New Delhi: In a little over a week, Bangladesh will go to polls to elect a new parliament. Pitted against the Sheikh Hasina-led ruling Awami League (AL) and its various allies is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which had boycotted the last parliamentary elections but has cobbled a rainbow coalition under the banner of Jatiya Okiya Jote. Old distinctions of pro-liberation and anti-liberation forces have been blurred with fresh alliances formed that defy understanding.
The AL, which positions itself as the pro-liberation secular force, has allied with the obscurantist Hefajat-e-Islam and other Islamic parties. It has a limited electoral understanding with former president Ershad’s Jatiyo Party. Also in the AL camp is Bikalpdhara Bangladesh of Badrudozza Chaudhari, who was elected as the country’s President in 2001 by the BNP but was tossed out later.
The BNP, long regarded as a platform for remnants of the pre-partition Muslim League, anti-AL and anti-India elements from extreme left to extreme right, has taken on board not only nominees of the banned Jamaat-e-Islami but also stalwarts of the Liberation War- octogenarian Dr Komal Hossain as well as Tiger Kader Siddiqui of the Mukti Bahini.
While Sheikh Hasina’s extended family of cousins and nephews is in the fray, it is the first time that none from the Zia family is in the contest. Convicted in a corruption case and barred from contesting elections, Begum Zia has been in prison since February this year. Her son and heir apparent Tarique Rahman, also convicted in many cases, is in exile in England.
Background of the 600 candidates, nominated by the two main contending groupings, is revealing of the character of Bangladesh’s public representatives. In declarations filed with the Election Commission, only 22 have described themselves as full-time politicians. Seven more as businessmen-cum-politicians and 329 as simply businessmen. Of these 153, including Salman Rahman- the Mukesh Ambani of Bangladesh, have been nominated by the AL bloc, and 176 by the rival camp. Almost all are based out of Dhaka. This shows how far the two main political parties have moved from their common worker.
Elections are being held in the background of unprecedented pressure on the opposition parties and denial of legitimate democratic space for dissent. Nomination papers of almost 300 BNP nominees were rejected during scrutiny by the Election Commission, 15 candidates have been arrested and over 30 attacked. Opposition candidates are being prevented from campaigning, their workers are being harassed and party offices set on fire. Nearly 21,000 workers of the opposition parties have been arrested. The Human Rights Watch has come out with a stinging report on the muzzling of the press and the blatantly partisan manner in which the State is conducting these elections. Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar has conceded there is no level-playing field.
Violence is endemic to elections in Bangladesh. A study carried out reveals an average of 88 persons were killed and 3375 injured in the past parliamentary elections. The figure peaked in 2001 elections that saw 248 getting killed and 11074 injured. The Hindu minority community bears the brunt of attacks mostly at the hands of BNP and Jamaat cadres. They are looking at the coming elections with trepidation.
The AL record in governance in the last ten years is not unimpressive in terms of macro-level economic and social indicators. It faces anti-incumbency on the count of intolerant arrogance, corruption and patronising criminal elements. Yet it is expected to win largely on the count of its control over the administrative machinery, which it has unhesitatingly used in a partisan manner. The BNP organisation is dispirited and in disarray. Jamaat is banned and its main leaders hanged or jailed for crimes committed in 1971. Nevertheless electoral arithmetic favours the BNP Jote and it is banking on that. It hopes it will win the elections if voters overcome fear and come out and vote freely.
The voter is in a dilemma. He wants to punish the AL but is frightened of the alternative. Stalwarts of the BNP do not wish to see Tarique Rahman again. The Army, which is accused of literally breaking his back, does not want him to return.
Despite its protests, New Delhi does not seem convinced that the BNP has severed its Pakistan connection. Hence, the Indo- Bangladesh relations that have been assiduously strengthened over the last decade may suffer in the event of BNP coming to power. Even China, seen as a growing challenge to India in its neighbourhood owing to its increasing economic stakes in the country, is said to prefer continuity.
New Delhi must be watching all this closely. Relations with Bangladesh have never been better than in the last ten years. Dhaka’s cooperation has helped in controlling insurgents in the North-East. Dividends of economic collaboration with India is an accepted fact cutting across the Bangladeshi political spectrum.
Yet the anti-India feeling is high largely because of various factors, like the BJP government’s initial stand on the Rohingya refugee influx, a perception that it is anti-Muslim, the NRC issue in Assam, statements of deportation of Bangladeshi illegals and the belief that India condones whatever Sheikh Hasina does. Lampooning anyone, who opposes AL as pro-Pakistan, too has not helped. This has alienated influential sections of the media including the Daily Star and Prothom Alo, most widely-read English and Bangla dailies. Incidentally, both are edited by freedom fighters and staunchly secular individuals.
Going by the manner in which the elections are being conducted, the outcome may not be acceptable to the losing side. If it loses, AL with its street power will not allow any other government to function. If it retains power it would need to be more tolerant of dissent and realise that denying legitimate democratic space will only drive its opponents underground and lead to a violent reaction. This is a prospect New Delhi will have to be mindful of.