19 - 01 - 2019

The course ahead for Hasina

The 11th parliamentary elections held in Bangladesh on December 30 saw a resounding victory for PM Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League (AL) party, returning her to power for the third consecutive term.

Her policies and iron-handed approach to mitigate her political adversaries, consisting mainly of right reactionary and fundamentalist forces, stand vindicated. The opposition cried foul, calling for re-elections in view of the alleged rigging and violence that claimed 17 lives. 

Elections were held in 299 parliamentary seats out of 300. Polling was postponed in one seat due to the demise of a candidate. The latest results announced by the Election Commission is 298. Awami League-led Mohajote (grand alliance) won 288 seats. On the other hand, Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led Oikya Front (united alliance) could barely win eight seats. This dismal performance of the opposition parties demonstrates that the electorate rejected outright the forces that are communal, anti-liberation and aligned with Jamat-e-Islami (JeI).

The BNP leadership is in tatters. Former PM Khaleda Zia, now over 70, is undergoing a prison sentence on charges of corruption. Her son and party supremo, Tareq Rahman, is in exile in London, operating from there at the behest of extraneous forces, inimical to Indian security interests. He, too, is seen to be overtly pro Pakistan and regressive in approach. He is wanted in Bangladesh in many serious criminal cases, including one on arms smuggling and criminal conspiracy to assassinate Hasina in 2004. There is no visible or even a notional leadership to steer the party.

In the vacuum caused due to the glaring bankruptcy of leadership, a wily political opportunist, Dr Kamal Hossain, with no grassroot support, and leader of Gano Forum, stepped in an attempt to play a role aspiring to defeat the Awami League and assume power. His calculations were terribly misplaced because his fantasy of becoming PM was utopian in the absence of a support base. Also, he partnered with JeI , a hardcore fundamentalist party which supported war criminals. Many were tried and executed for their crimes during the liberation struggle, which included collaborating with Pakistanis.

The secular and liberal electorate of Bangladesh, which has further matured in the past 47 years, still reveres its Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (also Hasina’s father), and any individual or party challenging his stature would face nothing short of rejection. The same happened with Dr Kamal, an internationally known expert on constitution law and the first foreign minister of Bangladesh. Now over 80, Dr Kamal thought it was a ‘do or die’ situation, and so he distanced himself from Hasina and her supporters, anticipating a win. In effect, he supported the BNP, Jamaat and the anti-liberation forces to form a government. It will not be surprising if he and his cohorts played to Pakistan, whose notorious ISI started enforcing its blueprint to rally all anti-Hasina forces together to oust her from power.

This argument is also borne by the fact that very recently an ISI handler was intercepted talking to a senior BNP leader for help to win the elections and also seeking Chinese help. Intelligence and diplomatic sources in Bangladesh confirm that ISI handlers were operating in full throttle from the UAE to ensure Hasina’s defeat. Thankfully Dhaka’s counterintelligence apparatus had kept its antenna alert, foiling Pakistani designs to harm Hasina’s political interests.

Now that Hasina has been reposed with a new trust and confidence by majority of the voters, she should focus on development, especially infrastructural, and most importantly, there should be a concerted effort to a zero-tolerance approach to corruption. She has to deliver on all counts and people’s hopes and aspirations have gone up and their execrations are now even higher than before. The neglected readymade garment industry, the second largest in the world after China, needs to be comprehensively addressed. 

As regards Bangladesh’s relations with India, it is needless to emphasise that both countries have to work more closely on sectors of power, space, defence cooperation, exchange programmes and closing the trade deficit. The most important aspect is a joint approach to tackle terror. Now that Pakistan plans to snatch the elections in favour of BNP stand aborted, Indian security and intelligence agencies need to play a more proactive role to counter any feeble Pakistani attempts to reappear with its footprint. In the past two Hasina regimes, there has been a significant people-to-people contact between the two countries. This momentum has to be kept up through cinema and other multifarious cultural events.

On her part, Hasina has proved time and again that she stands by India. Demonstratively, India’s Northeastern insurgents are no longer harboured by Bangladesh. Even ULFA leader Paresh Barua, who was sheltered in Bangladesh, is on the run. That is a huge overture by Hasina. We should reciprocate such actions in equal measures. Teesta is yet another issue waiting to be resolved. The Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, must be persuaded to act with a positive frame of mind to narrow down our irritants. 

Hasina and her advisers and political counsellors should now sit down, do a concerted brainstorming and take stock of the existing situation. They need to draw a fresh road map for clean governance, eradication of corruption, ensure freedom and security of religious minorities and thwart external threats by neutralising the radicalised lot. A safe and secure and progressive Bangladesh is good for its friendly neighbour India.

 

Shantanu Mukharji 
Former IPS officer and Security Analyst