India should be ready to do business with any government in Dhaka. Ties with the Awami League appear on track even as the BNP seems to be turning a new leaf recognising the emerging realities

Bharat Bhushan

By playing a partisan role in the domestic politics of Bangladesh, India could well be making the same mistake as in Nepal and Sri Lanka. The summary deportation of a British lawyer Lord Alexander Carlile is a pointer in that direction.

Carlile was to address a press conference in Delhi on the ongoing legal case against his client, Begum Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister of Bangladesh and the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). For this, he had a business visa. However, a benign exercise was transformed into a potentially criminal act by the Ministry of External Affairs under pressure from Dhaka. Lord Carlile was externed at midnight.

On returning to London, Carlile addressed the press in India through a satellite link, garnering a much wider coverage in the region than it would otherwise have.

A signal went out that India has an exclusive relationship with only one political party in Bangladesh – the Awami League. This happened at a time when Indian political leaders had begun engaging the Opposition BNP in the run-up to the upcoming general election. Suddenly, these efforts were nullified by suggesting that the relationship remained narrow and partisan.

Within the BNP, anti-India elements got fresh oxygen, putting on the backfoot those who had courageously spoken of a new and friendly engagement with India. Should this perception remain uncorrected, India will lose further heft in Bangladesh, which goes to polls in six months.

In the 2014 general elections boycotted by the BNP, India was perceived by many to have played a partisan role. As the political turbulence in Bangladesh increases in the coming months, how India conducts itself will be crucial.

The Awami League-BNP political competition is such that when one is in power, life is near-impossible for the other. The Awami League, which came to power in 2009 and again in 2014, has tried to hobble the BNP by devising an electoral system skewed in its favour.

hasina1111Sushma Swaraj in Bangladesh, Sushma Swaraj, Sheikh Hasina External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at a meeting in Dhaka on Sunday.

This has been done by using a pliable judiciary, Parliament, the Election Commission, the executive and the law and order machinery. Bangladeshis refer to the process as “peaceful rigging” to prevent political adversaries from mounting a credible electoral challenge.

For example, the provision that a caretaker neutral government should conduct the election, which the Awami League fought for in 1996, has been removed by its government after coming to power. Under the caretaker government system, Parliament had to be dissolved 90 days before its term expired so that sitting MPs would not enjoy an advantage over their challengers. It was on these issues that the BNP had boycotted the 2014 general election.

Further, in 2009 the Awami League changed the law to confine the army to the barracks during elections. On the face of it, this seems a reasonable proposition. However, the widespread violence and anarchy during the 2014 general election have proven the inability of civilian law enforcement agencies to ensure peaceful elections. Civil society activists ask if the army can run five-star hotels, construction projects and hospitals, why it cannot ensure the safety of voters during the elections.

With the executive and the law and order machinery already under the government’s thumb, Opposition parties find it difficult even to campaign because police permission for their political rallies is routinely denied. As for the Election Commission, the Opposition parties allege that it is manned by Awami League supporters.

The legal process has also been routinely used by the government to disable and disqualify its opponents. A prison sentence of two years or more disqualifies a candidate from contesting. Begum Khaleda Zia has been sentenced for five years. Other top BNP leaders are fighting criminal cases that could lead to their sentencing and disqualification before the elections. Nearly 78,000 criminal cases have been launched against 1.8 million BNP workers.

There are also accusations that the Duterte-style aggressive anti-drugs campaign, which has already led to more than 130 deaths, is being used against ‘persons of interest’ by the government.

Even if it manages to contest, the Opposition would have to deal with issues such as ballot stuffing, denial of ballot papers to voters and Opposition polling agents being chased away. These tactics deployed in recent local body polls are seen as a dry run for the general elections.

The Awami League realises that it cannot afford a repeat of 2014 when the main Opposition boycotted the polls. Without the Opposition participating, its victory will lack legitimacy. It is keen, therefore, to see the BNP contest, even if it is a truncated party which participates. Rumours of plans to break the BNP are rife. Indian agencies are being accused of aiding this effort.

It is understandable that India is happy with its relationship with Bangladesh. There has been excellent security cooperation with the Hasina government. Border issues have been resolved and a transit agreement signed.

By contrast, anti-India Islamic terrorist groups came up in Bangladesh during the BNP’s previous stints in power – 1991-96 and 2001-2006. Cox’s Bazar became the port of choice for smuggling arms to Indian insurgents. Besides, the BNP’s alliance partner the Jamat-e-Islami is known for its anti-India stance.

Nevertheless, India should be ready to do business with any government that comes to power in Dhaka next January. Today Bangladesh is not the same as it was two decades ago and India’s position in the world has also changed. The BNP seems to be turning a new leaf recognising the emerging realities. Begum Khaleda Zia during her visit to India in 2012 went out of her way to declare that if her party came to power, Bangladesh’s territory would “never be used for anti-India activities”.

More than the proclamations of good intent, India must note the emerging strategic competition with China in its neighbourhood. At this juncture, it makes no sense to narrow down its options in Bangladesh as any misstep is likely to be capitalised upon by Beijing. India must not wade into the emerging political mess in Bangladesh in favour of any one of the players. It cannot be in India’s interest to push Bangladesh along the path that Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have taken.

(The writer is a journalist based in Delhi)