Elections are expected in Bangladesh soon, as by law they must take place between October 31 and December 31 this year. This is not an easy prospect either for Bangladesh or for its principal neighbor, India.
The previous general election in 2014 was marred by violence and was boycotted by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). It saw a turnout of just 22%. The international community is hoping that the elections this time around are more credible and help stabilize the polity of this volatile country, which is witnessing the growth of Islamist radicalism.
This month, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval traveled to Dhaka to attend the meeting of NSAs of the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries. His visit was followed by that of Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale aimed at shoring up bilateral relations. India has old ties with the Awami League going back to the time the country fought its liberation war in 1971.
India suspicious of BNP
India’s perspectives on Bangladesh have been shaped by the experience of the governance of the BNP in the 1991-96 and 2001-06 periods, when Islamist militancy took root in the country and separatists and terrorists in India received covert Pakistani support as the Bangladesh authorities looked the other way.
Bangladesh is important for India for political, national-security and religious reasons considering that it borders no fewer than five Indian states. But it is no less important for the larger region and the world, given its large Muslim population that is being subjected to creeping radicalization.
Islamist groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh and Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen have been around for a while, and now Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda also claim a presence on its soil. And recent years have also seen suicide attacks.
For that reason, the prospect of any government other than one run by the Awami League and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is viewed with some dismay by India. For the record, though, India insists it is neutral with regard to the two parties, and during her visit to the country last October, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also met with BNP chief Begun Khaleda Zia and held talks with party officials.
Some Indian officials say that their experience of working with the Awami League government on issues relating to terrorism, radicalization and curbing the activities of third-country intelligence services has been positive. They say that Sheikh Hasina has been proactive in curbing Islamist extremism in her country, while claiming that the BNP has tolerated, if not encouraged, some Islamist elements.
Credibility at stake
Clearly, any fresh elections will have to meet the challenge of credibility. As of now the BNP has said it is willing to contest the next election, but preferably with a non-partisan election commission that would take charge of the government during the elections period. In fact, in recent months it has stepped up its campaign demanding that a caretaker government conduct the polls.
The BNP is banking on the anti-incumbency factor. By itself, it is not in particularly good shape to fight elections. Begum Khaleda Zia is embroiled in some 37 different cases relating to corruption and abuse of power relating to her two terms as prime minister, and the party is being led indirectly from London by her son Tarique Rahman.
In February, Begum Khaleda and her son were convicted in a corruption case involving embezzlement from a trust. Khaleda was sentenced to five years in jail. Though her party claims that the charges were a political vendetta, endemic corruption has been a factor in the poor performance of Bangladesh’s governments.
Her principal ally of the past, Jamaat-e-Islami, has been decimated by trials relating to its role in the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. In any case, as of 2013, the Jamaat has been deregistered and cannot contest elections, though it still retains considerable street power through its youth wing, the Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir.
Sheikh Hasina’s problems are, of course, the problems of incumbency, but also that her erstwhile ally, the Jatiya Party of former dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad, has said it will seek to contest the election on its own. The Bangladeshi economy has done well under her watch, averaging 6.7% annual growth in the last four years and growing even faster than India in 2017. Yet there are persistent weaknesses in the government system that cannot be easily overcome.
In the current situation, the Bangladesh Army has so far remained non- political, but it did step in in 2006 to prop up a caretaker government for a period of two years before elections were held bringing Sheikh Hasina to power. The corruption charges against Begum Khaleda were actually filed by the caretaker government.
If there are serious questions about the fairness of the elections under the auspices of an Awami League government, there are chances that the Bangladesh Army will once again be brought in to provide the process credibility. But Sheikh Hasina has kept the army close to herself, doubling its size and providing a generous budget with which to equip itself and build new bases.
Geopolitical hot spot
The one-sided 2014 election, which some Western countries frowned on, provided Beijing with an opportunity to reach out to Dhaka. China has a growing interest in Bangladesh both as a means of containing India and for its strategic location at the head of the Bay of Bengal, proximate to Rakhine state in Myanmar, where it has significant investment and from where it has an important pipeline that avoids the Malacca Strait and transports oil directly to its landlocked Yunnan province.
While India has been Bangladesh’s longtime trade and aid partner, China has emerged as a serious rival. China, which has invested US$3 billion in the country since 2007, has been involved in building bridges, roads and power plants in the country. It is also Dhaka’s biggest supplier of military hardware.
In his October 2016 visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised $20 billion worth of investments in infrastructure. One analysis says that this could rise to $31 billion and that if the commitments are actually implemented, China could emerge as the largest investor by far in Bangladesh. India cannot match China, but it has upped its credit line to $4.5 billion, the highest it has offered anywhere.
The Rohingya issue has the potential to poison both Indian and Chinese relations with Bangladesh. On one hand, China has not permitted any condemnation for the Myanmar government’s role in triggering the exodus of Rohingya Muslims, and on the other, some in India remain concerned that the Rohingya will infiltrate into India in larger numbers and pose a threat.
The question for the rest of the world and, more important, neighbor India, is what does the future look like in Bangladesh?
The worst-case scenario is that the weakening of the parliamentary parties and the growing power of such groups as Hefazat Islam (Defenders of Islam), a network of madrassa leaders who oppose the establishment of a secular polity and want sharia rule in the country. As it is, Islamist ideologues have already succeeded in shifting the national narrative by rewriting textbooks to exclude non-Muslim writers and ideas.
In 2015-16, there were attacks on bloggers, academics and Hindus by Islamists. The Awami League government only began to crack down after the massacre in the Holey Artisan Bakery in July 2016. The other alternative is a military government, which the country has experienced several times in the past.
Bangladesh is in a relatively sweet spot, but with a big “if.” It has had an old history of Islamist radicalism, but the newer and more virulent forms of Islamism could tear the country apart.
This commentary originally appeared in Asia Times.