Bangladesh General Elections and India: From Blatant Engineering to Colonial Control?

modi hasina
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh

Until 2008, Bangladesh elections did not attract much attention in Indiaand at the same, within Bangladesh, India never figured as an important factor in any of its election discussions, neither.This changed since 2008. Although seeds of the change were sownmore immediately in the aftermath of the end of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) rule in 2006, its origin goes back to the evolving character of politics of Bangladesh,especially since 1975.

In 1975,numerous coups and counter coups contributed toZiaur Rahman, the military commander and a liberation war hero assuming power who also formed within couple of years his own political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP.

Zia re-oriented Bangladesh both ideologically that promoted the notion of a Bangladeshi national identity based on its majority faith, Islam. Healso redefined Bangladesh’s geopolitical arrangements leaning more towards the Islamic block. Until August 1975 Bangladesh’s foreign policy was dictated by a‘25-year India/Bangladesh friendship treaty’ that gave India disproportionate control over Bangladesh’s foreign and defence policies. Zia scrapped the treaty. India was unhappybut not hostile.

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BNP Leaders in Delhi

India’s ire with BNP started andintensified after Zia’s death, more pronouncedly since 1990 when after staying few years in the political wilderness, the partyreturned to power through a first ever free and fair election in the country. During its first tenure, BNP focused more on development issues and less on foreign relations. But it was during its second term, 2001-2006, that India became particularly unhappy with BNP as the partyleaned more and more towards the Islamic block especially Pakistan. India was also annoyedas it blamed BNPfor alleged collaboration with Pakistan’s notorious ISI, its military intelligence in supporting cross—border insurgenciesinits North East.

The discord between BNP and India was mutual – while, India regarded BNP as a security threat, BNP viewed India as an impediment to Bangladesh’s progress.

In end 2006, BNP’s second term ended amidst allegations of massive corruption, harbouring of cross—border terrorism against India and promotion of Islamic sectarian politics in Bangladesh. Furthermore, against the backdrop of growing mutual dislikebetween itself as the prospect of an election loomed, Indiafor the first time became openly active in Bangladesh’s internal politics, with the aim to replace BNP with the party of their choice, the Awami League (AL), in the seat of government.

2008 Election and India: the beginning of engineering

An army backed Care-Taker Government (CTG) took over power in 2007 and under its supervision, an election was held in 2008 and as was predicted and given BNP’s poor record in governing it lost the election and AL won. Up to this was fine. Given BNP’s poor record in governance no one doubted that AL win but what surprised most observers was the magnitude of the victory – AL won with two/third majority and this is where India’s engineering of Bangladesh’s election first began and became evident.

Indeed it is surmised that one individual that played a key role in catalysing India’s engineering of Bangladesh election outcomes was none other than the then Foreign Minister, Mr. Pronob Mukherjee whom Sheikh Hasina, the leader of AL addresses as ‘Dada’ (brother). India’s backing of AL did produce its desired result but as could be expected, not without a price.

Indeed, reporting on India’s role in AL’s victory and AL’s subsequent gratuitous reciprocation to India,the Economist, recorded how ‘bag full of Indian cash and advice’ produced dramatic results for the AL and thathow ever since this victory, “….. relations with India have blossomed…..Bangladesh has cracked down on extremists with ties to Pakistan or India’s home-grown terrorist group, the Indian Mujahideen, as well as on vociferous Islamist (and anti-Indian) politicians in the country. India feels that bit safer.”AL’s 2008 victory also resulted in granting of numerous other favours without a quid pro quo,most notably the promised Teesta water never flowed to irrigate and navigate Bangladesh Rivers.AL’s gratitude and subservience to India also had a sad side to it. At this time when India’s Border Security Forces were indiscriminately killing border-crossing Bangladeshis – indeed illegally – AL government looked the other way and never complained.

Other changes of ominous nature that have since changed Bangladesh’s political processes for ever followed soon, presumably with India’s nod.After ascending to power in 2008 AL took steps to ensure its permanency in the government. In order to do so, it took full advantage of its two/third majority in the Parliament–reportedly, an outcome of India’s election engineering – and scrapped the non-party election-time Care-Taker Government (CTG) system, a system that while in opposition AL itself once demanded and got installed and a system that has since conducted four elections – including the one that brought AL to power in 2008 – with such integrity and neutrality that it became a world model. However, killed by its midwife and by putting the government controlled Election Commission (EC) in charge of polls,AL has virtually banished all possibilities of fair contest in the country and instead introduced a government controlled poll supervision arrangement that virtually guarantees its permanency in government, an arrangement that obviously suited India.

