In the last week of August, the Home Minister of Bangladesh, Asaduzzaman Khan, led an official delegation to the United Nations Chiefs of Police Summit held in New York. The delegation drew international attention as it included Benazir Ahmed, Bangladesh’s Inspector General of Police. Mr. Ahmed, who subsequently retired as the country’s police chief on September 30, had hit the headlines in December 2021 when the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on seven serving and former officials of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has become synonymous with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s counter-terror crackdown. The U.S. government accused the RAB of at least 600 forced “disappearances”. Mr. Ahmed, who had assumed charge in 2015, served as the head of the RAB till 2020. The sanctions included a travel ban on him and six others. But Ms. Hasina’s Awami League government refused to be deterred by the sanctions and nominated him to be in the team of officials. The U.S. protested, but nevertheless issued a visa for Mr. Ahmed.
This episode highlighted how posturing on certain issues with foreign critics helps Ms. Hasina cater to her core supporters domestically, but these periodic assertions of power have not prompted political stakeholders in Dhaka to kickstart a dialogue process on the modalities of conducting the next general elections, with the term of the current parliament finishing in end 2023. Without credible institutional mechanisms, any reconciliation seems difficult. The ruling Awami League perceives the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its cohorts as “anti-liberation”, while the BNP is unable to prove that it has matured and is willing to acknowledge its past mistakes.
The prospects of a stalled political process in Dhaka have drawn attention from both allies such as India and critics such as the U.S. Ms. Hasina has reached out to both India and the West ahead of the upcoming election season to make a convincing case for herself.
Special ties with India
Indeed, the two factors that have defined Sheikh Hasina’s government during her three-term prime ministership are her warmth towards India, with which she has cultivated close security and economic partnerships, and her less than warm ties with the U.S. and the European Union (EU). Interestingly, her critics and allies are facing some difficult choices as Bangladesh heads into the election season.
The surprising sanctions last December were followed by rather visible and sometimes aggressive public posturing by both the EU and the U.S. on the perceived ‘democratic deficit’ in Bangladesh. There were several high-level delegates from a number of European countries who visited Bangladesh in the first half of 2022 as the pressure increased. The situation reached such a point that U.S. Ambassador Peter Haas met the Chief Election Commissioner of Bangladesh on June 8 and urged a “free and fair” election, an argument that he repeated last week at a think tank event soon after Prime Minister Hasina returned from the U.S. Ms. Hasina, on her part, has responded to the criticism by often lashing out at the perceived American support for some of her political opponents, including the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus.
There is a widespread perception that the World Bank withdrew funding from Ms. Hasina’s dream project, the Padma Multipurpose Bridge, after being prompted by her political opponents at home and their supporters in the West, a broad spectrum that includes the BNP, Mr. Yunus and the traditionally pro-Pakistan Islamists in Bangladesh. During the June 25 inauguration of the landmark bridge, which is one of the biggest connectivity projects in South Asia in recent years, Ms. Hasina lashed out at those who had expressed opposition to the bridge. Her point appeared to be that those who opposed the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 were also opposing development works in the country in the 21st century.
It was against this backdrop that Ms. Hasina visited India in the first week of September, which saw a landmark agreement on the Kushiyara river, the only water-related treaty that the two sides have signed in the last quarter century. The visit signalled continuity and the special relationship that Ms. Hasina enjoys with India. But the discussions in New Delhi did not yield an agreement over the sharing of the Teesta waters or the transit facility between the Northeast and West Bengal, indicating that despite warmth, both sides have not ceded ground on the big ticket issues. According to a highly placed source from Bangladesh, during discussions with Ms. Hasina, the Indian leadership displayed interest in the future of the ruling Awami League as well as her succession plans. Ms. Hasina has used friendship with India to ensure energy stability for Bangladesh and for overland trade, but India too has been viewing the stressed political atmosphere of Bangladesh with some concern.
In the last few years, official quarters in India have expressed concern about the rise of fundamentalist leaders within the Awami League as well as the pro-China leaning of the party.
‘A great macroeconomic story’
Ms. Hasina, however, conveyed the right message to her Western critics by choosing India as her host just ahead of the UN General Assembly’s annual session and, as it happened, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K. In short, in 2022 she is no longer the beleaguered leader who had attained power after surviving several deadly attempts on her life, including a grenade attack in 2004. In 2022, even by the assessment of U.S. Ambassador Haas, Bangladesh has “a great macroeconomic story”. This new identity of Bangladesh has found ready support from India; in September, India nominated its eastern neighbour as the special invitee for the G20 summit to be held in September 2023 in Delhi.
Continued economic steps to become a middle-income economy by 2026, however, will require political dialogue at home, for which greater political freedom and tolerance for dissidence are the prerequisites. The future of Bangladesh and a peaceful outcome of the forthcoming election will depend on a much-awaited dialogue between not just two of the oldest political parties of South Asia — the Awami League and the BNP — but two opposing political traditions in Bangladesh. The question is, can such a dialogue take place in the charged atmosphere ahead of the elections?