Jan. 6: The developments in Bangladesh are compounding the challenges before India’s foreign policy establishment which today decided to recognise Sheikh Hasina’s “victory” in the general election.
New Delhi’s stand may help consolidate a relationship it feels is beneficial to national security interests but it risks a breakdown of tentative contact established with the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia.
For the record, Prime Minister Hasina’s Awami League has won 104 of the 147 seats to which elections were held yesterday. Coupled with the 127 seats it won uncontested, the League has 231 seats or a three-fourths majority after a general election that was boycotted by the Opposition.
Unlike the sceptical West, India indicated that it would support Hasina’s claim to form the next government in Dhaka. The decision is significant, given an assessment that Hasina may have to face another election.
The US tonight said it was “disappointed” by the election and called on the Bangladesh government as well as the Opposition to engage in immediate dialogue to find a way to hold “free, fair, peaceful, and credible” elections as soon as possible, Reuters reported. “The results... do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people,” the state department said.
Estimates of voter turnout yesterday ranged from 5 per cent to 35 per cent, although the Bangladesh election commission announced 39 per cent — which is still far lower than the 83 per cent five years ago.
In Dhaka, Hasina asserted that her re-election was “legitimate” and dropped hints of another election if Khaleda agreed to her conditions. “I call upon all again, including the honourable leader of the Opposition (Khaleda), for peaceful talks discarding the path of terrorism and violence and severing ties with war criminals and the militant Jamaat,” Hasina said, offering an olive branch to her rival.
“A solution can be reached on the next elections only through talks. For that, everyone will have to have restraint, tolerance and stop political violence of all sorts,” Hasina added.
Hasina did not set any time-frame for the next polls, but the fact that she was considering another election even after securing a “three-fourths majority” in the elected house of 300 was an indication of her awareness about the vulnerability of the new regime.
A BNP government that won the one-sided poll in 1996, boycotted by the Awami League, was forced to hold fresh elections because of pressure at home and abroad.
Some foreign policy observers in Dhaka said that in case another election was held, problems would crop up for India.
“Given the mood in the country, there are chances that the BNP will win if free and fair elections are held. It will be interesting to see how India deals with a new regime after overtly revealing its preference for Hasina,” said an observer.
He conceded that New Delhi had reasons to support Hasina — who did not allow use of Bangladeshi soil for insurgent activities against India. But he pointed out that widening the relationship with other parties, including the BNP, would have been a better strategy for South Block.
Over the last few years, the Indian foreign policy establishment had made some significant efforts to reach out to Khaleda. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it a point to meet her during his trip to Dhaka in September 2011. Rajit Mitter, the then Indian high commissioner, had personally invited her for the meeting, a gesture BNP leaders appreciated in public.
Accepting an invitation from New Delhi, Khaleda had visited India and met Prime Minister Singh, President Pranab Mukherjee, besides a host of leaders from the government and the Opposition, which gave an impression that the two sides were trying to bury the history of mistrust.
The process, however, suffered a jolt when Khaleda cancelled a proposed meeting with Mukherjee during his visit to Dhaka in March last year and it strained the relationship.
The cracks seem to have deepened in the run-up to the polls in Bangladesh as India kept stressing the need for election in line with the Constitution. But the BNP was leading a campaign for a constitutional amendment to ensure elections under a poll-time caretaker government.
The US, EU and the Commonwealth had principally blamed Hasina for the failure in conducting a participatory election. They had also refused to send observers to monitor Sunday’s elections, which is being seen as an indication that they do not intend to recognise the legitimacy of the poll verdict.
India, however, stood by the Hasina government ahead of the polls, which many believe gave her the courage to hold the election.
India has maintained this stand even after the polls, though the BNP called the election a “farce” and the new government “illegitimate”.
“Elections in Bangladesh on 5th January were a constitutional requirement. They are a part of the internal and constitutional process of Bangladesh,” Syed Akbaruddin, the official spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs said.
“Violence cannot and should not determine the way forward. The democratic processes must be allowed to take their own course in Bangladesh,” he added even as the country erupted in post-poll violence blamed on protests by the BNP-Jamaat combine.
Although Hasina said today that maintaining law and order would be the priority of the new government and issued instructions to police and the army to quell disruptive protests, the phase of uncertainty is far from over.
“This uncertainty will cost India as well because BNP-Jamaat will carry on with its protests and keep stoking anti-India feelings. By openly backing Hasina, India has given them this chance…. If the BNP comes to power in any future poll, India will have to start afresh with them,” said an observer in Bangladesh.