India, US narrow differences over Bangladesh ahead of elections
Delhi has tried to impress on Washington that democracy in Bangladesh is possible only through free and fair elections
In a series of recent meetings between senior Indian and US officials, the differences over Bangladesh that existed between the two allies have pared down. India has agreed to the US stand of putting “absolute priority” on a free and fair parliamentary election due in January 2024.
India and the US were engaged in bitter diplomatic spats in the runup to the last two general elections in Bangladesh (2014 and 2019), with Delhi desperate to keep the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League in power and Washington pushing for a regime change at all costs.
"With China an overwhelming concern for both the US and India and the two increasingly tied into an all-embracing strategic partnership, differences on regional issues like Bangladesh is something neither Delhi nor Washington can afford," said a top Indian diplomat now posted in the US.
He said that over the last several months, both countries have tried to narrow down their differences by extensive interactions, mostly when senior US officials like Donald Lu visited both Delhi and Dhaka. "That has borne some fruit."
The Jamaat factor
Senior Indian officials dealing with the South Asian region told The Federal that “there was no doubt that Bangladesh could only survive and grow as a functioning democracy that sticks to its founding ideals”.
They said Delhi has tried to impress on Washington that democracy in Bangladesh is only possible through free and fair elections and not through the ouster of the present government by violent street protests by Islamist radicals and opposition parties dependent on them.
“At the same time, we are very upset with the systematic encouragement to radical elements by the government,” said an Indian national security official, pointing to the “go slow” attitude adopted by the Hasina government over a recent case filed in the Supreme Court to block the Jamaat-e-Islami’s efforts to secure re-registration as a political party.
The pro-Pakistani Jamaat was banned as a political party in Bangladesh after a legal verdict found its political manifesto incompatible with Bangladesh’s constitutional edifice.
“Now, the case filed to block Jamaat’s appeal to quash the verdict has been listed for hearing but has not come up for hearing as it was listed towards the end of the court’s business. This appears deliberate because the government seems to have sent a message that a verdict against the Jamaat might provoke it to resort to violence and so the hearings should be delayed,” said an intelligence official on the condition of anonymity.
Chinese deep dive
Bangladesh’s veteran freedom fighters and pro-1971 politicians have strongly pushed for a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist parties which advocate a Shariat-driven Islamist state on the Afghan model. “What upsets us is that the Awami League often seeks underhand compromise with such fundamentalist elements,” said the official.
India has managed to convince the US that South Asia cannot afford another Islamist regime. “While democracy in Bangladesh is our top priority, we would not like to see an Islamist dispensation in power in Dhaka. Pro-liberation forces still constitute the mainstream nationalist opinion which should be promoted to create a united platform to isolate pro-Islamist elements in both the Awami League and BNP,” said Sukharanjan Dasgupta, an author on Bangladesh with connections to senior officials in Delhi.
He said it was crucial for the US and India to work closely to stop Chinese deep dive in Bangladesh, especially in the ruling party and civil-military leadership, but he said neither can achieve this objective by empowering an Islamist opposition. “Our officials have increasingly brought the Americans round to this way of thinking,” he added.
Message for Hasina
Officials say Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be given two clear messages when she comes to Delhi next month to attend the G20 events.
One, the next parliament polls in Bangladesh must be free and fair with an empowered Election Commission in full charge. Two, the Awami League must purge all pro-Chinese and pro-Islamist leaders from its ranks and choose candidates who are both popular and secular to increase winnability in a fair election.
“We cannot defend another flawed election in Bangladesh,” said one official.
A top US official on condition of anonymity said: “India and the US have agreed unanimously that free and fair polls are a must to ensure that Bangladesh remains a functioning democracy and does not become a one-party state. That, we both believe, are crucial for Bangladesh to grow economically.”
She said both the US and India were on the same page to “stop deep Chinese inroads in Bangladesh both at the political and the civil military levels” and “want to ensure Bangladesh does not go for the Chinese model of a one-party state”.
The only area of difference is the “US doesn't care who comes to power in a free and fair elections” while India seems to want to ensure that a “democratic, secular pro-1971 dispensation” remains in power in Dhaka.