When Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League won a landslide in the January 5 polls, most were asking how long the government would last. It was not an unfair question, considering that a similar election in early 1996, held with Khaleda Zia in power, had led to huge protests that forced the Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader to accept a caretaker dispensation and hold fresh elections within a few months. That election led to an Awami League victory and a change of guard. After the January 5 polls, most were busy looking for parallels. The 1996 polls led to a 7 per cent turnout and was boycotted by the Awami League-led opposition. The January 5 polls had a much better turnout, but that was nowhere near the 80 per cent registered in the December 2008 polls. It was boycotted by the BNP-led opposition and marred by intense violence. Wajed was aware of the limitation in which she was taking over as prime minister for a third time as she promised a dialogue with the opposition and fresh polls as soon as a consensus was reached. The United States of America rubbished the elections as “less than credible” and its envoy in Dhaka, Dan Mozena, called for fresh dialogue and mid-term polls to “let the Bangladesh people express their will freely”. The European Union and the Commonwealth also dubbed the polls one-sided and called for fresh elections. Only India expectedly backed Wajed, saying that the polls were a “constitutional necessity”.
But within a week, the situation has changed for her. Russia has come out in support of Wajed’s government, saying it looked forward to a “constructive partnership and cooperation” with the new government. More interestingly, the Russian statement blamed the opposition for the violence and the boycott while it explained the one-sided nature of the elections. This brought back memories of the 1971 liberation war for many Awami League veterans, of the troubled months when India and the erstwhile Soviet Union firmly upheld the cause of Bangladesh’s independence against a brutal Pakistani military regime backed by the US and China. After Vladimir Putin’s firm intervention in Syria, this move by Russia to back Wajed was also seen as yet another Kremlin assertion in a major Asian issue. But what came after that was all the more surprising.
China, which backed Pakistan in 1971 but soon established good relations with Bangladesh, has maintained equidistance when it comes to the two rival, battling coalitions which have run the country since it returned to democracy from military rule in the early 1990s. Before the January 5 polls, the usually quiet Chinese envoy in Dhaka, Li Jun, had called for a dialogue between the Awami League and the BNP, so that “wisdom prevailed over violence”. But as Wajed assumed office and formed her cabinet, she received a message from the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, saying that China was keen to “join hands” with her government to “advance the Sino-Bangla comprehensive and cooperative partnership to a new height”. Li Jun handed over the letter to the Bangladesh foreign secretary, Shahidul Haque, to deliver the message even more clearly that Beijing meant business when it came out in support. Li’s letter had no mention of the elections, let alone referring to its credibility or one-sided nature. The Chinese premier was clearly sending a message to the West, specially the US, that the business of democracy and governance be better left to the government in Dhaka. In December, the Chinese had told Indian and Bangladesh officials at a BCIM meeting in Kunming that Beijing was keen to work with both Delhi and Dhaka to develop an economic corridor connecting Calcutta and Kunming that would “open a new chapter in our relationship and economic development”. Now by breaking away from its strict equidistance policy and supporting the Hasina Wajed government, China is seeking to warm up to India as well and drive home the message that it would be only too happy to work with India in the region. That this comes at a time when India-US relations are at a low following l’affaire Devyani is significant. Chinese officials have previously dropped broad hints to Indian diplomats that the deep sea port they plan to build at Sonadia off the Cox’s Bazar coast would be useful to India in accessing its Northeast. Beijing is keen to draw India out of the US ambit and what better time than now? The expression of support for Wajed, who is seen as close to India is, for China, like killing two birds with an arrow.
In private, Chinese diplomats have wondered why the US, especially its envoy, Mozena, had so strongly backed the BNP in the run-up to the elections and appeared to be doing that now. They suspect Washington is cultivating Khaleda Zia to secure a base in the Bay of Bengal after India rejected US efforts to seek a base in southern India. Beijing is sensitive to US efforts to secure a base that would sit close to the sea route connecting the Middle East with Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where China has built the port of Kyaukpyu and a huge oil and gas pipeline connecting Kyaukpyu to Yunnan. This is crucial for China if it wants to avoid the Malacca Straits, which Beijing sees as a choke-point and wants to avoid in order to save hugely on transport costs. The Chinese leadership, aware of the animosity between Wajed and the US, is sure Washington would not stand a chance if it sought bases around Bangladesh with Wajed in power. That would please India as well, because Delhi is averse to US bases in its neighbourhood like the one Australia has provided for US marines in Darwin.
A day after the statement of Chinese support for Wajed’s government, the US state department appeared mellowed. “We are prepared to work with the Hasina government,” said its deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf, in a statement, though she was quick to add that the US considered the January 5 polls as not credible and reflective of the popular will. But Harf did not insist, as Mozena had done last week, on “immediate elections”.
Realizing it has made a huge mistake by staying away from an election it could have perhaps won, the BNP was also in no mood to continue the strikes and blockades that it had inflicted on Bangladesh in the run-up to the polls. It called off the agitation, amid severe all-round criticism that its violence had affected the economy and hit the man on the street very hard. Farmers heaved a sigh of relief that their produce would reach urban markets and get them a good price. Exporters looked forward to regaining orders for garments after having suffered because of delivery failures. Students looked forward to returning to schools and colleges and office-goers felt they had not much to fear.
Khaleda Zia is perhaps beginning to realize what many had done before. Many Bangladesh nationals were prepared to vote for her just to keep up the anti-incumbency tradition of the electorate — but that was just to ensure a change of guard and not because the BNP had much to inspire the country with its track record. As much as they would change parties in power to ensure that absolute power is not available to any party, the non-polarized voter in Bangladesh was not willing to hit the streets in a mass agitation to oust the Awami League. And the BNP, instead of trying to mobilize the masses, relied on the terror tactics of the Jamaat fanatics to force a poll boycott. It all ended in a walkover for Wajed. But she has no reason to be complacent. By recalling many party veterans to join her cabinet, she has perhaps indicated that she is aware of fresh challenges ahead.