Bangladesh poll verdict a double-whammy for India

India's predictable endorsement of the poll verdict is crucial for Shaikh Hasina because others applauding her return are the authoritarian regimes in Russia and China with no opposition

India's support for Bangladesh's Awami League, securing 223 seats in a 300-member House, is vital for Hasina, writes Subir Bhaumik (representative image) (photo: National Herald archives)
India's support for Bangladesh's Awami League, securing 223 seats in a 300-member House, is vital for Hasina, writes Subir Bhaumik (representative image) (photo: National Herald archives)

Subir Bhaumik

Sheikh Hasina's expression of gratitude, thanking India for standing by her through thick and thin, can barely gloss over New Delhi's actual and progressive loss of influence over the ruling Awami League, which on Monday, 8 January won a record fourth consecutive term in office after winning a somewhat controversial election minus the principal Opposition coalition.

India's predictable endorsement of the poll-verdict, that gave Awami League 223 seats in a 300-member House and Independents fielded by it winning 62 seats, is crucial for Hasina because others applauding her return are the authoritarian regimes in Russia and China with no opposition.

For the world's most populous democracy India, having to endorse a one-sided election and one-party governance is particularly embarrassing. "India is going the US way -- democracy at home and support for dictatorships abroad for strategic considerations," said former intelligence official Benu Ghosh.

With the Islamist Opposition coalition, which has been buoyed by a poor voter turnout that it sees as support for its poll boycott call, hell bent on continuing violent street agitations to oust her--and the reaction of Western democracies likely to be less-than-welcoming if not totally hostile--Hasina will have to count on India to weather the crisis of legitimacy in the days following the polls.

But will India miss its trusted friends, the old guard in the Hasina cabinet, almost all of whom were missing from the list of candidates after distribution of ticket? If India has to re-build bridges with the new incumbents in the Hasina cabinet, many of them known for their leaning towards Beijing as a counterweight to New Delhi, then it will be of concern to India. Bangladesh could well be the last nail in India's neighbourhood coffin after pro-Chinese regimes have taken over the South Asian landscape from Nepal to Maldives.

With the Awami League now firmly under Hasina's all powerful advisor Salman F Rahman all set to marginalise the party's traditional middle class, pro-liberation and India-friendly leadership, Delhi can only retain its foothold if it manages to persuade her to induct some of them into Hasina's cabinet through quotas meant for technocrats and women.

But if it remains content with odd favours like the lucrative power purchase deal given to the Adanis, it will be looking at a Bangladesh government, which will be pro-Indian in appearance but not in substance.

Salman Rahman is relentlessly pursuing a radical Pakistan-type Islamist agenda like operationalising 560 Model Mosques cum Islamic Cultural Centres which will seek to dominate the syncretic and intrinsically secular Bengali social and cultural space that translated into the strong India connect.

The withering away of the BNP in the legislative political space paves the way for a surge of radical Islamist groups like Jamaat e Islami and Hifazat e Islam, the latter being directly patronised by Rahman's trusted lieutenant and information minister Hasan Mahmud. This growing Islamist lobby in Awami League seeks to justify pursuit of soft Islam to handle the party's future in a neighborhood dominated by India's rising Hindutva.

As many as 92 per cent of Awami League's new MPs are fabulously rich and crorepatis because they mostly come from business backgrounds and a lot of them owe their wealth to trading with Chinese companies. That translates into a strong pro-Chinese lobby alongside the pro-Islamist one in the Awami League that does not augur well for India. Hasina's pitch for China and Russia is as much because they have the UN Security Council veto as to her liking for their one-party state model in preference to India's multiparty democracy.

The Bangladesh Parliament will now look like an extended national Council of the ruling Awami League with 61 Independents from the party emerging as the main 'Opposition bloc' to the League's 223 elected MPs in a 300-member House.

"Effectively this election has turned out to be a firm step towards a one-party state," said Bangladesh analyst Debashis Nandi.

In a first-time move to give the polls a participatory flavour after principal Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the polls and ally Jamaat-e-Islami failed to regain Election Commission registration, the Awami League allowed dissidents denied official nomination to contest as

'Independents ' without holding the threat of disciplinary action as before.

"Now that 61 of them have won and started jockeying for cabinet positions, the parliament will clearly have the one-party look of Chinese National People’s Congress rather than an Indian parliament or the UK House of Commons or the US Senate," says Nandi, who teaches politics in an Indian University.

But PM Sheikh Hasina's advisor Salman F Rahman sought to justify the absence of Opposition by referring to the Indian situation.

"The Indian parliament does not have an Opposition leader because the Congress failed to get the mandatory ten percent seats needed to get that. Should we call India then a one-party state," Rahman was quoted by top Bangladesh portal as saying.

Rahman won a whopping victory against Jatiya Party's Salma Islam in Dhaka's Dohar constituency in a poll where under-age children were caught on camera voting by turns.

"When you need such fraudulent practices even in a largely Opposition-less election, it says a lot about the legitimacy of this poll exercise," said the country's top rights activist and economist Badiul Alam Majumder who runs the 'Citizens for Good Governance '. He also pointed to 'desperate efforts' by the Bangladesh Election Commission to up the voter turnout statistics in 'a rather strange way'.

"At 3 pm on Sunday, the Election Commission said only 27 per cent had voted. Then after one hour, it put the figure at 40 per cent. This points to fudging turnout statistics," said Majumder in a poll discussion on BBC Bengali service. Even at 40 per cent, the turnout was half of the polling recorded in the last parliament poll five years ago.

A boycott call by principal opposition BNP and threat of violence to back the call may explain the low turnout. "But voter apathy really explains this low turnout because everyone knew the results beforehand," said leading editor Nurul Kabir in an interview to Deutsche Welle Bengali service.

The Jatiya Party established by late military dictator H.M Ershad is set to be the official opposition in parliament again, commanding just 11 seats, because its candidates have lost in half of the 26 constituencies left by the Awami League in a seat-sharing deal.

"We have become the sacrificial lamb in this election because it was marred by massive poll fraud and many of our deserving candidates were denied sure victories by the Awami League, " said Jatiya Party chief G M Quader, brother of the late Ershad.

The 'Independent' candidates of the Awami League have won nearly six times as many seats as the Jatiya Party at 61. The Awami League has secured an absolute majority with 223 out of 299 constituencies.

“There should have been a strong opposition. Not just in name only. We saw some subordinate and domesticated oppositions in our country. Such oppositions are ineffective and they play no role in flourishing democracy,” columnist Bibhu Ranjan Sarker was quoted by as saying.

“Some of the independents may not join the Awami League, but most of them will. So, it will actually be a one-party parliament.”

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent who worked as Senior Editor in Bangladesh's top portal and later at Myanmar’s Mizzima media. He has authored 5 books on South Asian conflicts)

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