Discussions between senior Indian and Bangladeshi officials on the sidelines of the sixth Indian Ocean Conference in Dhaka have brought home palpable uncertainties in the countdown to the national parliamentary elections due in the neighbouring country in January 2024. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, visiting Dhaka after a while, also had the opportunity to figure out first-hand the ground realities in a nation considered crucial for stability in India’s eastern neighbourhood.
Though Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seems to be sitting pretty, all is not well in the South Asian country. Its Islamist Opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has refused to join the polls if it is held under the stewardship of the present government because it is “bound to be rigged massively as the last one”.
Western powers, including the US, are backing the Opposition on their demand for a non-partisan caretaker government to supervise the polls. It used to be the norm in the country until the Awami League government, which had a huge majority in parliament, abolished the system in 2010.
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The 2006-08 crisis
The Awamis have good reason to be apprehensive about an interim government after the 2006-08 experience, when a military-backed caretaker regime exceeded its brief of conducting fair polls within 90 days and resorted to a “Minus 2 and Plus 1 formula”. The design — as alleged by former minister Tarana Halim in a Deutsche Welle talk show recently — was to alter the country’s political landscape by removing the two power women, Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia of BNP, and instal Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus through the backdoor.
Yunus is the USA’s favourite — Bangladesh’s very own Ashraf Ghani in a way — but someone who clearly failed to translate his Grameen Bank micro-credit beneficiary network and Nobel stature into political heft, despite all the Western backing and that of the 2006-08 caretaker regime. Now, he is under a cloud over labour court cases involving allegations of Grameen cheating its employees. But strangely, he seems to retain his Western connections, and his lawyer has claimed in court that Yunus could get a second Nobel!
The US seems to have Yunus in mind as its regime-change operation, bearing the template of the 2013 Euromaidan operation in Ukraine, unfolds with tell-tale manifestations of massive anti-government social media mobilisation, pressure over human rights and democracy issues, and efforts to arm-twist Bangladesh on other fronts like denial of GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) for Bangladesh’s garment exports.
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India in a tight spot
Rising Western pressure may drive Hasina closer to China because its veto in the United Nations can block adverse resolutions seeking to haul up Bangladesh. India has two clear limitations here. One, it does not have UN veto power. Two, its strategic alliance with the US to take on China makes it difficult for Delhi to take on Washington head-on over Bangladesh as it did in 2014 and during the 2006-08 caretaker days when it pushed hard for polls.
India now also lacks someone like Pranab Mukherjee who knew Bangladesh well and who battled it out with the US to ask the military-backed caretaker to stand down. If Bangladesh goes the Myanmar (and Sri Lanka) way, what’d be left for India in its neighbourhood? Beijing’s strategic encirclement of its biggest Asian rival would be almost complete.
And, if an Euromaidan-type operation works in Bangladesh, India will have to reckon with an Islamist dispensation in power, which may undermine much of the gains over the past 14 years of Awami rule, what with Khaleda Zia’s threat to review all agreements Hasina has signed with India.
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What Hasina needs to do
A top-secret survey conducted earlier this year has suggested that if Awami League goes to polls with its current MPs — many of whom allegedly “bought” nominations in 2018 — it will get only 32 to 47 seats in a 300-member house. But the survey, whose report this writer has seen, suggests that if the Awami League goes ahead with its most popular candidates in all 300 seats, it will win 83–117 seats. And, if the government performs well in the next six months and checks both corruption and inflation through some tough action, the Awamis may gain close to 140 seats because 37% of respondents may change their mind and vote for the party, suggests the report.
Hence, there is mounting pressure on Hasina to change her corrupt and inefficient ministers and replace them with bright and clean professionals, especially in the home, finance, foreign, information, industry, commerce, and water resources portfolios. The names of former Bangladesh Bank governor Atiur Rahman, Harvard-trained economist and PM’s adviser Mashiur Rahman, former Rajshahi mayor Khairuzzaman Liton who turned it into Bangladesh’s, former actress-lawyer and very successful telecom minister Tarana Halim, and 1971 war hero Mir Mostaque Ahmed Robi are doing the rounds. Some have suggested the induction of veterans like Amir Hussain Amu and Bahauddin Nasim to help Hasina tide over the looming law-and-order crisis.
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The corrupt cabal
Delhi wants to see the Awami League return to power but through a fair election that can shut up the Western nitpickers and prevent Bangladesh’s slide into a one-party rule that will augment Chinese influence. What worries Delhi is the rising influence of a corrupt and powerful syndicate — comprising politicians, bureaucrats, military leaders, and business tycoons — led by a pro-Pakistan business tycoon who advises the PM and plays both the Chinese and the Americans. This cabal prioritises return to power through whatever means — including the use of Emergency provisions — to maintain its reign of plunder through extensive money-laundering and bank defaults, which has massively affected the country’s forex reserves amid the global slowdown heralded by the Ukraine War.
India can only hope Hasina would not repeat her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s BAKSAL experiment (a decentralisation system undertaken on Soviet advice) because Bangladesh should remain Bangladesh and not degenerate into a Bengali Pakistan — the parameters ranging from culture to economy — through a stable, institutionalised democracy.
(The writer is a former BBC correspondent and author of books on South Asian conflicts)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)