Pratim Ranjan Bose

This election is crucial for India too

Pratim Ranjan Bose | Updated on April 26, 2018 Published on April 25, 2018

Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi have raised the bar. - Sandeep Saxena

It is difficult to call the Bangladesh elections at this point but India will be closely watching the emerging political trends

After a 10-year long stability, India-Bangladesh relations are facing fresh uncertainties as Bangladesh heads for general elections in the next six months.

Shiekh Hasina’s Awami League, which is in power since 2009, won the last election in January 2014 under controversial circumstances. Arch-rival Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had boycotted the election. Awami League won more than half the seats unopposed.

The election was held in the backdrop of widespread violence over the trial of war criminals and the resulting conviction of two senior BNP leaders and a host of the top office bearers of the radical Jamaat-e-Islami, which was a key BNP ally.

India and other global powers welcomed the League’s win as a viable alternative to instability. But the next elections may not be a repeat of the 2014 edition.

While Delhi maintains a status quo on Hasina; it is now imperative for her to ‘win’ in an election where all parties participate to come back to power for the third term.

But can she do it? Though Hasina’s core support base of 35-37 per cent voters appears to be intact; her government is suffering from serious anti-incumbency, owing to poor governance and unabated corruption.

And, it might be difficult for the League to win a bipolar contest, which has been the norm in Bangladesh so far. Bangladesh’s record of political vengeance might lead to serious instability in the region; which is not in India’s interests.

High stakes of India

Over the last decade, New Delhi has invested heavily in building strong relations with Dhaka. The stakes were raised considerably during the four years of the Modi government. Bangladesh is today an important player in India’s ‘Act East’ agenda.

In the last four years since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, India has committed close to $9 billion as credit and aid, and $2 billion for the Rampal power project on soft terms. This is over and above the $1 billion loan and aid offered in 2010.

A lot more effort has also gone into policy implementation. Barring the sole exception of Teesta water sharing; most of the pending issues were sorted out. The land boundary agreement is a reality. Passenger train and bus services have been expanded and the visa regime has been eased significantly. Electricity supplies are enhanced and will be doubled this year.

Many analysts attribute this hectic diplomatic activity to the China factor. To its credit, New Delhi breached China’s grip over the Bangladeshi army last year by entering into its first-ever defence deals.

But, this is just a part of the story. Bangladesh is extremely important to India from the security perspective.

This small, 90-per-cent Muslim majority country of 16 crore people with a history of socio-political volatility and creeping radicalisation, shares a 4,100-km porous land border with Eastern and North- Eastern India. A volatile Bangladesh can create instability in various parts of India. If the strategic North-East India has been peaceful for the last 10 years, Hasina deserves credit for clamping down on cross-border terrorist activities. On the contrary, such activities had always surged during BNP rule.

To cut a long story short, India regards Hasina a key player for maintaining peace and boosting development in the region and is keen to protect the bilateral relationship from domestic political upheavals.

There is no precedence of such consistency in Bangladeshi politics. In the past, both the Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee governments wanted to build stable relations with the Khaleda Zia government in Dhaka, but failed.

Hasina’s strategy

Hasina is drawing her strength from the low credibility of her opposition and is trying to win this election by dividing the Opposition votes.

The BNP, which was under enormous pressure since the war crimes trials began, is in disarray after the arrest of the 72-year-old Zia, in a fund embezzlement case in February .

Her release may be inordinately delayed as she is facing 37 cases, including the one on grenade attack on Hasina in 2004. Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, and the second in command in the party, has been living in exile to avoid arrest.

Though the BNP is determined to participate in the 2018 polls; and there is no major exodus from the party ranks either; many believe the leadership crisis may limit its electoral prospects.

The Jamaat-e-Islami is in serious trouble with many of its leaders either killed or convicted. Also the Election Commission cancelled its registration in 2013.

This coupled with the cropping up of some third and fourth alternatives — like the coalition led by the former military dictator HM Ershad’s Jatiya Party or an anticipated coalition between three-four smaller parties — are likely to keep the voters divided.

Hasina has already extended the olive branch to Hefatzat-e-Islam (protector of Islam), a radical non-political force, by making compromises in school textbooks etc; with an aim to keep the Islamic votes divided. With the army (a separate power centre in Bangladesh as in many countries in South Asia) supporting Hasina; her prospects look bright at this juncture. But all plans look good till they start going wrong.

Beginning with the win of the Janata Party in 1977, to the recent collapse of the Left in Tripura, due to a complete shift of the ‘loyal’ vote bank of Congress; Indian democracy presents many case studies of where conventional wisdom failed miserably.

What if the Bangladeshi voters take a cue from India and decide to vote strategically in favour of select opposition candidates leaving the options open for a post-poll coalition? Anti-incumbency can sometimes be too strong a force to resist.

These factors make it difficult to call the 2018 elections. If Hasina wins, the section of radical forces, which she appeased in the last few years, might have a bigger say in policy making.

If she loses, given the dangerous games she played, radical forces might take control of power with more vigour than ever.

BNP changed?

The only ray of hope in these uncertain times is the change of stance of BNP.

For a party that bears the legacy of army dictator Zia-ur Rahman, known for its anti-Indian rhetoric and violent movements, BNP now has turned unusually calm.

Not a single anti-India movement was attributed to them in the last five years.

Their protests remained peaceful even in the face of serious provocations from the League.

The party officials are not leaving any stone unturned to earn India’s trust. And, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj met party officials including Khaleda Zia during her last visit to Dhaka in October.

But has the BNP really changed? The opinion remains divided.

Published on April 25, 2018
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