Massive street protests, prolonged periods of shutdown in Dhaka and other major cities, political assassinations. All interspersed with bouts of military rule, as well as phases when governments were elected through popular and massive mandates. Such has been the chequered nature of Bangladesh’s experiment with parliamentary democracy since its independence in 1971.
But even for a nation with such a tumultuous past, the parliamentary polls on January 5 was shocking in its ultraviolence and cynicism. In the 300-member parliament, 154 Awami League candidates were elected uncontested; the remaining 146 won after a friendly fight with Awami rebels, or with one of its coalition partners. In addition, while the 2001 and 2008 elections registered a voter turnout of 74.37 per cent and 85.93 per cent respectively, Sunday’s election—which the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies, chiefly the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, boycotted—saw less than 30 per cent polling. The anticipated violence of polling day—which killed 20 people and saw to the destruction of over 200 school buildings used as polling centres—may have been a reason why people stayed indoors. But the predictability of it all had already subverted all chances of having a meaningful poll.
“Of the 12 eligible voters in our family, only three voted,” says a lawyer in Dhaka. Her family has been part of the traditional Awami League votebase. “But who wants to vote in an election when there is no contest and the results are already known,” she asks, summing up the prevalent mood.
For India, which has high stakes in Bangladesh and on whom the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League depends heavily, the emerging situation resembles a Hobson’s choice. Privately, it knows the elections have further eroded the increasingly autocratic Hasina’s credibility, but in public it does not have the option to criticise the manner in which polling was held. It fears any public denunciation of its ally Hasina will demoralise her and strengthen her political opponents, particularly the Jamaat, whose senior leaders are being tried by the Awami government for war crimes during the 1971 independence struggle.
“Elections in Bangladesh were a constitutional requirement....,” said Syed Akbaruddin, the ministry of external affairs spokesman, back in New Delhi. “It is for Bangladeshis to decide their own future and choose their government in a manner that responds to their aspirations,” he added. But he was quick to point out that “violence cannot and should not determine the way forward and democratic processes must be allowed to take their own course”.
For India, the situation in Bangladesh poses two challenges. One is to ensure a quick return to calm, since any prolonged spell of violence there is likely to have a negative impact on India through its porous borders with Bangladesh in Bengal and the Northeast. It also has to ensure that the polls, which evoked strong criticism from the West and particularly the US, does not lead to Bangladesh’s isolation at international forums.
Led by the US, some European countries have expressed their ‘disappointment’ with the results and have started demanding fresh polls. However, Hasina’s opponents, led by the BNP of Khaleda Zia and her allies, including the Jamaat, want to ensure that protests continue to unsettle the Awami League government and keep international focus on Bangladesh’s roiling streets.
“Stability is something that we definitely want in our neighbourhood, but each country is different...we will just have to wait and see how things pan out in Bangladesh,” says former Indian deputy national security advisor, Leela Ponappa. However, in private assessment, Indian policymakers know that the coming days could witness a long, spiralling graph of violent upheavals.
“Violence will have to end in Bangladesh,” says former Indian high commissioner to the country, Veena Sikri. The descent into the current anarchy—fed by Hasina’s crackdown on the opposition and Islamist extremism, and the wildly divisive war crimes trial of Jamaat leaders—was gradual. In 2011, the constitution was amended to get rid of a provision for a neutral caretaker government to oversee polls. Soon after the BNP beat the League in mayoral polls in June-July 2013, the high court cancelled the Jamaat’s political registration, citing the secular constitution. The world watched as this rising high-handedness was met with a matching BNP intransigence.
Indeed, the situation in Bangladesh can worsen if the West, which has been increasingly critical of Hasina’s style of functioning, imposes sanctions or decides to reduce its quota of textile exports. Bangladesh earns over 50 per cent of its revenue through textile exports to the West. If Hasina fails to restore normalcy soon—quite unlikely, under the circumstances—pressure is bound to increase on her government. A crippled economy and closing businesses may force even larger numbers to take to the streets—even avowed supporters of the war crimes trials against Jamaat leaders—to press for fresh elections.
India should, therefore, advise Hasina to fix the dates for fresh elections within an early time-frame, while it engages with the US and others to contain pressure on the Awami League government and stop its isolation. Hasina has indicated that she is willing to hold fresh polls with participation from the BNP and other opposition parties. But for that both Hasina and Khaleda will have to make compromises. As per reciprocal demands, while Hasina will have to agree to fresh polls under the leadership of the president of the republic, Khaleda will have to reassess if she is willing to break her ties with the Jamaat.
If the two leaders fail to resolve the issue soon, the consequences can be grim for Bangladesh. Prolonged instability can only create the recipe for a military takeover—which will weaken the nascent democratic structure in Bangladesh, and bring cheer to India. If military rule, with attendant strictures and violations, does make a comeback, the two ‘begums’ of Bangladesh, Hasina and Khaleda, should be held to account.