It imperils Bangladesh’s democracy but by leaving Sheikh Hasina in power for the foreseeable future it likely serves India’s strategic and economic interests
On Thursday, a court in Bangladesh sentenced the opposition leader Khaleda Zia to five years in prison. She was convicted of indulging in corruption when she was prime minister a decade ago.
Khaleda heads the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which along with the ruling Awami League, constitutes the country’s two-party democratic system. The timing of her conviction is significant given that Bangladesh goes to parliamentary polls in December this year. Since a person sentenced to over two years in prison is legally barred from contesting any election, the verdict against Khaleda throws in doubt the participation of her party in the upcoming election.
This may further undermine Bangladesh’s embattled democracy, but it is unlikely to harm India-Bangladesh relations. India has a close relationship with the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina and it retaining power is in India’s interest.
Violence has been a feature of politics in Bangladesh ever since it became independent in 1971. The country has seen two military takeovers, as many assassinations of its heads of state – including the founder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – and, according to the Human Rights Watch, 19 coup attempts.
It was not until 1991 that the country held what is considered its first free and fair national election. It was won by the Bangladesh National Party. However, by 1994, the opposition had boycotted the parliament and the main opposition party, the Awami League, had launched a movement of non-cooperation that often descended into violence. In the end, violence unleashed by the Awami League as well as the government brought the country to a halt, forcing the ruling party to accept the opposition’s demand for a fresh election under a neutral, caretaker government.
It also served to deepen the old enmity between the leaders of the two parties, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Khaleda is the wife of Ziaur Rahman, the army general accused by sections of Awami supporters of being involved in the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’ father. Ziaur Rahman was himself assassinated by a group of army officers in 1981.
In 2004, a grenade was thrown at a rally held by Hasina. The Awami League blames Zia and her son Tarique Rahman for what could have been a fatal attack.
The run-up to the 2014 election again saw mass disorder, and this time it was the Bangladesh National party demanding that the election be held under a neutral caretaker government. The ruling Awami League refused. In the end, the election was held with the main opposition parties boycotting. With more than half the seats decided without a contest, the election was little more than a farce.
Significantly, though, New Delhi backed Hasina and vouched for the election. This ensured that the Awami League was able to stay in office and murmurs from the United State and Europe about the new government’s legitimacy were shut out. Hasina returned the favour by helping shut down safe havens on its soil for militant groups operating in India’s North East. (The Bangladesh National Party government had often encouraged them.) Economic cooperation between the two countries grew, with the balance of trade significantly in India’s favour. Dhaka has even agreed to a plan to link India’s mainland with its North East through Bangladesh, helping overcome the awkwardness of a partitioned map and allowing New Delhi access to Southeast Asia.
Dragon in the room
Of late, however, Hasina has started to play her foreign policy cards more carefully, especially given the carrots China has been dangling. In 2015, China sanctioned a $24billion credit line to Dhaka. To put that in perspective, when New Delhi proposed a credit line of its own last year, it offered just $2 billion. More worrying for New Delhi, Bangladesh got two submarines from China in 2016 which allow it to patrol the Bay of Bengal. The Chinese and Bangladeshi navies have also conducted joint drills.
Add to this Bangladesh’s growing economy. While the country’s democracy has stuttered, its economy has taken off, with the gross domestic product growing by 7.1% in 2016. The business news website Quartz called it “one of the world’s happiest economic stories”. It is the world’s second largest garments exporter, with the industry not only powering the economy but also providing mass employment. Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in South Asia and the ninth largest overall. Moreover, big Indian corporations such as Airtel, Reliance are now part of Bangladesh’s economy. Thus, apart from security, New Delhi has an interest in maintaining close economic ties with Dhaka.
If the Awami League retains power in the next election as seems likely – the balance of power between the ruling and opposition parties is so skewed that the Economist argued that Bangladesh’s two-party system “has collapsed”, with Khaleda’s conviction only exacerbating the BNP’s decline – New Delhi will not be unhappy. For in spite of Hasina’s dalliance with China, India will mostly benefit from her return given how closely she has worked with it. (So closely, in fact, it has sometimes led to murmurs within the country.)
With both Nepal and the Maldives seemingly moving towards the Sinosphere, New Delhi will be anxious to have a friendly face in Dhaka after the December election.
This article was first published in scroll.in and is being republished under special arrangement.