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Analysis

Updated on: Wednesday, May 29, 2019, 03:39 AM IST

Bangladesh and its Begums face challenges

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Predictably, Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to call and congratulate Sheikh Hasina Wajed on her massive victory in Bangladesh’s December 30 elections. Her ruling coalition captured 288 out of 300 contested parliamentary seats, leaving a contemptible five for the main opposition alliance dominated by the former prime minister, Khalida Zia, and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

For India, it was like the promise of liberation in 1971 all over again. Given India’s stake in the east and north-east, Mr Modi’s gesture was understandable. As the external affairs ministry put it, Bangladesh is India’s “close partner for regional development, security and cooperation, and a central pillar in India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy”. Security and economics loom large in the list of common interests.

But it must be asked amidst the rejoicing if Mrs Wajed’s landslide win isn’t too good to be true, and if it will lead to a stable equation with a disgruntled opposition that looks beyond Mrs Wajed’s winning slogan of zero poverty and developed country status by 2041 to the emotional satisfaction of a Muslim-majority nation of more than 160 million people.

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The outcome — although not its scale — was not unexpected with the American-based International Republican Institute predicting that an overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis were happy with economic progress under Mrs Wajed and agreed that she was the best choice for the top job. Nevertheless, the continued imprisonment of the main opposition leader, and the execution of several others accused of various war crimes, leaves no space for opponents or for Islamic sentiment.

Talk of large-scale rigging and ballot boxes stuffed with papers even before voting began and suspicions of jiggery pokery in many voting centres demand that Mrs Wajed win the confidence of all Bangladeshis through a policy of reconciliation. Not that there were no problems between Delhi and Dhaka during her three terms as prime minister. Amit Shah’s comment about “illegal infiltrators” from Bangladesh “acting like termites in this country” and “causing problems in Delhi” drew a protest from Bangladesh’s information minister, Hasanul Haq Inu, who called the Bharatiya Janata Party chief’s remark “unwanted”.

Speaking of Hindus being “tortured” in Bangladesh, a judge of the Meghalaya high court, Sudip Ranjan Sen, remarked recently that India “should have been declared a Hindu country.” There’s also the Teesta problem with West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, insisting there isn’t enough water in the river to give away. On the whole, however, there is a meshing of interests between India and Bangladesh under the Awami League, especially on fighting “terrorism”.

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Bangladesh faces challenges ranging from endemic poverty to corruption, climate change to Islamist militancy. It is hosting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim victims of a brutal military offensive in neighbouring Myanmar. But what makes Bangladesh especially notorious is the vicious blood feud between the Battling Begums. The 71-year-old Sheikh Hasina’s arch rival, Mrs Zia, 73, serving a 17-year prison sentence for corruption, is barred from contesting elections, a ban that she claims is politically motivated.

Both women plunged into politics after suffering cruel personal loss. Sheikh Hasina’s father, Bangladesh’s popular and populist founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his wife, two sons and a couple of nephews were murdered in cold blood in 1975. The assassins then turned on Mujib’s ministerial colleagues and butchered several of them. Mrs Zia’s husband, General Zia-ur Rahman, president of Bangladesh, 1977-1981, was assassinated in 1981.

The unspoken link is that while the Hasina camp suspects Zia of complicity in Mujib’s murder, Awami Leaguers may have been involved in Zia’s killing. Both Begums are driven by a sense of loss and the desire for vengeance. The run-up to the election saw violence between their supporters, and a crackdown on dissent by a government that critics say has become more and more authoritarian during 10 years in power. “Development minus democracy” is how some describe that decade of impressive GDP growth and booming garment exports making Bangladesh the world’s second-largest exporter of readymades after China.

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In Mrs Zia’s absence and the forced exile of her son, Tarique, Kamal Hossain, a barrister who was once an Awami League minister, Sheikh Hasina’s ally, and author of the country’s secular constitution, led the opposition Jatiya Oikya Front, which includes Mrs Zia’s BNP. However, the 81-year-old lawyer did not himself contest the election. The BNP boycotted the last vote in 2014 (when the Awami League won 234 seats), making Sunday’s poll the first in 10 years to involve all the major parties. “We reject the farcical election and want the election commission to hold a fresh election under a non-partisan administration,” says Mr Hossain of the recent exercise.

It was a turbulent vote with at least 17 people killed in inter-party clashes despite the deployment of around 600,000 security personnel. More than 40 opposition candidates pulled out of the election after polls opened, citing vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing, according to the local Daily Star newspaper.

The opposition also complains that thousands of its activists were arrested in the run-up to the polls. Flooded with complaints, the election commission promised to investigate vote rigging allegations but turned down Mr Hossain’s demand for a fresh vote.

Delhi’s two principal interests in Bangladesh are to keep out Islamist terrorists and gain access to India’s own hilly north-eastern states bordering Myanmar. Without easy transit facilities when Mrs Zia was prime minister, India undertook the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit and Transport Project which entailed building a $120 million deepwater port at Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, on the Bay of Bengal. Mrs Wajed has not only granted India the necessary transit rights but is also taking action against dissident Indians whom Delhi regards as rebels and who previously enjoyed sanctuary in Bangladesh.

Delhi believes these fugitives are backed by terrorists funded by Pakistan’s Intelligence services with the objective of creating and sustaining unsettled conditions in the north-east where pockets of discontent are undeniably available for exploitation. There have been documented incidents of pro-Pakistan agents unloading shipments of small arms and explosives at Chittagong port for dispatch to Indian rebel guerrilla groups in the north-east or to be used against targets in the adjoining Indian states. Mrs Zia, the BNP and its now-proscribed coalition partner, the ultra-Muslim Jamaat-e-Islam, are believed to be closer to Pakistan than the Awami League.

Some of these tensions go back to before partition in 1947. Some belong to the 24 years when Bangladesh was East Pakistan. Even contemporary political conflicts can be traced back to earlier years or to the Bengali (Hindu as well as Muslim) historical consciousness. With everyone still fighting yesterday’s battles, Mrs Wajed must convince Bangladeshis she is indeed “Premier of all” to ensure cooperation across the political divide, security for some 10 million Hindus, and a realistic attitude to India.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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Published on: Saturday, January 05, 2019, 08:51 AM IST
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