‘Shadow’ on US ties, China factor: What Hasina’s re-election means for India

Sheikh Hasina’s landslide victory was predictable. But will it be a lasting win for Delhi?

WrittenBy:Samrat X
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The Bangladesh Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 76, has won the country’s general elections, securing 223 of 300 electoral seats in the country’s parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad.

The results were predictable, and indeed, had been widely predicted. “When Bangladesh goes to the polls on January 7,” Oslo-based Bangladeshi academic and author Mubashar Hasan wrote in a piece for 360info.org published three days before the polls, “the great performance of democracy will take centre stage. Voting booths will be set up, voters will cast votes, and they will be counted. However, despite the show, there is no surprise twist lurking for election watchers, because the result is already known. Sheikh Hasina will be re-elected for a fifth time, and her party, the Bangladesh Awami League (AL), will form government once again.”

The decision of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party, and 11 other parties with which it had formed an alliance, to boycott the elections, had made the results a foregone conclusion. The opposition alliance also called for a public curfew on voting day. Their call had an impact; the voting percentage was around 40 percent, down from more than 80 percent in the last general elections held in December 2018.

The opposition had been demanding that elections be held under a neutral caretaker government because they did not expect free and fair polls under Awami League rule. This followed widespread allegations of rigging and ballot-box stuffing in the 2018 elections, in which Hasina’s party along with its allies won 288 of 298 seats for which polling was held. The Awami League by itself, minus allies, secured 77 per cent of the vote. This was coincidentally also the percentage secured by Vladimir Putin, who won the Russian presidential elections the same year with 77 percent of the vote.

Setback to democratic politics?

Hasina’s victory will be warmly welcomed by Russia, China and India, but is likely to be seen as a setback to democratic politics by the US and Western countries where concern about her increasingly autocratic rule has been mounting for several years. Her long-time rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, 78, was barred from electoral politics after being convicted of corruption in 2018 and sentenced to 17 years in jail. She is now chronically ill and in what effectively amounts to house arrest, although the use of that term is disputed by the Bangladesh government.

Zia’s son Tarique Rahman, the acting Chairman of the BNP, is in exile in the UK. He told The Diplomat in an interview that “over 138,500 politically motivated cases have been launched against 5 million members of BNP and other democratic parties”. The BNP held a grand rally on October 28. After that, over 22,000 opposition leaders and activists were arrested, Rahman said in mid-December.

Despite the obvious crackdown on opposition parties, the elections saw the participation of 1,895 candidates from 26 parties for the 300 seats. The main party in the fray, apart from the ruling Awami League, was its erstwhile ally, the Jatiya Party founded by former military dictator late HM Ershad, which contested 289 seats, and won a paltry 11. The party’s current chairman GM Qader, who was one of the 11 winning candidates, had predicted in July that only the Awami League could win if elections were held while Hasina remained PM, and that “nothing will change, everything will be the same, everything will be managed”.

The hope that everything will be the same is precisely what drove India’s support for Sheikh Hasina.

Behind India’s support

Before she came to power in polls held in December 2008, Bangladesh under Hasina’s predecessor Khaleda Zia had become a safe sanctuary for multiple militant groups from Northeast India. The top ULFA leadership was based there; the leader of the principal valley-based insurgent group from Manipur, the UNLF, was there; the powerful Naga insurgent group, the NSCN(IM) was a part of arms trafficking networks there; other smaller groups from across the region had training camps for militants in there. After she took charge, Hasina moved quickly to dismantle those camps and had the leaders of the militant groups picked up and handed over informally to Indian authorities.

She also led a crackdown on the rising Islamist extremism in the country. Soon after coming to power, her government established an International Crimes Tribunal to prosecute those who were involved in the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, in which, according to varying estimates, between at least a million and three million people died. The top leadership of the largest right-wing Islamist party in the country, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, was arrested, with several of its leaders receiving death sentences.

The Jamaat had collaborated with Pakistan in the 1971 war that split the country. What is now Bangladesh was then East Pakistan.

Some leading lights of the BNP were also found guilty of war crimes in those trials. One of them, Salahuddin Qader Chowdhury, a shipping magnate from Chittagong and a BNP Member of Parliament, was sentenced to death and hanged in 2015. More than a decade earlier, in 2004, he had been implicated in a separate crime – a massive arms smuggling attempt through Chittagong port that included 2,000 automatic and semi-automatic rifles, 25,000 grenades and 1.8 million rounds of ammunition bound for militant groups in Northeast India.

It is therefore not surprising that the Indian establishment, both during the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government and subsequently under the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, has been wary of the BNP and its allies such as the Jamaat returning to power in Dhaka. 

India’s longest land border of 4,096 km is with Bangladesh. That nearly half of it is with states of Northeast India makes it all the more crucial, from an Indian national security perspective, that hostile forces not be able to operate freely from Bangladesh.

Washington, Delhi on opposite sides

The US understands this concern, but the US and India have historically been on opposite sides in Bangladesh. 

Back in 1971, the US government of Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger actively aided the genocidal regime of Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan and even sent an aircraft carrier group led by the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to threaten India once it entered the war on the side of the East Bengali freedom fighters. It was then the Soviet Union which had backed India against America.

Russia remains an important ally for both India and Bangladesh. It is constructing Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant which is scheduled for commissioning this year. Bangladesh has also developed close ties with China, especially in the sphere of defence. The two countries have a Defence Cooperation Agreement. 

Bangladesh is the second-largest recipient of Chinese weapons in the world, after Pakistan, and has bought submarines, warships, tanks, missiles and other military equipment from that country.

It is a poor country with a population roughly twice the size of Germany’s, an economy that has run into trouble after a burst of rapid growth, and growing geopolitical tensions with Western countries that are its major trade partners. The US is its largest export market.

Rise in tensions likely

Internal political and social tensions can only be expected to grow after elections that did not see the participation of the principal opposition. Hasina’s perceived closeness to India is also increasingly unpopular in Bangladesh. Events such as the scheduled inauguration of the grand Ram Mandir in Ayodhya by the Indian Prime Minister make news there as well, adding to existing communal tensions.

At a broader geopolitical level, ties between India and countries such as the US and Canada have seen tensions of late due to alleged assassinations and assassination attempts on Khalistan proponents there. India’s position in Bangladesh undoubtedly adds to the friction points.

China is competing with India for influence in its immediate neighbourhood, in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. As India pursues its multi-aligned foreign policy, it may find itself increasingly isolated, fending off China on its own.

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