Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina just before casting her vote in Dhaka on Sunday, January 7, 2024 | AP Photo/Altaf Qadri
Bangladesh’s elections have just been held on January 7. As anticipated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has returned back to power with a large majority. With this she starts her fifth term in office, the first being between 1996 to 2001 and the other three over the period 2008 to 2023. The elections were held amidst allegations of not being inclusive and fair and in the backdrop of a demand by the BNP for a caretaker government which was not accepted and were finally boycotted by that party. The government on its part decided to stick to the Constitutional provisions and went ahead with the elections. It took steps to ensure that the process was neither sabotaged nor derailed by street action or other forms of violence.
The elections were not without flaws. Had the opposition participated in the elections, it would have given the people the choice they deserved. The boycott was unfortunate and contrary to the spirit of democratic norms since the essence of political opposition in any country is to challenge the government and offer alternatives to the electorate. Political parties cannot survive if they do not participate in political activity. The BNP seems to have lost its way and sense of purpose.
A question that arises in such circumstances is the role of the international community and more importantly, the form of government that best suits a particular country. The Chinese and Russian forms of and claims to democracy, for example, are not acceptable to the West. Iran has a record of free and fair elections but the West sill laments the loss of the comfort of dealing with the Shah of Iran and does not like the results that the current electoral system throws up in Iran. In Egypt, the only free election resulted in the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood. The democracy genie was quickly put back in the bottle with connivance of the West and Egypt has since reverted to the predictability of a military dictatorship that is friendly to the West. The world is replete with examples of different forms of “democracy”.
On the issue of which form of government suits a country the best, this is a question that is best answered by the people of a country. Typically, it emerges from an evolutionary process over time. Countries have gone through internal revolutions and twists and turns to determine how they will be governed and how transfer of power will take place. Some choose to emulate others, and some choose to look within to find their own model. The nature and manner in which government is organized in any society is a function of its historical stage of evolution, and other complex characteristics.
The debate is over now. A new government and a new Council of Minsters has been sworn in Bangladesh. It is time for Bangladesh to get back to work and move beyond the uncertainty that had gripped the country for the last year or so. The challenges before the new government are known only too well to the Prime Minister. They are first and foremost internal in nature. Bangladesh needs to maintain a growth rate that can raise the level of incomes, provide employment, and respond to the rising aspirations its 170 million people. Good and decisive governance is needed to achieve these goals. On the social side, the project of building a national identity is very much on. An entirely new generation of Bangladeshis exists today. The way in which their minds are shaped and how they view themselves is silently laying the foundations for the future. Bangladesh has gone through extraordinary upheaval, violence and instability. A steady hand is needed to steer the nation towards political maturity and building of strong institutions that are rooted in Bangladeshi ethos, the spirit that led to its liberation and resilience to shocks. This is not easy, as experience has shown even in the most advanced countries.
A fundamental prerequisite for progress is security and prevalence of the rule of law. The Prime Minister has taken bold steps to eradicate terrorism, extremism and radicalization from society. One of her priorities has been to promote a moderate approach to religion and modernize the madrassa system of education. A lot still remains to be done and this is likely to be an area of her continued attention.
She is aware of the fate that has befallen Afghanistan and Pakistan. She looks more to Indonesia and Malaysia as models rather than to Turkey or Saudi Arabia. The Awami League has a critical role to play in term of what signals it sends and what examples it sets for the population. So too do Islamic parties such as the Jamaat and its different incarnations and affiliates.
All parties in Bangladesh are changing. This includes the Awami League but also the BNP and the Islamic parties. The choices they make with regard to how Bangladesh will define itself within the Islamic world and with reference to India will be fundamental. So too will be the choices that the Bangladesh Armed Forces make.
Relations with India are thus both a matter of foreign policy as well as of internal policy. If Bangladesh follows developments in the neighbouring states of India closely, so too does India follow events in Bangladesh. This is a reality that both sides have come to accept with the passage of time. This is not a negative but should be seen as an opportunity for uplifting people on both sides of the border. Enlightened leaderships on both sides can make all the difference between prosperity and stability and stagnation and turmoil.
The next five years are likely to be marked by continuity of leadership in both countries. This provides a unique chance to complete ongoing initiatives and projects and raise ambition levels for greater integration. This is a relationship, like any other, which will always have differences, unresolved issues and mismatched expectations. India should seek to broaden its engagement with all sections of Bangladeshi society and solidify the cooperation on security issues.
Military threats do not exist for each other. There are other more complex ones that do. Among these are domestic issues which can impact on each other. With the enormous experience gained and lessons learnt, both sides should be extra vigilant to prevent blowbacks. These arise from well-known pitfalls such as treatment of minorities, illegal migration, transnational crime, terrorism and insurgency.
The economic and trade relationship should move towards greater sustainability with greater Indian investments and value addition in Bangladesh. Supply and value chains should multiply so that India can become an active partner in meeting Bangladesh’s development goals of rising incomes and jobs, and Bangladesh is able to leverage the vast and growing Indian market and increase its exports. Bangladesh is possibly heading towards significant pressure on its external account, with falling foreign exchange reserves and inflation. India will be called upon to play a role. One way to help Bangladesh would be to increase the share of trade in rupees. Cooperation in the blue economy should become the next frontier. Connectivity in the energy, telecom, sea, river, air, road and rail sectors should be further increased. Continuous improvement of border infrastructure and ease of travel is essential.
The expiration of the Ganges Water Treaty in 2026 will refocus attention on the issue of water sharing. Solutions will have to be found to share not just the waters of common rivers but also the shortages in them which are a fact of life. The Brahmaputra that carries significant water originates in China. Its flows and its management, including during the flood season, requires the cooperation of China as the upper riparian. Climate change and global warming are going to challenge both nations and collaborative approaches are needed.
The Bangladesh Prime Minister has followed a policy of friendship to all and malice towards none. This has been the framework for her policy towards China and the US, although it does not quite explain her strong tilt to China as against a rather frosty relationship with the US.
The next term is an opportunity for Bangladesh to recalibrate these relationships by reducing its dependence on China and bridging the gap with the West. It is the West that offers the largest export market, the largest source of remittances and the best chance for integration into the international system. China, in the garb of a benevolent development partner, is making Bangladesh a party to its strategic containment of India. India will not let this happen. It also makes little sense for Bangladesh to allow itself to be used thus.
The prognosis for the resolution of the Rohingya refugee issues is not good. Bangladesh’s dialogue with Myanmar is stymied by internal problems in Myanmar. The presence of the Rohingyas and their growing population poses serious challenges to Bangladesh. Increasingly it will pose challenges to India too. The prevention of Rohingya infiltration into India will test the border management regime between India and Bangladesh.
India has no desire to interfere in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. It is obvious that it has no choice but to deal with any government that takes office in Dhaka, and it will. Yet the continuation of Sheikh Hasina provides an interlocutor in Dhaka who believes in a shared future of the sub-region. This is an opportunity which India should seize and reciprocate her belief in the mutual benefits of a sound Indo-Bangladesh relationship.
(First published by the Vivekananda International Foundation and reproduced with their consent)