US and EU call for 'fair' election in B'Desh, rattled Sheikh Hasina retaliates

Sheikh Hasina’s confrontational approach serves India’s geopolitical interests as it drives a wedge between Dhaka and Washington

US and EU call for 'fair' election in B'Desh, rattled Sheikh Hasina retaliates

S.N.M. Abdi

India has reasons to be happy with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for bitterly attacking US-imposed sanctions on Russia and telling Washington to withdraw them forthright as they are “hurting people across the world” and therefore “violate human rights”.

New Delhi is laughing quietly because Dhaka’s opposition is bound to widen its rift with Washington which eminently suits the Narendra Modi government. India is today a staunch ally of America. But it doesn’t want any south Asian nation, especially Bangladesh and Nepal, to cosy up to the US, essentially to prevent Washington from wielding more influence than India in the region.

The Maldives is the only south Asian nation India has given the nod to snuggle up to Washington after weighing the pros and cons. And in Sri Lanka, without much fuss India forged a strategic partnership with the US to checkmate China and the Rajapaksa brothers. Now, New Delhi will surely recalibrate its Sri Lankan tactics.

But we do want Bangladesh and Nepal to ourselves without any competition from even the otherwise friendly US. We don’t want to share the turf in the two neighbouring countries with Washington – and rightly so.

Clearly, Hasina’s grievance is fuelled by the effects of US-led sanctions against Russia on Bangladeshi economy. Inflation has climbed to an eight-year high of 7.42% and forex reserves have plunged to below $42 billion--the lowest in a year-and-a-half. So much so that Dhaka has sounded the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for support.

Hasina’s attack is direct and frontal-- unlike India’s strategy of refraining from targeting the US but being pro-Russia in the garb of neutrality. But her confrontational approach serves India’s geopolitical interests as it drives a big wedge between Dhaka and Washington, preventing cooperation and collaboration between the two countries, which pleases India no end as it wants to call the shots in a country it surrounds territorially.

And for some weird reason, the US seems to be helping India. Washington is strangely piling pressure on Hasina ahead of general elections in December 2023 which she is desperate to win. The polls are not all that far; Bangladesh has slipped into election mode and the countdown has begun.

In a highly unusual move last month, US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Peter Haas, visited Chief Election Commissioner, KaziHabibul Awal in his office. He then told the media that the Biden Administration wants to see a “credible election”. “I will repeat again as I have said before that the US doesn’t care who wins the election, we just want an election where the people of Bangladesh can choose who their leaders are.”

Importantly, Haas’ intervention was preceded by Washington’s sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special security force which the US holds responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances of government’s critics. The sanctions rattled and shook Dhaka. Washington bluntly refused to roll back the sanctions on top RAB officials in Hasina’s inner circle.

Taking a cue from Haas, EU Ambassador to Bangladesh, Charles Whitley, also called for a “credible, transparent and inclusive” election and told Dhaka to ensure that “after the voting day, voters should be able to say that their votes were counted”.

Japanese ambassador to Bangladesh, Ito Naoki, too has publicly articulated Tokyo’s hopes that “the Bangladesh government will take corrective steps for holding better, free and fair elections in comparison to the last national election in 2018.”

All these warnings had already sent Dhaka scurrying to New Delhi for backing and support. And then Hasina took the moral high ground and criticised US sanctions against Russia scuttling any possibility of Dhaka striking a deal with Washington not to badger it in the run-up to the polls. Any breakdown in Bangladesh-US relations directly benefits India.

In the 2018 polls, Hasina’s Awami League-led coalition bagged 96% of the votes and 288 out of 298 seats contested! By all accounts, the polls were completely and totally rigged. New Delhi knew that Hasina would resort to unfair means but was surprised by the magnitude of malpractice and the victory margin which was a dead giveaway of rampant rigging.

While the Modi government calmly endorsed the outcome of the farcical poll, US and Western governments openly expressed their disbelief and scepticism. They denounced the glaring irregularities and kept questioning the verdict well after Hasina was sworn in as PM for the third time in January 2019.

But India unquestioningly propped up Hasina. In return, she has kept obliging New Delhi at every step. The Modi government has returned the favour by refusing to engage with any Bangladeshi political party except Awami League. And at this rate, a re-run of 2018 is now on the cards, especially after Hasina’s denunciation of the US and the pleasure we are deriving from it.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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