2014 Election and India: blatant engineering

However despite these opportunistic changes and because of its poor record in human rights, corruption, rule of law and also due to deteriorating law and order etc.  AL’s popularity plummeted by the end of its tenure in 2013 and asanother election neared, AL sensed troubleespecially because its adversary, the BNP which it subjected to untold repression and suppression during the last 4 years of itsrule re-surged as a formidable force.

Encouraged by its renewed strength BNP started to prepare to participate in the upcoming 2014 election, but fearing another engineering from within and outside, it was reluctant to do sothrough the government controlled EC system. They demanded re-introduction of the non-party CTG system, as poll supervisor. However, given its dwindling popularity, this was too much of a risk forAL to take and thus it refused to revert to CTG system. BNP remained adamant and decided to boycott the election. This shook AL and also its patron India. India immediatelygot into the act to the rescue its client.

By ignoring all diplomatic norms India got itself engaged in Bangladesh’s election process quite openly and its top bureaucrats became regular visitors to Dhaka, lobbying and pressurizing brazenly various opposition parties including BNP to participate in the election under the EC system.

Indians also started to lobby the international community in a partisan mannerarguing that AL wasWest’s best bet in their fight against ‘Islamic terrorism’ and thus an AL ‘win’ in the ensuing electionis a mustand not be compromised. However, as BNP’s – the only credible opposition party in Bangladesh – boycott of election became more and more evident, India’s biggest challenge was to find an ‘opposition’ to give the election result – which no one had any doubt what that would be – some legitimacy.

India’s scheming bureaucrats got into action with incredible zeal to manufacture an ‘opposition and found in the Jatiyo Party (JP) – party of the much despised and deposed military ruler, Ershad -a willing partner. JP agreed to ‘participate’ in the ‘election’ in exchange of basket-full of favours in a post-election AL government.

Thus JP ‘participated’ andAL ‘won’ and JPgot its promised gifts. JPis now both an opposition in the Parliament and also a partner in the government, it holds several cabinet posts and the party chief, Ershad who once earned the unenviable title of BiswaBehaya(the most shameless person on earth)became a special envoy of the Prime Minister.

This is how India, World’s largest democracy created history by engineering one of world’s worst.Commenting on the farcical nature of the 2014 Bangladesh General Election the Hindu, a leading newspaper in India observed at the time that “By every account, the January 5 election [of 2014], Bangladesh’s 10th so far, was a low point for democracy. The boycott of the 18-member Opposition alliance meant half the seats Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won were uncontested, and about half of the remainder were against unknown candidates with estimates of the turnout just 22-30% of the voting population.”Furthermore, even though West would always prefer a government in Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country that takes a strong stand against ‘Islamic terrorism’ and AL promised to do so, they found the engineering a bit too much to stomach. Thus they refused to endorsethe‘election’ which the US slammed by saying that it was “disappointed” andUK, Australia and the EUactually called for “another poll at the earliest.”

“Another poll” never happened. AL continued to rule,without any legal and moral legitimacy and with impunity. It unleashed unimaginable brutal and dubious legal means – which is continuing till to date – tosuppress and marginalisethe opposition, allegedly, with India’s help. Indeed, according to ShafquatRabee, a social media activist that in post 2014 periods India’s control over Bangladesh  complete and all-encompassing that “Many in Bangladesh now believe…….that India is behind the day–to-day security protection of certain Bangladeshi leaders. India is carrying out stealth operations inside Bangladesh wearing Bangladeshi forces’ dresses. India has trained and sent special operations teams in Bangladesh.”

India rejects these claims as “outrageous and unfounded”butwith another general election in Bangladesh looming at the end of 2018, itsdomineering role in Bangladesh’s internal politics has  not only re-surfaced but it is re-appearingwith a worrying difference giving much credence to this theory.

Upcoming 2018 Election and India: from blatant engineering to colonial domination

With general election in Bangladesh lurching and with ruling AL’s popularity plummetingagain and in the absence of its old ally, the Congress in the government in India, AL includingSheikh Hasina, the PM of Bangladesh herself are vigorously lobbying the BJP government for its patronage(read this as engineering) in the election. Indeed, reporting on a recent meeting between Hasina and Modi, the Indian PM in Kolkata in May this year, the  Anandabazarrevealed thatthe Bangladesh prime minister made a fervent appeal to her Indian counterpart for support, while reminding him of the favours her government had extended to his countryespecially in tackling militant insurgencies in India’s Northeast and suppressing Islamists and alsoof the support the party provided to India “… all its international endeavours since her party came to power in January 2009”. Quoting unspecified sources, the Ananda Bazar also reported that Sheikh Hasina further reminded Modi that ifALfailed to ‘win’ the upcoming election, “India would have another Pakistan on its eastern front” alluding to the BNP, its rival as a ‘pro-Pakistan’ party and thus arguingthat ifBNP comes to powerit would risk India’s security, with Pakistan’s helpall over again.

