The victory of secularism in Bangladesh is a cause for celebration for the entire region
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is exuberant. And she has reasons. By any standard, her victory is extraordinary. Not only has she won 288 seats out of 299 (election for one seat is to be held later), she has also garnered 80% of the votes, a rare feat in a first-past-the-post system.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of India which got absolute majority in the parliament after the 2014 election could achieve it by polling merely 31% of the votes. What is even more dramatic is that in her own constituency, she trounced her rivals by unbelievably massive margins.
Against her tally of 229,539 votes, the BNP and the Islami Andolan Bangladesh could manage barely 123 and 71 votes, respectively. Her command on the administration will be unassailable.
But power begets challenge, and more the power, bigger the challenge. With Bangladesh’s human development record better than almost all other South Asian nations, coupled with her own credentials as a secular leader, she can well be seen as the beacon of hope for the region. The South Asian polity is proverbially unstable, torn between the forces of secularism and communalism putting the former ever under constant threat of disruption.
Since her victory over Islamic fundamentalism in the Bangladesh context is stunning, she is expected to behave more like a statesman, because the region, more particularly India, which is increasingly becoming communally polarized, needs her more than the other way round.
In response to questions by foreign journalists as to how come the opposition fared so miserably in the elections, she made a superficial comparison with what happened in India. In making the remark, she sounded patronizing to the opposition on the one hand, while on the other explained away their lamentable performance to their mere failure to project a prime ministerial face.
Notably, this last point is the most important poll strategy of the BJP for the forthcoming Indian election to beat the opposition with.
Look at the BJP, which, PM Hasina said “had just two seats when Rajiv Gandhi won the election [in 1984] … [but] now they are in power. So there’s a chance for other parties as well [like BNP] if they work properly.”
Then, tongue in cheek, she compared the failure of the leaderless BNP + opposition to that of the Congress+ in the Indian election of 2014. “How many seats did they [the Congress] get in the last election? They could not focus on who would be their PM. Such an old and established party, but who will be the leader of the party? It was not clear. So people didn’t vote for them,” she explained.
It is the bane of all South Asian parliamentary democracies that all national elections are being converted into presidential ones, a mishmash most dangerous for plural societies, India being the most glaring example.
Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014 was not merely because the opposition could not put up a comparable leader. Had it been only that factor, BJP would not have ended up with only 31% votes.
In the recently held state elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan, where Congress won all the states, it had not projected any chief ministerial face anywhere. On the contrary, BJP did it everywhere. Modi’s rise on the national scene in 2014 was the culmination of a well-honed strategy to Hinduize Indian politics, which had its beginning in the early 80s to which Modi’s development model was cleverly tagged, so as to broad-base the party’s mass appeal.
It was not at all meant to dilute its Hindutva ideology.
BJP had internalized that the massive Congress victory under Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, and its own dismal show in contrast, was all because of the unprecedented Hindu backlash (barring the Partition riots) generated by the assassination of Indira Gandhi in the hands of her two Sikh (non-Hindu) bodyguards, which was immediately followed by wanton killings of thousands of Sikhs in Delhi and other places.
BJP read the situation perfectly well, that is, the Congress did indeed steal its patented Hindu vote bank for the time being, but in the process it reconfirmed the potential electoral dividends that it was capable of providing if circumstances changed to BJP’s advantage anytime in the future.
As such, to compare the Bangladeshi situation with that of India would amount to an invitation to the Bangladeshi Islamists to emulate India’s Hindutva model in their own land by whatever name.
It makes sense here to underscore that throughout the 80s and 90s BJP’s one-point agenda was to consolidate the Hindu vote. Given the Hindu-Muslim binary of Indian politics, an anti-Muslim tirade was BJP’s most tested tool. Starting from the Ekatmata Yagna of the early 80s through the Shah Bano controversy (1985-86) through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 through the milk-drinking Lord Ganesh farce (1995), it was all well strategized to keep the Hindu communal pot boiling.
In recent times, its manifestations are to be found in the Hindutva brigade’s cow protection vigilantism, its making ridiculous fuss over “love jihad” (Muslim men forcibly marrying Hindu women for the ostensible purpose of converting them into Islam), organizing “ghar wapsi” (meaning: Returning home, that is, forcible re-conversion of Muslims to the Hindu fold), beating and heckling meat traders on false charges of cow slaughter, etc.
Against this background, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sounded rather unpremeditated, even if not naïve, when she tried to reduce this complex phenomenon to a singular leadership variable. She should have been more aware than anybody else in Bangladesh that her country had a powerful undercurrent of Islamism which needed extremely cautious handling.
Any wobbly analogy, devoid of deeper circumspection, could be potentially perilous. Giving all the brownie points to the BJP can be good diplomacy, but it is bad politics.
The victory of secularism in Bangladesh is a cause for celebration for the entire region. This gain should not be squandered, least of all in Bangladesh itself.
Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.