India faces a challenge as Bangladesh goes to poll on 7 January

Hailed as a pro-India party in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League has now a pronounced pro-China and pro-Pakistan tilt

Bangladesh's main opposition party terms train fire sabotage, demands UN probe (photo: Khwaja Nusrat Jahan)
Bangladesh's main opposition party terms train fire sabotage, demands UN probe (photo: Khwaja Nusrat Jahan)

Subir Bhaumik

Bangladesh's parliament polls on Sunday, 7 January poses a unique challenge for India -- it is faced with the prospect of return to power of a close ally, PM Sheikh Hasina, who no longer takes India seriously and whose diplomatic tilt towards China and domestic preference for Islamists has left none in doubt about her strategy to keep India happy with what she has already done for Delhi.

Because the main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has refused to participate and its longtime ally the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami has failed to regain registration as a legitimate political party, Hasina's Awami League is headed for a sweep as in the last two parliament polls. 

Fearing global criticism over another poll minus the principal Opposition and in a vain attempt to deflect Western pressure over human rights issues, PM Sheikh Hasina decided to allow Awami League dissidents denied official party nomination, to contest as " Independents". The facade of competition was washed away when the Awami League agreed not to field candidates in 26 seats against the Jatiyo Party (JP) and against its Leftist allies in another 7 seats, transforming possible contests into a comfortable seat sharing arrangement.  But JP and Left candidates are likely to lose quite a few of these seats because they face formidable Awami League 'Independents'. 

Former Election Commissioner Shakhawat Hossain predicts the withering away of both Jatiya Party and the Left Parties after this election following what he described as "Awami mainstreaming." Bangladesh watchers like Ali Riaz describe the polls as 'sham' and the country's descent into a North Korea type ‘one party, one leader’ driven state that is never acceptable to fiercely argumentative Bengalis.

More importantly for India is its total loss of influence over the Awami League and trusted ally Hasina. That stems from the changing character of the Awami League leadership and government over its last fifteen years in power. The traditional middle class leadership of the party - teachers, professors, doctors and other professionals with much social respect in Bengali society- has almost totally conceded space to Pakistan-type Islamists and China-linked traders,  both with the money power to 'buy' party nominations , over which Hasina's family ( 17 MPs from it in the last parliament) and close confidantes like Advisor Salman F Rahman who founded the Beximco conglomerate that has now become synonymous with bank defaults and money laundering, have total control.  

Rahman, described by many as de facto PM, has relentlessly pursued a re-Pakistanisation agenda, securing nominations for candidates with an Islamist background (starting off in Jamaat-e-Islami or other such groups) or from traders with close links to China who can pay up.

The pro-Indian middle-class leadership has been wiped out from the upper echelons leading to actual loss of Indian influence despite the trappings of bonhomie reflected in odd favours Hasina has done (the hugely lucrative power purchase deal for Adanis is one). 

Fiercely pro-Indian and a Liberation War hero, Mir Mostaque Ahmed Robi was denied nomination from his native Satkhira and forced to contest as Independent while scores of candidates of the Islamist hue made the cut. Hasina’s relative Bahauddin Nasim, given nomination by Awami League, even decided to contest flaunting the name of an Islamist group but with Hasina's picture and the party's "boat symbol". (See B &W photo of the poster).

Poster with image of Sheikh Hasina's and the party's 'boat symbol'
Poster with image of Sheikh Hasina's and the party's 'boat symbol'
Khwaja Nusrat Jahan

These instances point to a grim reality -- Awami League under Hasina (and Salman Rahman) is moving domestically towards an Islamist agenda and towards China on the diplomatic front. 

An assessment by leading Bangladesh intelligence agencies point to a cakewalk for Awami League candidates in 174 seats in the 300 member House, in 76 of which there are no ' Independents' either. 

This brings back the spectre of the controversial 2014 polls when 153 Awami League were elected unopposed. The 2018-19 polls were no different after the BNP pulled out over largescale electoral fraud that gave it the adage of "a dark night election.' 

It is a precarious dilemma for India because it is having to back a totally tainted election and a much-changed Awami League where pro-Indian secularist elements have been systematically marginalised by the Rahman-led Islamist lobby and where China's influence has grown after traders with strong Chinese links got more and more nominations.

While India is engaged in a bitter regional tussle with strategic partner US which wants Hasina's ouster and seemingly is on the same page with China and Russia on the issue, its influence over Hasina is at an all-time low. Delhi has only itself to blame, having missed out on a great opportunity to create a pro-liberation platform during the Shahbagh agitations which could have been converted into a party (like Arvind Kejriwal's AAP) that could give India a viable option to Awami League without having to repeat a disastrous 2001 type backing of BNP-JAMAAT coalition.

India is now having to back an increasingly autocratic regime with rock-bottom democratic credentials that gets it into tussle with the West , ironically after clear indications that Hasina fancies the Chinese one-party model over the Indian multi-party democracy , only that the Chinese model draws strength from economic growth and passing down  prosperity which Bangladesh initially followed during former finance minister A M A Muhith's tenure but which under the influence of Rahman has slid towards unrepentant kleptrocracy.

A favourable deal for the Adanis on a controversial power purchase contract is poor compensation for India's  actual loss of influence that may see a repeat of Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal -- except that in Bangladesh the party in power may continue to be identified as pro-Indian for historical reasons, despite its diplomatic swing towards China and domestic swing towards Islamic fundamentalists.

The only way India can somewhat recover lost ground is by pushing Hasina hard on getting few known friends into parliament and cabinet through technocrat and women reserved quotas, but in the long term it would have to use its many leverages to promote a truly secular democratic regime anchored in popular support as Hasina's Awami League once was. The Awami Independents may provide India with a political startup unless Hasina manages to subsume the brigade with few crumbs of office and profit.

(Subir Bhaumik is a veteran BBC and Reuters correspondent, an Oxford and Frankfurt University Fellow and author of well-acclaimed books on India's Northeast and the country's Eastern neighborhood) 

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