WITH the 12th parliamentary elections in Bangladesh scheduled to be held in January 2024, two critical questions are echoing concerns from three previous elections: Will there be a caretaker government? And will the principal Opposition party, Begum Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh National Party (BNP), take part to challenge Sheikh Hasina’s bid for a third consecutive term as Prime Minister?
A visit to Dhaka last week made it clear that the ruling Awami League’s (AL) Hasina is unlikely to support a caretaker regime, making it improbable for the BNP to contest the elections. A cross-section of the people whom I conversed with, including bada lok (rich people), bhadralok (intellectuals) and journalists, said if free and fair elections were held, the BNP would win.
During my stay, the BNP declared a hartal and a blockade. Coupled with the walkout by readymade garment workers over a wage dispute in factories, which account for 85 per cent of the country’s $55-billion exports, the fragile economy is poised to suffer further setbacks. Clashes between the BNP and a counter-strike by the AL have led to the arrest of top BNP leaders.
Anti-incumbency, price rise and corruption have led to a clamour for change. The battle between the two Begums is a proxy war between their sons, Tarique Rahman in London and Sajeeb Wazed in New York, the heir apparent to the top posts in the BNP and the AL, respectively. TIME, in its issue dated November 20, will feature Hasina on the cover, even as the caretaker regime gains a modicum of legitimacy with 40 smaller political parties registered to participate in the elections.
The US and the West are pressing Hasina to appoint a caretaker government, a provision which she got removed from the Constitution. At the first Chanakya Defence Dialogue in New Delhi on November 3-4, former Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shamsher Chowdhury said the US, which has imposed visa restrictions on Bangladeshi citizens, should not push Hasina to make political choices. She has declined to enter into a dialogue with the BNP, which she refers to as a ‘terrorist organisation’. She said: “Let Joe Biden sit for a dialogue with Donald Trump.” Hasina alleges that the BNP and its fundamentalist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, which is banned from contesting the elections, only want to create turmoil. Meenakshi Ganguly, Deputy Director, Human Rights Watch, Asia, says elections can’t be free and fair if the Opposition is targeted. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said: “A clampdown on dissent is impermissible.” India has refused to join this conversation, saying that it is Bangladesh’s internal matter. Like the rest of South Asia, India is cautious about China’s increasing influence in Dhaka. China, too, has remained silent on the matter.
With the election date expected to be announced shortly, Hasina is expediting the inauguration of projects before the model code of conduct comes into effect. Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Hasina jointly inaugurated the Agartala-Akhaura railway line, the Khulna-Mongla port line and unit II of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant, scripting a new chapter in connectivity. Though India backed the Liberation War of 1971, for which the AL is grateful, anti-India sentiment is widespread despite ongoing political and economic support. New Delhi voted for Hasina’s daughter Saima Wazed as WHO’s South-East Asia Director, annoying Nepal’s nominee. Like in Sri Lanka, policymakers here say: “For security, we rely on India and for economic development, on China.” Dhaka echoes these sentiments. Paradoxically, in their internal war games, the military portrays India as the ‘Red Land’ (the enemy).
India’s defence cooperation has received a boost. While India has allocated a $500-million Line of Credit exclusively for defence, the supplied equipment has predominantly been non-kinetic. Despite this, the Bangladesh military continues to source 80 per cent of its hardware from China, which has heavily invested in development projects such as the Dhaka Metro and Padma Bridge.
It is constructing a submarine base at Pequa near Cox’s Bazar. Recently, the Bangladesh army acquired Chinese light tanks. India figures in Group C of their three-tier procurement policy. Besides institutional dialogue between the ministries of defence, interactions also take place at the tri-services level.
The military, which ruled Bangladesh for 15 years following the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in 1975, is now under civilian political control. This transition comes amid several corruption charges, including allegations against a serving Chief of Army Staff of aiding his two fugitive brothers.
The mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles was the initial trigger. The political class has secured its loyalty by accommodating its interests, including deputation as ambassadors in four countries, appointments as chairmen of the Port Trust Authority, civil aviation, export promotion board, tea board, and positions in the Army Trust Bank. In protocol, unlike military officers in India, they rank much higher than their counterparts in civil services. Their one-star-rank officer is equivalent to Joint Secretary (two-star in India) and the Chief of Army Staff is equal to Cabinet Secretary. In India, Service Chiefs are one rung lower in Warrant of Precedence than the Cabinet Secretary. But the bottom line seems to be that it will now not intervene in governance. The recent arrest of Lt Gen Hasan Suhrawardi (retd) for sedition and colluding with the BNP was unusual. So, too, was the report that army units were disarmed on October 28 while Hasina was visiting Chittagong.
The special relations between their ‘freedom fighters’ and Indian martyrs of the Liberation War are commemorated through several programmes. Indian military hospitals are providing treatment for the war-wounded of Bangladesh, and these facilities are also available for other soldiers.
On December 16, Vijay Diwas, Indian veterans of the Liberation War will travel to Dhaka, while freedom fighters will visit Eastern Command, Kolkata, for commemoration functions. Next year, a war memorial dedicated to 1,670 Indian martyrs will be inaugurated at Ashuganj by the two Prime Ministers. The Liberation War Museum, established in 2017 at the Centre for the Study of Genocide and Justice in Dhaka, pays tribute to India’s contribution to Bangladesh’s creation.
As in most countries in its neighbourhood, India has put all its eggs in one basket in Dhaka. A surprise return of the BNP could upset the applecart.
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