Foreclosing Options In Bangladesh Isn’t A Wise Move By New Delhi
The parliamentary polls in Bangladesh are still a few months away and there is still time for India to undertake an urgent and very necessary course correction, by reaching out to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Bangladesh is headed for parliamentary polls later this year and right now, the outcome looks pretty uncertain. However, India is firmly backing the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL) and in doing so, has foreclosed all its options. But there is no guarantee that the AL will win the elections and return to power, and if that doesn’t happen, India will find itself out on a limb in Bangladesh.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is in the midst of a grave crisis with the arrest and incarceration of its chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia after her conviction in the Zia Charitable Trust graft case on 8 February. The prosecution of Zia by the Sheikh Hasina-led AL government is seen by many as a vindictive act and the BNP alleges that the AL government has influenced the judiciary and wants to keep Zia away from the ensuing poll campaign.
But even before her arrest, the BNP had been subjected to many restrictions and curbs, which were largely viewed as undemocratic. While the animosity between the Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia -they have earned the ‘Bangladesh's Battling Begums’ moniker -goes back some decades, their rivalry had turned especially ugly after the August 2004 grenade attack on a rally being addressed by Hasina. The BNP was blamed for getting radical Islamist outfits to carry out the attack that was aimed at eliminating Sheikh Hasina. Later, when the AL came to power in 2008, it implicated Khaleda’s son Tarique Rahman for the attacks. Tarique is currently in exile in London and is said to be particularly close to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
India has, since 1971, enjoyed very close ties with the Awami League. Its founder and Bangladesh’s liberator Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was close to Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman’s daughter Sheikh Hasina has maintained the warm ties with India. New Delhi, however, views the BNP with a lot of suspicion and mistrust. Founded by military dictator turned politician Ziaur Rahman (the assassinated husband of Khaleda Zia), the BNP has traditionally been close to Islamists and Pakistan. BNP regimes had provided shelter to Indian insurgent outfits like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The BNP’s allies like the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, the Bangladesh Islamic Party and the Bangladesh Islamic Oikya Jote have been anti-Indian and have exported radical and regressive Salafi Islam to India. They are also accused of harbouring and pushing Islamist radicals into India.
The Awami League swept the 2008 parliamentary polls, but after a lot of uncertainty. The polls were to be held in January 2007, but the military establishment in the country took advantage of the system of constitutionally-mandated caretaker government (comprising non-politicians appointed by the President) that was to facilitate transition from one government to the next and conduct polls in a free and fair manner. The military extended the tenure of the caretaker government that was to conduct the 2007 parliamentary polls and started running the country by proxy. After immense pressure from the international community, including India, the military backed down and allowed polls in 2008. The Awami League, after coming to power, scrapped the system of caretaker government in order to pre-empt any future misadventure by the military.
The BNP demanded that a caretaker government be formed to conduct the next parliamentary polls in 2014. But this demand was turned down and as a result, the BNP and its allies launched violent agitations that rocked the country and resulted in many deaths. The Awami League government cracked down on the opposition and the 2014 parliamentary elections were held with the Opposition BNP and some other parties boycotting it. Only 22 per cent of the registered voters exercised their franchise and though the Awami League won the elections largely uncontested, the victory was not a sweet one. And even as the US, the European Union and the UK criticised the elections and dubbed them unfair, India silently supported the Awami League.
Since then, there have been a series of crackdowns on the BNP and the Islamist parties. The BNP, realising that the Awami League draws a lot of its strength from the support that India extends to it and also the geo-political reality that it needs the support or at least the neutrality of a big regional power (India), has tried reaching out to New Delhi many times over the past few years. The top BNP leadership had offered to junk its alliance with the Jamaat and other Islamist parties to please New Delhi, had offered a pledge to desist from “repeating past mistakes” (read: supporting anti-Indian outfits and forces) and had undertaken to snap ties with Pakistan. The BNP had also tried to reach out to the top leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after 2014. The BNP had also guaranteed the safety of the Hindus and other minority groups in the country. But it has been rebuffed by a cautious New Delhi.
“The BNP’s ties with the Islamists and religious fundamentalists are very deep and organic. Its ties with Pakistan and Pakistan’s ISI are also very organic and Khaleda Zia and her son are majorly funded by Pakistan. Given these, trusting the assurances offered by BNP is very difficult. Also, establishing links with the BNP would upset our traditional ally, the Awami League, which has gone out of its way to accommodate our concerns,” said a senior diplomat. With India stonewalling its overtures, the BNP had no option but to maintain its anti-India rhetoric and stance.
The BNP, which has announced it will participate in the general elections later this year, is still a weak force. But the relentless crackdown on the party by the Sheikh Hasina government, banning opposition political activities and the incarceration of Khaleda Zia has not gone down well with many liberals who are traditional supporters of the Awami League. After being in power for 10 years, the Awami League faces considerable anti-incumbency. Thanks to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, it has not been able to get the Teesta agreement signed and this has been a considerable political setback for Sheikh Hasina. Getting more water from the Teesta river that originates in Sikkim and flows through Bengal into Bangladesh has been a long-standing demand of Bangladesh and an emotive issue in that country since lakhs of hectares of arable land in the Teesta river basin cannot be cultivated since Bengal diverts a major portion of the river water for irrigating its own farmlands.
The Awami League government is also facing many charges of corruption and misgovernance. Add to that the fact that a large section of Bangladeshis have become Islamists and Salafists and, thus, support the BNP and Islamist parties. Bangladesh’s progress on the economic front over the last 10 years has been modest and a large portion of the country’s populace is still desperately poor. Many government initiatives to reduce poverty levels and bring in economic reforms to facilitate greater foreign investments have floundered. Given all this, there is no guarantee that the Awami League, which is still on a stronger wicket than the BNP and its allies, will post a convincing victory later this year.
And just in case the BNP and its allies win and come to power in Bangladesh, India will be faced with another hostile neighbour. That is the price New Delhi will have to pay for putting all its eggs in one basket. New Delhi should have been open to the BNP’s overtures and accommodated its legitimate concerns. New Delhi should have had an open mind on the BNP’s assurances and, while not taking them at face value, kept channels of communication open with the BNP. “It is much better to make the BNP realise the fruits of cooperating with India and of being pro-Indian than pushing it to the wall and forcing it into the embrace of China and Pakistan. Diplomacy is all about running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. China does it everywhere and we ought to learn from China. No matter which party comes to power in Bangladesh, China’s interests will remain protected,” pointed out a retired bureaucrat who had served in Bangladesh a couple of decades back.
The parliamentary polls in Bangladesh are still a few months away and there is still time for India to undertake an urgent and very necessary course correction. New Delhi has to reach out to the BNP and use its considerable influence over the Awami League to ease the pressure on the BNP and on Khaleda Zia. New Delhi has to play the role of an honest broker between the two parties, a role that China has already assumed. The Awami League can always remain India’s good friend, but the BNP need not remain India’s enemy. This is something India’s diplomats have to work very hard to ensure. The consequences of not doing so will be very grave for India.
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