Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, October 28, 2023 (Photo: AP)
LAST MONTH, BANGLADESH PRIME MINISTER Sheikh Hasina responded to the US ambassador’s call to hold a dialogue with the opposition in her country. “Is Biden holding dialogue with Mr Trump?” she asked, further saying that she would hold a dialogue (with the opposition) if Biden did the same with Trump. From her perspective, this subtle belligerence is understandable. She has been under tremendous pressure from the Democratic administration in the US (and from European countries) to amend the political process and ensure free and fair elections in Bangladesh due in January. These repeated reprimands have come in the wake of mass arrests of political workers, mainly from the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It also stems from the widespread belief that she came to power in her last two terms with massive electoral rigging (Hasina will be fighting for her fourth consecutive term in January and is already the longest-serving woman head of any government).
India is watching these developments with caution. In August, during the G20 summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to soften things between Hasina and Biden, but it has been tough given that the US wants to push its agenda of rectifying democratic erosion and for it Bangladesh is what an expert calls a “test case”. For India, Hasina has been the best bet since her first term in 2009.
“We’d not like to see a situation where the progress is halted or rolled back,” says Pankaj Saran, former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh. “Or we go back to earlier times when the energies of both countries were exhausted in fighting terrorism and radical extremism. Nor can we go back to the situation where Bangladesh was being used by hostile states to mount activities that affected Indian security.”
But what has made things tough for Hasina? The US intervention has bolstered BNP and its allies who are now out on the streets to force Hasina to resign before the elections so that polls are held under a neutral authority. Ironically, it was BNP under Khaleda Zia that had subverted this tradition (of putting in place a caretaker government) in 2004 by raising the retirement age of the Supreme Court chief justice loyal to BNP so that he could lead the caretaker government. Zia, who has a long history of hostility with Hasina, is in jail now and her condition is not well. Her son, Tarique Rahman, who is in exile in London, is building a cohort of opposition forces and is behind the mobilisation of people on the streets of Dhaka and elsewhere that he carries out by the effective use of internet tools. The party workers have enforced a massive transport blockade, putting immense pressure on Hasina’s Awami League. BNP has a string of advocacy groups in the West and in the Gulf. Experts believe there is a lot of anti-incumbency against Hasina and there is a strong possibility of BNP returning to power if elections are held fairly. They believe the younger generation of the armed forces is also conscious of its image and is wary that the army’s reputation should not be stained by the perception of Hasina using it for her ‘dirty work’. Activists have chronicled around 2,700 cases of extra-judicial killings under Hasina. In 2021, the US imposed a ban on several serving and retired officers of the elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which is believed to be Hasina’s tool to win elections and commit some of these killings.
The other major factor against Hasina is that, in the post-pandemic situation, Bangladesh’s economic success story also seems to be coming apart. “This story was a miracle standing on one leg,” says Avinash Paliwal, a reader at London’s SOAS. He is referring to the readymade garment industry in Bangladesh that is the biggest earner of foreign currency (along with foreign remittances). “But now it has come to a point where people are not getting wages and this is causing unrest,” he adds. Paliwal points at the country’s inability to diversify and says it is because of systemic corruption. A majority of parliamentarians in Bangladesh are associated with the industry that has made many call the country a sort of oligarchy. Today, Bangladesh’s forex reserves have fallen to a lowly $21 billion from $42 billion only a year ago, indicating corruption (or date-fudging). At a recent event with the Economic Reporters’ Forum (ERF), Abdur Rouf Talukder, governor of Bangladesh’s central bank, acknowledged that Bangladesh’s economy had hit “rock bottom” and that they were navigating “a very strenuous period”.
The US intervention has bolstered BNP and its allies who are now out on the streets to force Hasina to resign before the elections so that polls are held under a neutral authority. Ironically, it was BNP under Khaleda Zia that had subverted this tradition
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Bangladesh watchers believe the chinks in the success story were overlooked by Western powers because Hasina chose to give shelter to a big mass of Rohingya refugees that created good PR for her. Wealth was created, they say, but its distribution remained a miasma. This was probably because Hasina could not tolerate people like Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, credited with uplifting the lives of millions by providing microfinance loans through the Grameen Bank that he had founded in the early 1980s. He is currently undergoing trial on charges of embezzlement, a move seen as political vendetta by the US and European countries. “If inflation is not controlled and the economy is in a dire situation, it won’t be surprising to see public movements gaining momentum in favour of the opposition,” said Dhaka-based political scientist Shahab Enam Khan.
Hasina’s allegedly authoritarian acts have led the Biden administration to ignore her and not invite her to the Summit for Democracy. In May, Hasina was in Washington DC for a World Bank event but was extended no welcome by the US government.
For India, Hasina, since 2009, has been able to address the most contentious issues. India’s concerns have been the question of Hindu minorities and illegal immigration that complicated matters in West Bengal and the Northeast. Before the country’s liberation, Pakistan, of which it was a part till 1971, provided sanctuary to rebel Naga and Mizo insurgents. In the 1980s, under military rule (and even later), providing shelter to insurgent groups active in India continued. Under Hasina, though, this came to an end. She also acted strongly against the Jamaat, an ally of BNP, hanging many of its leaders for ‘war crimes’. The party was also banned under her by the Supreme Court, with its registration cancelled.
But now, as her own situation turns precarious, what are the options for India?
“India has put all its bets on Hasina,” says Paliwal. “But this is a person who has trapped herself that in turn means she has trapped you (India),” he says. There are two scenarios. One: Hasina buckles under US pressure and appoints a caretaker administration (that India, sources in the foreign ministry say, has advised her not to succumb to). In that case, there is a big probability that she will lose, paving the way for BNP. Two: she continues to be in power, breaks the back of BNP, and puts more political detractors in jail. But her problems, say experts, won’t go away. She has been trying to build a coalition of parties that involves many conservatives, including elements within the Jamaat. There is no clarity on what concessions she might be willing to offer these elements in exchange for their support.
As Hasina presses on, there are clear indications that she will find the going more and more difficult. The opposition is getting stronger and as M Humayun Kabir, former Bangladesh ambassador to the US, pointed out recently, other small parties are getting stronger as well and under such circumstances police and other forces may find it difficult to keep supporting her. Hasina’s nervousness in this regard was evident when she visited Chittagong recently and asked all servicemen to surrender their firearms.
For India, though, the biggest elephant in the room remains China. That is something, experts believe, Hasina can never deliver to India. “The kind of influence China exerts over Hasina personally, that is not going down anytime,” says Paliwal. At India’s insistence, Hasina buried the development, under the Chinese, of a deep-sea port on Sonadia island along its southeastern coast. But with increased US pressure, many fear Hasina may gravitate more towards China, something that will keep India worried. And BNP, whether it comes to power or not, remains a friend of both China and Pakistan.
As the crisis continues in Bangladesh, India has no option but to adopt a wait-and-watch policy. But it must be ready to diversify, given that things can go either way in January.