India has gone against almost the entire developed world by recognising the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh. But the question is, has India played its cards right by doing so? The controversial general elections in Dhaka saw the secular Hasina government returning to power for the second term, in a violence-marred poll boycotted by most of the Opposition.
Despite having a fair chance to ride the anti-incumbency factor, the principal Opposition party, the moderately right wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), boycotted the January 5 election in protest against a ban on its electoral ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, from participating in the polls.
Role of fundamentalists Clearly — and perhaps justifiably — Delhi was happy to see Jamaat outside the corridors of power in Bangladesh. The Islamic hardliners, despite having low vote-share, historically play a crucial role in the power balance in India’s eastern neighbour. The role of Jamaat has become a concern for India after the execution of senior Jamaat functionary Abdul Quader Molla, nicknamed ‘butcher’, for war crimes. Molla was held guilty of having perpetrated murders of Hindus and Muslims to support the cause of the Pakistani Army, during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of liberation.
Molla’s death sentence was eagerly awaited by a wide cross-section of young and educated Bangladeshis, who staged an unprecedented uprising in Shahbag in early 2013, demanding speedy trial of the perpetrators of the genocide.
On the flip side, the spate of developments over the past one year have added to the volatility in Bangladesh politics. Jaamat banked on the age-old tactics of unleashing terror and fuelling Islamic sentiments to survive the tide. The 8 per cent Hindu minority, considered a vote bank of Hasina’s Awami League, are the worst sufferers of this divide. And, in this highly polarised environment, Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP had little option but to side with the Jamaat, in the hope of reaping the harvest of this divide.
Mixed signals Foreign policy observers do not find fault in Delhi’s concern over the socio-political churn in Dhaka. As a major power centre in Asia, Delhi is also expected to play its role in the politics of the sub-continent. The concern is whether the mandarins in South Block have ended up making their preferences a bit too obvious, further impacting India’s relationship with the anti-India BNP, which may come back to power sooner or later.
At stake is the long-term bilateral relationship, including trade and commerce, between the two countries and India’s geo-political interests in the region.
A case in point is the visit of India’s top foreign ministry official to Dhaka, exactly a month before Bangladesh went to polls. Having taken over in August, Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh decided to meet the top stake-holders in Bangladesh politics, except the Jamaat, in the first week of December.
This was just a week after Dhaka announced the election schedule towards the end of November, and BNP made clear that it was not participating in the polls without Jamaat. The visit has been construed by sections in Bangladesh as India’s direct interference in Bangadesh politics and the 2014 general elections. Sreeradha Dutta, Director of the Kolkata-based Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies feels, “India should have had a more nuanced position.”
Pressure on Hasina India is hopeful that Hasina will act to ensure strengthening of democracy in Bangladesh. To India’s comfort, Hasina started off well by inviting every political party that participated in the polls to join the government.
But there are a few concerns. First and foremost, the electorate in Bangladesh has been consistent in switching allegiance between the two arch-rivals, BNP and Awami League, in every successive election from 1991 to 2008.
Going by that rule, Hasina’s popularity started waning from 2010 onwards on overall governance issues. And, a check of social networking sites shows that the same Bangladeshis who celebrated the execution of Molla or the ban on Jaamat are also critical of non-performance and corruption in the League government.
To cut a long story short, Hasina is running low on overall popularity. Her detractors, who are substantially large in numbers, question her credibility in ensuring the sanctity of democratic institutions. And, India’s support to her government may make her job doubly difficult in the face of anti-India sentiments.
The silver lining, if at all, lies in the latest civil democratic movement that began from Shahbag. The youth and intelligentsia are unlikely to allow lawlessness to prevail in the country. They don’t see much difference between the politics of either Zia or Hasina, but they are unlikely to give a free hand to the Jamaat.
Significantly, it is said BNP supporters are now questioning Khaleda Zia’s decision to not contest polls. Perhaps, it may not be too much to expect another election sooner rather than later, but contested by all but the Jamaat.