Bangladesh is on the edge. A sense of foreboding prevails as 10 million Bangladeshi voters wait with bated breath for December 30 when the country goes to the polls racked by violence, forced disappearances of opposition activists, electoral machinations, denial of a level playing field and an incumbent government taking recourse to all means to hang on to power and yet going into the elections with its back to the wall. While the biggest question that has occupied the minds of the anti-incumbency-driven voters is whether they will be able to step out of their homes to cast their ballots, no less important is India’s shenanigans in this controversial election.
With just about 24 hours left for polling to commence, there is a general opinion among some of Bangladesh’s think tank, civil society and thought leaders that the ruling Awami League might yet return to power with India’s “silent but full backing”. On the other hand, several leaders of the Jatiyo Oikkyo Front (National United Front), led by Dr Kamal Hossain, swore that the main opposition BNP, even under constraints, would take the fight to the Awami League and that their cadres and activists would “do their best” to make a contest out the elections across 300 constituencies.
But amidst these mixed reactions in Dhaka on the penultimate day, some former Indian diplomats and think tank scholars took a more realist stand, viewing the elections and New Delhi’s stakes and interests in pushing for a third successive Awami League regime. A former Indian diplomat, who served as high commissioner in Dhaka in the late 2000s, said on the condition of anonymity that an important objective this time, inter alia, was to “isolate” Begum Khaleda Zia and her son Tareque Rahman from the rest of the BNP’s leadership structure.
“We could only work with non-fundamentalists. The BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami (even though the latter has been driven underground) are not an alternative and it is too early for India to support them at this point in time. So, the only alternative was to continue with the Awami League,” the ex-high commissioner said.
Agreeing that a part of the Indian policy to back Sheikh Hasina, even going against all conventional logic, was to “ward off China”, the former envoy said: “New Delhi cannot compete with Beijing on showering resources, but it could yet have a buffer in an Awami League”. The main objective, however, was to gradually “pave the way for a new BNP without Khaleda and Tareque. This was the plan to some extent. Don’t you see where they are now? And after this election, the two will be even more isolated”, the former high commissioner said. While Khaleda Zia remains incarcerated in jail and is said to be very ill, Tareque remains ensconced in London with little hope of returning home to Bangladesh in the event Hasina wins a third consecutive term.
More than the “China factor”, India’s concern—and therefore its objectives—is to slowly but surely “defang” the BNP, especially when the party’s “record has not been great since it continues to have the Jamaat as a partner”, Joshi said, adding that “the current BNP is not a good option”.
When asked whether “isolating” Khaleda and Tareque was the main Indian plan, another former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, Dev Mukherjee, said: “Khaleda and Tareque have isolated themselves. In the context of the Bangladesh elections and India’s continued support to the Awami League, Mukherjee said that he “doesn’t buy the oft-repeated line that an anti-India sentiment is growing there”.
Six months before the impending elections, the BNP made overtures towards New Delhi, when some of its top-rung standing committee members met Indian think tank leaders, political entities in the ruling RSS-BJP combine and other bureaucrats and former ranking security officials in the national capital. These were followed by one-on-one telephone calls. Two BNP standing committee members, including party secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, also met outgoing Indian high commissioner Harsh Vardhan Shringla towards the end of October to make a last-ditch effort to convince the Indians to throw in their lot with the party.
While these efforts came to naught, Indian intelligence officials maintained discreet links with a few BNP standing committee members, going to the extent of vetting a list of senior leaders who would contest the polls. However, as the date of the election drew closer and with little positive signals from New Delhi, the BNP leadership in Dhaka took the decision to launch into the electoral campaign minus the I-word (India).
Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) was among some of the Indian think tank leaders and scholars that the BNP leaders met during their Delhi sojourn in June this year. Today, speaking to the South Asian Monitor, Joshi said: “We know that Bangladesh’s socio-economic indicators are very sound, but the political part is more complicated. Sheikh Hasina has put a tight lid on the opposition and any kind of dissent. Invariably, if dissent is blocked, there will be long-term consequences. In Bangladesh, greater Islamisation could be a consequence of such a situation”.
While this may not be lost on Indian policy makers, Joshi said on his part that while “as of now the playing field is in the Awami League’s favour, the BNP hasn’t shown us in anyway that it is a better option. Now that its two top leaders are out, we have to know who is BNP?” More than the “China factor”, India’s concern—and therefore its objectives—is to slowly but surely “defang” the BNP, especially when the party’s “record has not been great since it continues to have the Jamaat as a partner”, Joshi said, adding that “the current BNP is not a good option”.
An Indian plan to isolate the Khaleda-Tareque duo is not lost on Bangladeshi political observers. According to former Bangladesh Election Commission Brigadier General Sakhwat Hossain, “the BNP’s posture this time around was that it was not much interested to come to power. It may wait and see for a year or two when a new leadership emerges. Today, the long absence of Khaleda Zia and Tareque Rahman could make them redundant in the near future. At the same time, there is a section within the BNP’s standing committee which has apprehensions about Tareque”.
While Hossain is certain that India’s apprehensions centre around Tareque, he sees in party secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir as a potential leader “acceptable to Delhi as well as internationally”. Hossain warned that whatever the outcome of the elections, “Islamist extremism could gather strength in the event the liberal space is lost”, which India must factor in as it continues to embrace Hasina ever more tightly.
Hossain and other Bangladeshi thought leaders characterised the December 30 elections as a “watershed” that would decide the “fate of the country”. “It is certainly a challenge for the Awami League, but more importantly, the bigger challenge is to see whether people, especially the vulnerable sections such as the women and the minorities, are able to step out to cast their ballots,” Hossain said, adding that a “general fear, fear of arrests and an atmosphere of intimidation, especially in the rural areas, may force many voters from staying away from the polling booths”.