India is too strategically powerful and too close a neighbour to play a partisan role in favouring any political party over another in Bangladesh

By every account, the January 5 election, Bangladesh’s 10th so far, was a low point for democracy. The boycott of the 18-member Opposition alliance meant half the seats Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) won were uncontested, and about half of the remainder were against unknown candidates with estimates of the turnout just 22-30% of the voting population. Ms. Hasina has now returned to a parliament that echoes only with her voice, but the voice is a hollow one, like the victory itself. Ms. Hasina may have won a three-fourths majority in the ‘Jatiyo Sangshad’, but three-fourths of her electorate didn’t vote. For her rival, Khaleda Zia, whose Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led the boycott, there are parallels to her own victory in February 1996, when Ms. Hasina boycotted the polls, until widespread protests forced a second election that Ms. Hasina won in June 1996. While it is significant that India has backed the polls, it is equally important to notice that the United States slammed them, saying it is “disappointed”, and the United Kingdom, Australia and the European Union have called for another poll at the earliest. Ms. Hasina has also come under much criticism for putting Ms. Zia under a virtual house arrest in the lead-up to the elections, which Ms. Zia described as the “death of democracy”.

India has done well to defend Bangladesh from the international onslaught and from the comments of human rights organisations that have followed. There are several reasons why Ms. Hasina had no alternative but to hold elections. To begin with, Bangladesh would have been headed for a constitutional crisis if they had not been held in January. Ms. Hasina’s decision to hold them without a caretaker government at the helm was, in fact, mandated by the Supreme Court. Secondly, Ms. Hasina can hardly be blamed if other parties chose to boycott. In 1992, terror-torn Punjab saw an election that was boycotted by all but one of the Akali parties, where the Congress’s Beant Singh was elected Chief Minister by winning just 9% of the potential electorate.

Targeted violence

Ms. Hasina’s supporters would also argue that Bangladesh has seen some of the worst targeted violence in the run-up to these elections. More than 100 people have been killed in the past few months, in protests and clashes by members of the Opposition, the violence driven largely by members of the Jamaat-e-Islami that was banned from politics five months ago. Bearing the brunt of the anti-election clashes have been the country’s minorities, notably Hindu villages where thousands have had their homes burned in Jessore and Southern Chittagong, and have been forced to take shelter in temples and neighbouring areas. Many have likened the targeting to the pre-liberation pogrom carried out by Jamaati leaders in 1971 that they are now facing war crimes tribunals over. In taking them on, Ms. Hasina has faced formidable opposition, not just from within Bangladesh, but from the international community.

The U.S. has consistently issued statements against Ms. Hasina’s government for the working of that tribunal, getting vocal support from British parliamentarians, and groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Ms. Hasina has stayed the course in supporting those trials, carrying out the execution of Jamaati leaders at no small cost to her image domestically and internationally. Ms. Hasina has also risked losing some of Bangladesh’s biggest donors from Saudi Arabia after she took on NGOs that she claimed were funding jihadist activities by JI cadres.

Given this situation, it would seem natural that many in India would call for South Block to play a protector’s role for Ms. Hasina and the Awami League, and balance out some of the pressures she faces. Yet, this too, would be a blunder. India is too strategically powerful and too close a neighbour to play a partisan role in favouring any political party over another in Bangladesh.

Losing face

For all but two of the past 22 years post Army-rule, it has been these two ‘begums’ that have been in power. Despite its concerns over Ms. Zia and the BNP’s policies, India gains little by political partisanship. South Block has burned its fingers playing that game in the neighbourhood in the past: in 2008, then National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan had indicated India’s preference for Sushil Koirala’s Nepali Congress Party, and then had to walk backwards an uncomfortable distance after the Maoists won the polls. In 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Maldivian President Mohammed Waheed to congratulate him for assuming power, and lost face after it became clear the move was completely undemocratic, and India then spent much time championing the cause of deposed President Nasheed, who eventually lost the recent election.

Even in the run-up to the Bangladesh elections, India’s open support for Ms. Hasina became the biggest reason for the criticism against her. When Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh went to meet Jatiya Party chairman Hussain Muhammad Ershad to dissuade him from boycotting the polls, the move boomeranged badly. At a press conference called directly after the meeting, Mr. Ershad announced that Ms. Singh had told him India was “opposed to the rise of parties allied to the Jamaat-e-Islami”, and the rhetoric against India only rose with the perception that it was playing a larger role than Bangladeshis would want any foreign country to play.

In a recent article in the Dhaka Tribune titled, “Why India should rethink its Bangladesh policy,” social media activist Shafquat Rabee criticises India for backing Ms. Hasina despite the crackdown by her on the Opposition. The article says: “Many in Bangladesh now believe in the following grave accusations: that India is behind the day–to-day security protection of certain Bangladeshi leaders. India is carrying out stealth operations inside Bangladesh wearing Bangladeshi forces’ dresses. India has trained and sent special operations teams in Bangladesh. India is lobbying Western countries to take Ms. Hasina’s side.” Clearly, the belief is outrageous and unfounded, but India must avoid the impression that it has put its hopes on only one political party or leader.

Change in approach

Instead, India must play a role that favours Bangladesh regardless of which party rules it and the first step would be to simply keep its promises. More than two years after Dr. Singh made his historic visit to Dhaka along with several Chief Ministers, his promises of ratifying the Land Border Agreement, and of clearing the Teesta water settlement haven’t been fulfilled. Instead, in Bangladesh’s narrative, they are being seen as symbols of India’s unreliability, if not its perfidy.

On the economic front too, there is much India can do to back Bangladesh. The violence of the past year has had a disastrous impact on its textiles industry that accounts for about 75% of its economy. According to the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), export orders have come down by half in the past three months, and nearly one billion dollars worth of business could be at risk if the situation doesn’t improve by June 2014. India’s garments exports business is a rival of Bangladesh’s, but there is no reason why India can’t pick up some of the slack in Bangladesh’s exports for its own retailers. In the field of IT and telecommunications too, for example, Indian companies must be encouraged to invest in Bangladesh, which is poised for a second revolution once it speeds up its internet access.

In the bigger picture, the key to prosperity in both Bangladesh and India’s north-eastern States is the development of the highway and infrastructure corridors to the east. The road to East Asia has been cut off for far too long, even as ASEAN countries have built wealth and inter-dependence through interconnectivity amongst themselves.

None of these may be possible in the short run, even as Ms. Hasina prepares to grapple with the political crisis that the elections have thrown up. But as she reaches out to her rivals, and as Ms. Zia hints at a possible rethink on the alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, India must make its voice heard in favour of Bangladesh, the nation, rather than specific parties. It would seem obvious that the current parliament would be a temporary one, until reconciliation is effected in Bangladesh’s polity, and all of Bangladesh heads to vote in the next election. For, as U.S. political commentator Thomas Keane wrote recently, “The solution to bad elections isn’t no elections. It’s better elections.”

(Suhasini Haidar is Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN)

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