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Sushma backs Bangla poll

New Delhi, June 27: India will not question Bangladesh’s controversial January elections, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has told former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia who boycotted the polls, dissipating fears and expectations that had split Dhaka in the days leading up to her visit.

Khaleda, the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, complained to Sushma about the credibility of the elections that brought back the Awami League to power at their meeting at Dhaka’s Hotel Sonargaon today.

But the foreign minister told Khaleda that India remains unwilling to challenge the legitimacy of an electoral process that New Delhi is convinced was held within the provisions of Bangladesh’s Constitution, senior government officials confirmed.

Sushma’s response to Khaleda came after days of intense speculation in Dhaka within political and diplomatic circles over whether the Modi government would reconsider the previous UPA government’s refusal to question Sheikh Hasina’s legitimacy.

A senior official of the BNP had last week told this correspondent that the new Indian government’s position on the elections would be the “most awaited” part of Sushma’s visit. And an Awami League leader recently confided that his party was apprehensive that an assertive Modi may overstep diplomatically and turn prescriptive.

Most western nations, including the US, have criticised the January elections boycotted by the BNP and its allies that brought about a landslide victory for the Awami League — which won uncontested in most seats.

In nurturing ties with Sushma though, Hasina’s efforts would not go uncontested, Khaleda, it appears, had decided. The Bangladesh Prime Minister had yesterday gifted Sushma a Jamdani sari. Khaleda today gave Sushma another sari — another Jamdani drape.

But India chose to steer clear of any comments on the election’s credibility, in keeping with its policy of leaving a nation’s internal fortunes to its citizens. It helped that India has traditionally been closer to the Awami League than to the pro-Islamist BNP.

“As far as issues of a nature which are internal to Bangladesh are concerned, it is for the people of Bangladesh to address and resolve them,” foreign ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said in Dhaka.

For Indian foreign policy leaders who briefed Sushma before the visit, the decision to stand by Hasina and the electoral outcome is also driven by hard diplomatic pragmatism.

It is unclear whether Bangladesh is headed towards fresh elections, and Hasina may well remain Prime Minister till 2019 in a term almost coterminous with that of Modi. India’s earlier attempts to overtly cultivate Khaleda —treated like a head of state when she visited New Delhi as leader of Opposition in 2010 — had upset Hasina.

And though India wants friendship with the BNP, it cannot risk an adversarial Awami League government for the next five years —Bangladesh could emerge a key transit route for trade, and India also needs its support in countering militancy along their long border.