ALL’S NOT SWELL IN BANGLADESH
After a limp turnout in the elections, the logjam continues in Bangladesh, with a flailing economy and political unrest dampening the lives of the people
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
In a statement released days after the January 5 elections, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia had this to say: “National unity and an indivisible national identity will be built in Bangladesh with the combined and united efforts of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, people of the hills and the plains and those who have been economically fortunate and the not so fortunate.”
Under attack for not parting ways with the Islamist forces, especially the Jamaat, Zia was still hoping to garner the support of the international community against the outcome of the largely one-sided elections that her party had decided to boycott. With the bulk of the western countries on her side, and the US envoy in Dhaka virtually acting as a strategist for her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Zia’s hopes largely rested on the post-election stance of the major international powers. Her calculations may have gone wrong.
There is no denying that even among the intelligentsia, there was considerable anger at the way the Awami League government was unabashedly pushing for the elections sans the opposition BNP. There was also a great deal of curiosity as to why Indians were so vocal about their support to the Awami League’s plans to go ahead with elections. There were a few embarrassing moments, too, like the one when General Hussain Mohammad Ershad came out after meeting Sujata Singh, the Indian foreign secretary, and suggested to the media that she came to coax him to join the elections and back the Awami League. “It would have been nice had they made efforts for the BNP to join in,” Humayun Kabir, a former diplomat who now works with Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a leading think-tank, said. “All the major countries wanted a participatory election,” said another strategic expert. “I don’t get why Indians went out on a limb in supporting the Awami League. There is great disappointment with the line taken by Sheikh Hasina,” he added.
“India is putting its money on the losing horse,” an editor of a leading Dhaka daily told this reporter. He seemed frustrated and angry. “I don’t know what they are thinking. I don’t get what they will gain by backing a government that is making a mockery of the democratic processes,” he continued. “What if the elections are not recognized by the major international powers? They had already decided to not send in their observers,” was the most important question doing the rounds in Dhaka. “What if there is chaos and anarchy?” “Is India comfortable with the idea of the army taking over,” another former diplomat wondered.
Although none of this has happened yet, Indians have been contesting the claim that they did not do enough to ensure Begum Zia’s participation in the elections. Top officials in the foreign ministry have detailed the efforts they had made since early last year, when they laid out a red carpet for her in Delhi. More efforts were made through the last six months at different levels.
the january 5elections were a new low in the troubled history of this relatively young democracy. The government had claimed a 40 per cent turnout, but the estimates by local media were more conservative: between 20 and 30 per cent, which looks realistic if one factors in the high rate of violence and the fear that has gripped the country. Since October last year, abnormal has become the new normal. Opposition strikes accompanied by violence and picketing by the BNP and Jamaat Shibir Activists are routine. Despite the disenchantment with the one-sided polls, there was a clear design to the kind of violence that preceded the elections and still continues. There has been a spate of ghastly attacks against minorities in different parts of the country, and attempts made to create panic and instil fear in the minds of the people to ensure that they don’t come out and vote. The authorities fear that the violence may continue at least till the war crimes trial gets over. The Jamaat, which is fearing a virtual denudation of its entire leadership, will continue to try and thwart the trial.
Many have found a way around this routine of disturbances and guerrilla attacks. “We try to go home early. On days of strikes, we don’t venture out,” a student at the Dhaka University explained.“But how do I apply to the universities in India?,” he inquired, disenchanted with the chaos.
The battle between the Begums has also hit life hard. The economy is in tatters. Till last year, Bangladesh witnessed a healthy growth of 6.3 per cent. The estimates for the current year were pegged at a stellar 7.3 per cent. But the march of this ‘Emerging Asian Tiger’ has stopped dead in its tracks due to political turmoil. The revised World Bank estimates for the first six months peg the growth rate at 5.3 per cent. The Dhaka Chambers of Commerce and Industries estimates the damage to be $4 billion since disruptions began in October last year. Remittances, which make for the bulwark of the country’s economy, too, have fallen by 8.4 per cent.
The problems in Bangladesh are much more than just an ego clash between the two Begums. It is an ideological clash between those who stand for secular ideals and others who want it to turn towards an Islamic theocratic State. It acquired the image of an international crisis after certain international agencies and governments went all out with their propaganda machinery against the Awami League regime. Odhikar, Human Rights Watch, et al, have been accused of spreading falsehood by the regime. Jamaat, too has an amazing propaganda machinery to ensure that the focus remains on their side of the story.
“The Americans love to experiment. Here, they are trying to figure out if backing the fundamentalist Islamists is a good idea. It’s nothing but an experiment for them,” is how a diplomat posted in Dhaka tried to deconstruct the scenario. Political Islam, as an idea, is going through the worst crisis, after a brief period wherein the Muslim Brotherhood had come to power momentarily in Cairo. Turkey, similarly, is in serious turmoil after a backlash to the policies of PM Erdogan. Even in Bangladesh, attempts by the Islamists to stake a bigger claim in politics are looked at with great suspicion. Though the reach of the madrassas run by the Wahabi school runs deep and the political parties play their part in trying to appease a dogmatic, Shariah-demanding section, – the secularists have not been shy of hitting the streets in opposition to any such move. We saw that during the Shahbagh movement last year, when both the BNP and the Awami League had been pandering to the regressive ideology of Hefazat-e-Islam. They were allowed to march to Dhaka before the government finally budged under pressure from the secularists and decided to evacuate the city of the violent madrassa students.
Interestingly, the Americans, Germans, British and French have mellowed down their opposition to the election outcome. Though they continue to call for fresh polls, the Americans have pledged to continue their alliance with the Sheikh Hasina government, which has won by a three-fourths majority. They are hoping for a re-election soon, but it doesn’t look likely till the war crimes trial gets over. This is a diplomatic victory for India, which was discomfited with the idea of the BNP coming back to power, aided by the Jamaat-e-Islami. Clearly, India has been able to checkmate the designs of the Americans and the European powers. The fact that there is no popular resentment against the new government is a positive sign for South Block, which has faced a lot of criticism for supporting the incumbent government.