Bangladesh has an unusual, even unique, methodology of conducting elections. Introduced in 1991, the constitutional requirement is that an impartial caretaker government is installed for the period between the outgoing government and the swearing-in of the new government, in order that elections could be held in an atmosphere free from rancour and controversy, and not only be fair but also seen to be fair. Despite these safeguards, every election since that time has been marred by allegations of ‘election engineering’ by the losing parties, which have invariably launched campaigns in the streets to frustrate the elected government. Parliamentary democracy was therefore reduced to a sham.
This was the scenario — with the Awami League under Sheikh Hasina Wajed leading the mass movement against Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party — that led to the postponement of elections in 2007 and the continuation of the military-backed caretaker administration with emergency powers until December 2008. The interim government tried hard to purge Bangladesh politics of corruption and to implement a ‘minus-two’ formula by which both Hasina and Khaleda would leave electoral politics. This scheme was frustrated because the attempt to set up a new political forum under the Nobel laureate, Mohammed Yunus, was abortive, and public pressure in favour of the two begums was such that neither could the corruption charges against them and their close associates be sustained, nor could the ladies be persuaded to proceed into self-imposed exile.
Therefore, seven years after the last election and two years of the interim administration, there have been elections, the people of Bangladesh with a voter population of 81 million have turned out peacefully in large numbers, and the process will be declared free and fair by the two lakh election observers. During the campaign, the two main rivals and heirs to a dynastic tradition, who had taken it in turns to be prime minister since 1991, pledged to lower food prices, and to tackle corruption and terrorism in the nation of 150 million people. They also both promised to end the confrontation, strikes and violent street rallies that have marked Bangladeshi politics for the past 18 years. Thus Bangladesh should be ready to open a new chapter, leaving behind the troubled years of a disturbed and non-functioning democracy.
However, things may not turn out to be so smooth. Hasina Wajed has secured a massive victory. Khaleda Zia, who has lost the election, is already protesting about fraud and rigging although 11 million bogus names were purged from the electoral rolls, and the chief election commissioner, Shamsul Huda, has said there was “no scope for fraud of vote-rigging…so it will be difficult to reject the election result this time”. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if Khaleda Zia will lead the BNP as a loyal opposition in parliament or take once more to the streets in a destructive movement. The volatility of personality-based politics and the culture of corruption in Bangladesh give an unusual premium to violent dissent as opposed to the chances of peaceful and constructive debate in the legislature.
The army, which had played a powerful role in Bangladeshi politics from 1975 to 1990, and again over the past two years, will be relieved that the election process has been pronounced scrupulous and has produced a clear mandate. This makes it less likely that any reversion to the previous pattern of political commotion will erase the gains of this election. The army chief, Moin Ahmed, had said, “Bangladesh will have to construct its own brand of democracy…so that we can reinvent a system of governance with new leadership at all levels.” But few believe that the military is now interested in taking power as it did in the coups of the Seventies and Eighties. The military would be more interested in the personal benefits of participating in United Nations peacekeeping operations abroad than in more onerous and thankless tasks of governance at home.
For India, the stakes in the recent elections are high. The Bangladeshi technocrats who ran the interim administration showed some awareness of Indian concerns — these would include terrorism generated from Bangladesh, shelter to militants on the run from our north east, illegal migration, transit trade, sale of gas to India, permission for big investments from India (mainly based on gas) and our maritime border — but in terms of concrete and beneficial measures, there was no progress on anything.
The interim authority was as inhibited to move in these matters as the politicians had been earlier. But in relative terms, the non-political party interlude was an improvement for India, since the years of the last elected BNP government under Khaleda Zia were marked by Islamist militant activity, which her government was neither capable of nor interested in curbing. Bangladesh was fast becoming a hotbed of potential terrorism, of which India was the main victim. This time, both the BNP and its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, have lost seats as well as credibility: on the face of it, the Bangladesh electorate has set its face against anti-Indian extremism and fundamentalism.
The victory of the Awami League under Hasina Wajed, for this and other reasons, will give cause for satisfaction to New Delhi. The perception of Mujibur Rahman’s party as a secular entity following in the Indian footsteps will have been gravely dented over the years, but there is little doubt that the League has among its members leading figures who harbour sympathetic feelings for India, even if they have rarely matched their actions with these sentiments while in office. Perhaps during its forthcoming tenure as the government, with the endorsement of a big mandate, those party leaders will show less inclination to shelter behind the pretext of so-called public sensitivities, and display a firmer desire to help their own people by joint projects and policies of cooperation with India that can help the common man towards a better life.
New Delhi’s attitude towards the new government in Dhaka should be one of ‘Trust, but verify.’ Bangladesh, with its large destitute population and its past record of illegal migration and Islamist extremism, is a time-bomb for the northeast of India. Stability and economic progress in Bangladesh are essential if millions are not to cross our borders into the sensitive northeast of India as illegal migrants. There is no excuse for further procrastination by Dhaka or the pleading of political difficulties in promoting meaningful cooperation. For our part, it behoves India to be supportive to Bangladesh’s economic and political progress. While offering our congratulations and cooperation to the new government, India should be robust in making it clear to the Bangladeshis that friendship, on both sides of the border, must be earned before it can be enjoyed.