A strong political dispensation in Bangladesh is good for India, especially when headed by a person who cooperates with New Delhi

by Seshadri Chari

The resounding victory of Bangladesh’s Awami League for the fourth consecutive time—making its leader Sheikh Hasina prime minister for a fourth term—is a definite stamp on her capacity to balance developmental programs and shrewd politics. New Delhi should move fast to consolidate its position and utilise Dhaka’s political stability to its best advantage.

Seventy-one-year-old Sheikh Hasina’s fourth term as Prime Minister of Bangladesh comes amidst a mixed bag of spectacular victory and allegations of massive rigging, intimidation of opposition party workers and widespread violence.

Unlike the previous election, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) took part in polls this time but was virtually decimated, winning just less than twenty odd seats. BNP spokespersons have claimed that many of its candidates were arrested during the election process on frivolous charges, and its leader Khaleda Zia was slapped with corruption charges and made to serve a seventeen-year jail term.

The Sheikh Hasina government has been accused of adopting a highly authoritarian posture and stifling the opposition with an iron hand.

It has reportedly spent about $13.9 million on a project to monitor social media, ostensibly to keep a check on terror activities but in effect, the social media watch turned out to be a tool to control anti-government voices. In 2004, the government had formed the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) to combat increasing Islamic radicalisation and suspected ISI activities.

During the initial years, the RAB did manage to neutralise suspected terrorist sleeper cells and radical activists. But gradually, the RAB became a force in itself turning out to be a moral and religious policing unit functioning more like a ‘death squad’. Many BNP leaders were allegedly hounded out of their homes and offices especially in rural areas. Opposition leaders also pointed out the anomalies in the Digital Security Act which was used to muzzle the press while the government claimed it was meant to prevent misuse of social media by anti-social elements.

Meanwhile, the European Union had decided not to send election observers. Though budgetary constraints were cited as the main reason, the security concerns of observers are said to be the real reason.

But now, after elections, the EU spokesperson has referred to the ‘significant obstacles’ to a level-playing field resulting in tainting the electoral campaign and the vote.

Besides the EU, the US and the UK have also called for an independent probe into allegations of rigging and widespread violence during the run-up to the elections.

While the institutional memories of the 1971 liberation war remain intact in Dhaka and New Delhi, both countries have a new generation that looks far beyond 1971 and the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1975.

To India’s Advantage

A strong political dispensation in Bangladesh is good for India, especially when headed by a person determined to fight terrorism and cooperate with New Delhi on issues affecting insurgency and nefarious cross-border activities.

The internal security agencies in India had to work overtime to counter the threats posed by insurgency during the BNP rule from 2001 to 2006. With Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League in the saddle in Dhaka, the border is comparatively safe and secure. Meanwhile, a section of BNP’s leadership is said to have moved away from Islamic fundamentalist elements but still remain suspect in the eyes of our agencies. This has given Sheikh Hasina the much needed electoral edge over her political rival Khaleda Zia.

But in its endeavour to keep her in power—to the advantage of border security—New Delhi is faced with the growing Chinese influence in the territory of India’s eastern ally, and the Eastern entry point to the Indian Ocean besides Gwadar in the West. Bangladesh is part of Beijing’s One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR)and has approached China with new projects like the Chittagong-Kunming road link.

Besides bilateral agreements, China is giving Bangladesh eight projects worth about $9.45 billion, including the Padma River Bridge, the Payra Power Plant and partnering in Chittagong-based blue water economic projects.

The Kunming Initiative of 1999, later changed to China-Bangladesh-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC), has been overshadowed by the OBOR and massive aid-related projects by Beijing. China’s sale of two Ming-Class submarines to Dhaka and other naval and military cooperation as part of a ‘strategic partnership’ has added a military dimension to economic cooperation.

Not to be outdone, India offered Dhaka a $1 billion soft loans in 2010 and 2014, and the Modi government, in 2017, announced a $5 billion aid—of which $500 million would be used for procuring defence equipment.

New Delhi can ill-afford the loss of its strategic space in Bangladesh in the ensuing balance of power contest in the region where it is in direct competition with China, and negotiating cooperation.

Given the Geo-Strategic importance of Bangladesh, like Sri Lanka, India needs to turn challenges into opportunities and increase its footprint in the country through extensive commercial, security and strategic initiatives.

Besides being the gateway to the Indian Ocean, Bangladesh is important for the success of Prime Minister Modi’s Look East, Act East initiative.

The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’