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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 6 New Delhi January 26, 2019 - Republic Day Special

A Close Look at Bangladesh Elections

Monday 28 January 2019

by Mahendra Ved

Nothing excites a Bangladeshi more than a go at politics, especially electoral politics. Every election in this South Asian nation has had more than its share of noisy campaigns, violence and controversies. The December 30, 2018 elections have reinforced this trend.

The UN called for holding an election free of violence. The European Union took a dim view of the way the polls were conducted. The US State Department deprecated the “climate of fear”. Human rights bodies made similar observations.

The West, in general, has called it a contest between “authoritarianism and extremism, and one is more dangerous than the other”. (a CNN report) Post-results, the Editorial Board of The New York Times, lamenting the violence that killed 17 people on the polling day, noted that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was leading the nation towards “one-party rule” and that her considerable achievements on the economic and social fronts “have been offset by a precipitous slide toward authoritarianism”.

It asked those, including the US that is the largest foreign investor and has its largest single-country market that “it is incumbent on countries doing business with Bangladesh and cheering its rise from poverty to remind her and her allies at every turn that human rights are not an imposition of an alien culture, but a critical element of development and progress”.

All this is noted and appreciated. Suppression of democracy in any form cannot be condoned. But the way the world moves is starkly different. Many democracies have a record of doing business with dictators, drug mafias and military juntas even as they criticise their human rights violations and impose economic sanctions.

As for democratic elections, criticism is selective. Little has been said, for instance, of the way the military, with help from a pliant judiciary, conducted political and electoral engineering in Pakistan, another South Asian nation, last year.

The outcome of the elections may have surprised even Hasina who would have won anyway. She won 288 seats, leaving just seven seats to the Opposition. This was when the 80 per cent voter turnout was less than 86 per cent when the main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had boycotted the polls. The combined Opposition was trounced.

Much has been made of the lack of a level playing field. The BNP, led by Begum Khalida Zia, also a former two-term Prime Minister, did have a severe handicap since she is jailed for conviction for graft and her son Tariq, also convicted, lives in self-exile. But Hasina and her Awami League can hardly be blamed for the BNP’s boycott of the 2014 elections which was a serious tactical mistake.

It lost the fight when it joined the electoral arena but tagged with the Muslim League and other Islamists under the canopy of an Opposition alliance led by the venerable Dr Kamal Hossain.

While the BNP may have gained in terms of sharing power with the League (2001-06) in the past and from Islamist cadres campaigning for it, the damage this tagging did could not be repaired even by Dr Hossain’s leadership.

THUS there are two ways of looking at the elections in Bangladesh. Everyone, including the critics, going by the welcome accorded to Hasina on her poll victory, indicates that while dual view will persist, it will be business as usual. The ground reality is that everyone seems happy/reconciled to the relative political stability, a continuing spurt in economic development and a marked improvement in social indicators that place Bangladesh ahead of other South Asian nations, including India.

Speaking to a group of Indian journalists on the eve of the elections, Hasina had expressed the hope that if elected again, she would lead the nation’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2021. Her wish fulfilled in the shape of a landslide victory that gives her five more years in office, she has a huge task cut out. She must strive for inclusive growth—politically, economically and socially. The economy, in particular, needs to grow in a manner that reduces the growing inequalities.

With her securing a fourth—third consecutive—term, Bangladesh seems poised for a period of greater economic development and better social environment. It is also ready for a generational change and the first indication came in the shape of Hasina ushering in a younger ministerial team, retaining old advisors, but replacing seniors, some of whom were with her father, late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It is necessary that she addresses the aspirations of the post-liberation generation.

With the Islamists defeated, at least electorally, Hasina can work to provide political stability in a volatile nation. Although there is none who can be called completely secular and Hasina had herself cultivated a section of religious conservatives, retaining Islam as the State religion, it can be hoped that Bangladesh remains a moderate Islamic nation. This is a lot when many parts of the world are combating extremism and terrorism.

However, there is a lurking danger. The electoral defeat and continued prosecution by the state could lead to radicalisation of a section of the youth influenced by Islamists with known foreign connection and funds. There is need to draw a line between religiosity and religion being used to vitiate society and foment trouble.

In doing so, the new government would have to also guard against giving a free hand to the Army, police and para-military forces to ensure that they do not become extra-constitutional authorities. Bangladesh has had 15 years of military or military-guided rule and a fragile civilian leadership could open door to the military again.

A significant aspect of the election was that India for the first time, did not figure in the discourse. Past elections had shown India as a villain or an ally, depending upon which side of the political divide one was watching. Political leaders would ‘warn’ people against the Indian ‘hegemony’ and in the 1991 parliamentary polls, calls had gone from the mosques during Friday prayers to defeat ‘nauka’ (boat, which is the Awami League election symbol) to ‘prevent’ India’s ascendancy.

Hasina has always acknowledged Indian assistance in her country’s fight for independence and has assiduously worked to eliminate camps on her territory used as staging posts by militants from India’s North-Eastern region. But come every past election, her Awami League was dubbed as an Indian ‘dalal’. This name-calling did not happen this time over.

The BNP did try to cultivate the Indian leadership sending delegations to New Delhi last year. But India made it clear that it could not deal with a party that was tagged to the Muslim League. It had suffered a lot when Zia shared power with the League and hosted Islamist militants during 2001-06.

Nevertheless, the reason why India is happy with Hasina is that ten years’ rule has meant a transformation of the way Bangladeshis, particularly the post-independence generations, look at India.

India occupies a very large space in Bangladeshi mind-space, and much of it has been positive thanks to mutual trust, with quid pro quo in the form of Dhaka working to eliminate bases on its soil used by the militants from the Indian North-East. Trade and tariff concessions, joint working on power and other industrial projects have helped, even if there is a huge trade and foreign exchange imbalance. At the public level, a million Bangladeshi tourists visit India and Kolkata remains their major shopping destination.

While nothing can be done about the size and geographical imbalance between the two, India no longer scares Bangladeshis; they view it as a neighbour that could mean greater interaction capable of meeting their current and future aspirations.

India has and must continue to engage with Bangladesh at the official and peoples’ levels to cultivate a long-lasting relationship. More preferential treatment and less big-brotherly approach would go a long way in opening India’s own access to the neglected, secluded North-Eastern region.

Also, it ought not to view Bangladesh’s relations with China with disapproval. Ties with China give Hasina a significant elbow-room so as not to be seen as being pro-India. And there is little India can do to prevent China’s spreading influence in the entire South and South-East Asian region. Spiting Dhaka or pressuring Kathmandu, Thimphu or Colombo does not help New Delhi.

Mahendra Ved is the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (2016-2018). A senior journalist, he can be reached at  mahendraved07[at]gmail.com

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