Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina before their delegation level meeting at Hyderabad House, on April 8, 2017 in New Delhi, (Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • All things considered, it is in the best interests of India that Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League returns to power for a third time. 

As a hundred million-strong electorate in Bangladesh exercise their franchise to decide the fate of their country tomorrow (December 30), the outcome of the polls is crucial for India as well. That is because an unfriendly government in Bangladesh would not only stymie India’s ‘Act East’ policy, but (as past experience shows) would boost militancy in north-east India. And maybe also turn the clock back on the transit facilities granted to India for easy movement of goods to the landlocked Northeast through riverine routes in that country.

The best-case scenario for India would be the re-election of the Awami League (AL) to power for a third time. Under Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has ended the support the earlier Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regime used to extend to various militant groups like the United Liberation Front Of Asom (ULFA), National Democratic Front Of Bodoland (NDFB) and outfits of Tripura and Manipur.

Hasina also captured leaders of such outfits sheltered in her country and handed them over to India, thus dealing a blow to militancy in the restive Northeast. It is widely feared that if the the BNP, which has the radical and pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami as its close ally, returns to power, Dhaka would once again provide shelter, funds and training to these militant groups.

Under the earlier BNP governments, Pakistan and its notorious agency, the ISI, have had a free run in Bangladesh. The ISI had been able to entrench itself in Bangladesh and radical Islamist Wahhabi groups funded by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had been able to increase their influence and indoctrinate many. This had led to a radicalisation of Bangladeshi society and marginalisation of minorities in that country. The BNP had given a free hand to the ISI to use Bangladesh to create trouble for India. Despite assurances given in recent years to India, there is no reason to believe that the party (the BNP) has had any change of heart towards India.

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The BNP had been trying to reach out to India with assurances that it would be sympathetic to India’s interests if it comes to power. Delegations of top BNP leaders have travelled to New Delhi and told Indian leaders that if their party comes to power, it would maintain friendly ties with India. The BNP leadership had also told New Delhi that it would distance itself from the radical and pro-Pakistan Jamaat. However, the BNP has renewed its political alliance with the Jamaat and has lent its election symbol to Jamaat candidates who are contesting the elections as Independents (since the Jamaat is banned from contesting elections in Bangladesh). And that is why there is a lot of reason to suspect BNP’s intentions.

It is a well-known fact that Tarique Rahman (son of BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia), who is sheltered in London, is close to the ISI. The ISI is believed to be funding his stay in the lap of luxury in London. Tarique has been sentenced in absentia by courts in Bangladesh for his involvement in the Dhaka grenade attack case that left Sheikh Hasina injured and a close lieutenant of hers dead.

Rahman, along with his mother (who is currently serving a jail sentence) has also been convicted in the Zia Charitable Trust corruption case. BNP founder Ziaur Rahman (Khaleda’s late husband), who was a military ruler of Bangladesh for four years, had Islamised the country and rehabilitated many war criminals and Islamists who aided Pakistani forces that carried out the horrific genocide against Hindus and nationalist Muslims in 1971.

Sheikh Hasina, after coming to power in January 2009, not only reversed the earlier policy of providing shelter and aid to Indian militants, but also cracked down on Islamists. She jailed thousands of them and set up two International Crimes Tribunals to try 1971 war criminals. The tribunals have sent many such war criminals to the gallows. The hangings of these criminals have been vehemently opposed by the BNP and, of course, Pakistan.

Hasina also invested a lot of political capital in taking the Islamists head on and putting their leaders behind bars. In fact, she has often been accused of transgressing the law in her pursuit of these Islamist radicals. She has also denied any space to Pakistan and externed ISI and Pakistani elements in her country. The only sore point here is her ties with the notorious Hefazat-e-Islam, but many in the AL maintain that the unstated strategy is to mainstream Hefazat followers and prevent their radicalisation.

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Sheikh Hasina has also invested a lot of political capital in forging very close ties with India and going out of her way to extend many facilities to this country. Hasina has not allowed the non-conclusion of the proposed Teesta Treaty (due to opposition from Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee) to come in the way of granting many favours to India. The most important among these is the transit facility she has given for movement of goods and passengers through land and rivers from Bengal to northeastern India. This has significantly lowered the time, and money, taken for transporting goods and passengers to the landlocked Northeast.

She has also signed multilateral treaties with India, Nepal and Bhutan granting access to Chittagong and other ports in Bangladesh. Hasina has strongly backed India on various international fora on a wide range of issues. For all this, she has been called an ‘Indian stooge’, but she has braved the criticism to be a friend of India. The BNP will definitely not be accommodative towards India’s interests.

Hasina’s rule has been good for Bangladesh too. Since she took over power in early 2009, Bangladesh’s per capita income has seen a three-fold increase. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) stood at USD $ 250 billion in 2017, according to the IMF, and last year registered a growth rate of 7.28 percent. Hasina promises to make Bangladesh a middle-income nation by 2021 and triple its current per capita income of USD $ 1,750 (Indian Rupees 1,22,500) in the next decade.

Going by the current trends, this is an achievable target. Bangladesh’s garment industry, which provides jobs to 4.5 million people, has flourished during her reign. Since 2009, Bangladesh has performed well on most human development index indicators by controlling its population growth and improving infant mortality drastically, resulting in a higher life expectancy of 72, which is higher than India’s.

Hasina has also initiated and fast-tracked many crucial infrastructure projects, like the Padma Bridge that has become a symbol of national pride. Public transport infrastructure has witnessed steady improvement and her government’s investment and industry-friendly policies have resulted in a slew of big-ticket investments, including many from India, in Bangladesh. The fate of Indian investments in Bangladesh would definitely be uncertain if the BNP comes to power. Also, China will be able to increase its footprint in Bangladesh is BNP forms the government there since the BNP is close to Pakistan, which is a close ally of China.

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This is not to say, however, that the AL government has not been without its blemishes. It has often been accused of being authoritarian, of being corrupt, of encouraging crony capitalism, and of playing footsie with some Islamist elements.

But these are internal concerns of Bangladesh. As far as India is concerned, the bottom line is that Sheikh Hasina has been friendly towards India and been accommodative of India’s interests while Begum Khaleda Zia (in her past stints in power) has been quite anti-India. Khaleda has also not given any reason to New Delhi to believe that she has turned over a new leaf and will be as sympathetic, if not more, to India’s interests as Hasina. So it is in India’s best interests for Hasina to return to power for a third time.

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