Bangladesh: "Act East" and Act Soon

by Jayant Chowdhury - Feb 14, 2015 11:30 AM +05:30 IST
Bangladesh: "Act East" and Act Soon

Bangladesh is going through a severe political crisis. India needs to intervene immediately, and in its own interests, to defuse the situation. 

A neighbour in crisis is never good news for any country. Especially if it is a friendly neighbour whose geo-strategic position makes it a custodian of the key to the realization of India’s dream to emerge as a global power.
Bangladesh today is in the grip of one of the most trying times in its 44-year history. A standoff between the ruling Awami League-led government and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led 20-party opposition alliance has paralysed the country’s economy and left over 100 people dead, most of them from firebomb attacks. Though this is not the first standoff between the two political rivals whose chiefs—Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the BNP—have a long history of personal enmity, the current crisis seems to be the worst. And with no signs of either side backing down, the outlook is pretty grim. Not just for Bangladesh, but also for India which has a lot at stake in that country.

The current crisis has its roots in last year’s controversial polls that the Opposition boycotted since it was not held under a neutral caretaker regime as was the practice earlier. The Awami League (AL), after winning the 2009 parliamentary polls, scrapped a constitutional provision that mandated an elected government to hand over power to a caretaker regime towards the end of its tenure. That regime would then oversee the conduct of parliamentary polls. Ironically, it was the AL which led protests in early 1996 to force a newly-elected government led by Khaleda Zia enact a provision in the Constitution to form a caretaker government that would conduct fresh elections. In the elections under a caretaker government held in June 1996, the AL came to power. In the next elections held in 2001, under a caretaker government, the BNP came to power.

Sheikh Hasina
Sheikh Hasina

But the next elections scheduled for 2006 could not be held as the two major opposition parties could not come to a consensus on who would head the caretaker government that would conduct the polls. And as per the Constitution, power devolved to the then President Iajuddin Ahmed. The country’s army saw the political stalemate as a ripe opportunity to rule by proxy and in January 2007, replaced Ahmed as the head of the caretaker government with an ex-World Bank economist Fakhruddin Ahmed. This new regime declared a state of emergency and initiated a massive crackdown on corruption, jailing up to two lakh people. Corruption charges were also slapped on Hasina and Zia and a plot was hatched to send them into exile. But widespread protests and international pressure forced the regime to drop its plans.

Meanwhile, massive countrywide unrest against the military-backed regime forced it to hold elections in December 2008, which were won by Sheikh Hasina’s AL. Due to the bitter experience with the military-backed regime from 2006 to 2008, the AL government scrapped the Constitutional provision mandating that polls could be held only under a neutral caretaker regime amidst protests by the BNP-led Opposition alliance, which boycotted the next elections held on January 5, 2014. In last year’s election, declared to be a farce by many western countries, the AL won most of the 300 Jatiyo Sansad (parliament) seats uncontested and only mock contests were held in the remaining ones.Since then, Hasina has been battling the perception that her government lacks legitimacy.

India, as has been mentioned in an earlier piece by this author, backed Hasina and this support enabled her to ward off international pressure, especially from western nations, to hand over power to a neutral caretaker regime that would conduct the parliamentary polls. The BNP-led opposition alliance declared, in late December 2014, that it would observe January 5 this year (the first anniversary of the controversial polls) as a “black day for democracy” through a series of rallies all over the country. The AL government responded by cracking down, even keeping Khaleda Zia confined to her office from January 3 to 19, cutting off power and water supplies and restricting visitors.

The government also slapped thousands of cases, most of them false, on BNP leaders and put them behind bars. Most of the front-ranking leaders of the party, as well as over 20,000 activists and supporters of the BNP, are currently behind bars. Faced with such persecution, Khaleda Zia dug in her heels and announced a total shutdown of the country that has not only disrupted normal life, but also severely affected Bangladesh’s economy, especially its garments manufacturing and export sector that brings in crucial foreign exchange.

The series of hartals called by the BNP were, initially, peaceful. But violence broke out after a few days and buses, trucks and trains were attacked with firebombs. Till the last count on Friday (February 13), 74 people have died of burns and 274 injured, many of them critically. While the government blamed the BNP and its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, for these horrible incidents, the opposition says the attacks are being orchestrated by the AL to discredit the opposition. BNP leaders point out that despite heightened security in the country, no one has so far been arrested and prosecuted for violence and firebombing. Newspapers and TV news channels in Bangladesh, they point out, have often carried pictures of people hurling petrol bombs on buses and trucks that move under heavy police escort, but none of these people have so far been apprehended. Police and paramilitary forces routinely pick up people they say are involved in such incidents, but most of them have died in custody or in encounters, thus lending credence to BNP’s charge that the government is playing a sinister game.

All this has only complicated an already messy situation and pushed the BNP and its allies to the wall. For the BNP, it is a matter of life and death. The AL, on its part, has also sharpened its opposition to the BNP and has ruled out any possibility of dialogue that the BNP has been demanding. The situation can only deteriorate now.

Khaleda Zia
Khaleda Zia

This is bad news for India since Bangladesh is critical to its “Look East” (now “Act East”) policy. Bangladesh is India’s gateway to south-east Asia and even to China. Safe transit through Bangladesh is required for access to SE Asia and China. The ambitious road and rail network projects that have been planned to connect the Indian landmass with China and south-east Asia pass through Bangladesh. Chinese and south-east Asian markets hold tremendous prospects for Indian manufacturers and service providers. These are the future markets for India Inc and the access to them is through Bangladesh, and not just physically. The ongoing severe unrest in Bangladesh puts all such ambitious plans at peril and can easily derail Narendra Modi’s Act East vision.

India needs to intervene immediately, and in its own interests, to defuse the crisis in Bangladesh. New Delhi, which had robustly backed the AL so long, is obviously in a strong position to nudge Sheikh Hasina to soften her stand towards the BNP and hold a dialogue with the Opposition. It must make Hasina understand that it would be impossible to obliterate the opposition by using the police and paramilitary forces. It must make Hasina realise that her attempt to deny the BNP any space will only fuel the rise of extremist forces that will pose a grave threat in the long run not only to Bangladesh, but also to India. Most of all, a Bangladesh wracked by internal strife presents to many other countries, not all of them favourably disposed towards India, the prospect of fishing in our neighbour’s troubled waters. New Delhi can, and must, act to end the political standoff in Bangladesh that is bleeding that country.

Jayant Chowdhury is an avid observer of and commentator on politics and society in Bengal and eastern, including north-eastern, India.
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