There seems little chance of any understanding between Bangladesh’s two main political forces emerging ahead of the scheduled January 5 elections. The ruling Awami League is locked in a fierce confrontation with the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party on the streets, with ugly clashes erupting in Dhaka and elsewhere. The BNP’s call for an indefinite blockade of roads, railways and waterways from January 1 is only likely to trigger more street violence. At the heart of the confrontation is the election itself. The BNP, along with its allies, is boycotting the election because it wants a neutral caretaker government to oversee the process. Doing away with the constitutional provision for a transitional caretaker was among the earliest of the changes that the Awami League government brought in, with a Supreme Court ruling providing the basis for that move. What Prime Minister Hasina offered instead was a national government, which too was rejected by the BNP. Its leader Khaleda Zia is virtually under house arrest. Another political figure, the former military ruler H.M. Ershad, who heads the Jatiyo Party, the second largest in the ruling coalition, was taken to a military hospital by police commandos after he announced that he too was boycotting the polls. As a result, the Awami League is the only big party that remains in the elections, the Jamat-i-Islami having been banned in 2013. The ruling party is certain to win at least half the 300 seats that are going uncontested. But in such a moth-eaten election, a victory will have nowhere near the kind of legitimacy that it enjoyed when it won in 2008.
The crisis poses a serious challenge for India’s policy on Bangladesh. It is no secret that New Delhi’s relations with Dhaka have been best with the Awami League in power. From the point of view of India’s foreign policy, and more particularly national security objectives, ties have never been better than in the last five years. Prime Minister Hasina cracked down on Islamist extremism, and on safe havens for militants from the northeastern States. Yet, this very equation has set off an incredible amount of anti-India feeling within Bangladesh, especially as New Delhi was seen as not reciprocating Dhaka’s “concessions” in equal measure — the non-implementation of the Teesta Accord is one sore point. India could have helped at least by counselling Prime Minister Hasina to take less reckless positions against her opponents, but it is too late for that now. Post-election, Bangladesh appears headed for more volatility, and New Delhi’s relations with a government that comes to power through a problematic process will only get more complicated.