Bangladesh’s political impasse appears all set to worsen in the coming weeks unless the two main political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, demonstrate maturity of a high order. The BNP has opposed the “all party government” formed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to oversee national elections due in January 2014 and threatened to take to the streets. As a result, only parties in the Awami League-led ruling coalition are represented in the set-up. The roots of the present crisis go back to 2011, when the Hasina government amended the Constitution to abolish the caretaker system of government, which had been introduced in the mid-1990s to provide a non-partisan overseer for elections. The decision to do away with it was born out of first-hand experience of the perils of the caretaker system when a government of technocrats appointed for three months in 2006 stayed on for over two years with military backing. The abolition was opposed by the BNP, which also boycotted the vote on the amendment in Parliament, seeing it as a self-serving move by the Awami League. Since then, the country has moved from crisis to crisis, each segueing into the other, including massive violence that attended the trials to punish those who had cooperated with the Pakistan Army against the liberation of Bangladesh. Through all this, if BNP leader Khaleda Zia has been confrontationist, Prime Minister Hasina has hardly been reconciliatory. The ban imposed earlier this year on the Jamaat-e-Islami, a crucial ally of the BNP, did nothing to enhance the Awami League leadership’s democratic credentials, coming as it did shortly after the opposition combine convincingly won a clutch of municipal elections in the midst of the war crimes trials.
What is required now is for both parties to acknowledge that they need to engage with each other constructively to ensure a peaceful democratic transition. An election boycott by the BNP, as the party has threatened, is no solution. As for the Awami League, victory in an election that is not contested by the main opposition party would be hollow. It will set the country on a fresh path of political confrontation. With the security situation in the entire region uncertain, several countries are now engaged in efforts to break the political deadlock in Dhaka. Already seen as pro-Hasina, New Delhi must do nothing that appears partial to any party. It is true that Sheikh Hasina has been a good friend of India, but New Delhi’s inability to reciprocate with a settlement on the Teesta river water dispute or on the land boundary issue has given the BNP a stick to beat the government with. It is in India’s interests to encourage the two main parties to find a way out of this impasse themselves, without taking sides.