However, what is quite revealing in the current dynamicsand something that had never happened in the political landscape of Bangladesh before,is that the opposition BNP, often regarded as ‘anti-Indian’ and a staunchly nationalist political party has also become a cahoot in the cabal. In June the BNP had sent a high-powered delegation to Delhi and met BJP heavies and while promising to assist India in its security concerns and stressing that if elected the party would never allow and/or support any cross-border insurgency activities on Bangladesh’s soil, argued that it is in India’s interest that they be seen as a “champion of democracy and human rights” in the coming election and not be partisan and support Sheikh Hasina who according to BNP is building a “one-party rule” in Bangladesh. BNP delegationappealed to the Modi government to support a free and fair electionand play “a constructive role, and not back any one party in the elections.” Following the trail of AL and BNP, other political leaders including Ershad have also joined the cavalcade to Delhi.

As could be predicted,parleys with India by the two rival major Bangladeshi parties for theelection-time patronage have degenerated into usual AL/BNP spat. The pro-AL local media have greeted BNP’s- a party that until recently projected itself as a staunch nationalist party and AL as India’s stooge -lobby with Indiawith sarcasm though BNP claims that that there is an important difference between them and AL – AL wants Modi to arrange its win, BNP appealed to India to ensure a free and fair election.

Regardless, the ominous dimension ofthe pilgrimageof Bangladeshi politicians to India on the eve of another general election in Bangladesh drives one hard and unpalatable truth which is that it is not the people of Bangladesh but India that decides who they be governed by – this is nothing but a clear manifestation of colonial structuration of relations thatcurrently existing between the two countries.

On Delhi’s defence this can indeed be claimed that so far they have remained non-committal and has indicated that they may not take any particular side. Some in Indian media have counselled Modi governmentit must not to put ‘all eggs in the same basket’. But putting different ‘eggs’ in different baskets hardly changes the fundamental and this is because in a colonial arrangement that currently characterizes Delhi/Dhaka relationship ‘eggs’ may be different but the ‘basket’ would still beDelhi’s – they would be calling the shots, not Bangladeshis.

Indeed, in this evolving self-inflicted self-colonizing political scenario,the people of Bangladesh has lost their freedom. Thanks to self-seeking politics, their leaders have turned them into a flock of sheep to be herded by India. This is both sad and also dangerous.

Capture of Bangladeshi institutions, engineering election outcomes and installation of puppet governmentsin Bangladesh by India to fill its hegemonic aspirations may help the latter in the interim but a whole nation disrespected and cornered over a long period of time is unlikely to be in its best interest. Pakistan tried that for over 25 years, theytried to subdue, exploit and plunder erstwhile East Pakistanisthrough puppetregimes butfailed. A time came when‘East Pakistanis’, the Bengalis of Pakistan’s eastern wing – 90% of whom are Muslims –rose against their Muslim cousins, kicked them out and separatedfrom them in bloodied conditions.

Indeed, prolonged suppression of popular wills has its risks, sowould ‘Dadagiri’, eventually!

In order to chart a more mutually respectful and thus a more enduring relationship between the two countries what is required is that both countries understand and appreciate each other’s needs and fears in equal measure. Bangladesh has to realize that India is an important and a powerful neighbour and therefore, it is not in its best interest to do things that threaten its neighbour’s interests especially its security interests and at the same time, as Kofi Anan once said, “No nation can make itself secure by seeking supremacy over allothers” India also has to appreciate that colonial domination and by installing puppet and unpopular governmentsin its neighbourhoodmay give it temporary but not enduring reprieve. If history is any guide, such an approach may do just the opposite. While India has to ensure that it does not have another Pakistan next door, it also has to make sure that its actions do not produce another Kashmir in its backyard.

Therefore, as fast growing economies both India and Bangladesh must look at opportunities that benefit them mutually and also equitably and promote activitiesthat strengthen each other’s securityas well as sovereignty.

The Bangladesh 2018 election offers a good opportunity to both India and Bangladesh to end an arrangement that is unhealthy and mutually predatory and make a newbeginning, working together towards lasting peace, security and prosperity of their people.

M. Adil Khan is a former senior UN policy manager

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