitch, both sides describe relations as mutually beneficial though some irritants exist, more with Dhaka complaining about Home Minister Amit Shah referring to illegal immigrants as termites and the killing by BSF of 300 civilians on the India-Bangladesh border.

It is in the ‘enhanced defence cooperation’ that is growing phenomenally thanks to the rejuvenated legacy of the 1971 Liberation War, a monumental event that has faded from contemporary conversation and instead hyped anti-India feelings. India has provided USD 500 mn LOC for buying Indian military hardware which is so far mainly non-kinetic. The Chinese are prettily ensconced and are primary (75 per cent) providers of military equipment including light tanks. Defence procurement is regulated under Group A from West, Group B from China and Group C from India. Turkey has also become a leading military goods supplier. The Chinese have built a naval submarine base at Pekua near Cox’s Bazar and gifted two submarines. They are fishing for a naval base close by. China has invested heavily in civilian infrastructure including the latest Padma Bridge, Sylhet airport and the Kainefuli tunnel. Beijing enjoys goodwill as well as influence, despite sometimes being openly critical of Bangladesh’s endorsement of Indo-Pacific and QUAD though it is a recipient of Chinese USD 41bn investment in BRI.

Ironically, China and India are on the same page about Sheikh Hasina’s likely re-election ignoring the US critique of democracy backsliding and consequent sanctions. Bangladesh Army which deposed AL, obliterated Sheikh Mujib’s legacy and ruled between 1971 and 1991, has been tamed by Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina. She has raised the defence budget by 123 per cent since 2011 and bought over the Army by giving it power, status and money by insulating it from politics. Ironically it still treats India as Foxland in its war games. In this era of uncertainty, India has put all its eggs in the Hasina basket.

Ashok K Mehta

Ashok K. Mehta is a radio and television commentator, and a columnist on defence and security issues. He is a former Major General of Indian Army. After joining the Indian Army in 1957, he was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment in the same year. He had fought in all major wars India went into, except the Sino-Indian War of 1962. And he was also on a peacekeeping mission in Zaire in the year 1962 and in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Sri Lanka (1988-90) and it was his last assignment in the Indian Army. He is also a writer of several books and a founder-member of the Defense Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defence, India.

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