Land of Ri­val Queens

The vendetta con­tin­ues be­tween the two fe­male po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in Bangladesh de­spite the coun­try’s re­turn to demo­cratic rule and note­wor­thy progress in all fields.

Southasia - - Region - By Mu­nir Ishrat Rah­mani

The rapid progress made by Bangladesh over the last cou­ple of decades is in­deed praise­wor­thy. Bangladesh’s econ­omy is mar­ket-based and one of the faster de­vel­op­ing economies of the world. It is ranked 47th largest by IMF in ‘pur­chas­ing power par­ity’ terms and 57th largest in ‘nom­i­nal terms.’ It is grow­ing at the rate of 6 to 7 % per an­num over the last few years. Its GDP growth last year was 6% and the rate of in­fla­tion was 5.4%, which is com­mend­able. Its ex­port of 22.93 bil­lion in 2010-11 speaks well of com­pe­tent macro-man­age­ment of national econ­omy. It augers well for Bangladesh’s fu­ture pro­vided the Awami League govern­ment re­mains fo­cused on good gov­er­nance in­stead of get­ting in­volved in petty po­lit­i­cal squab­bling or set­tling per­sonal agenda.

Bangladesh is some­times re­ferred to as the land of ‘ri­val queens’ be­cause the po­lit­i­cal ri­valry be­tween the cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina and the former head of the govern­ment, Khaleda Zia, has a deep shadow on all ma­jor poli­cies and de­ci­sions. When Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League emerged win­ner with a heavy man­date in the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2008, it was hoped that this time its lead­er­ship would fo­cus purely on national ob­jec­tives and re- frain from set­tling old scores with the ri­vals. Un­for­tu­nately, this did not hap­pen and Sheikh Hasina could not re­press her de­sire for ‘vendetta.’ Her govern­ment shut down an op­po­si­tion-backed tele­vi­sion chan­nel and closed a news­pa­per, Amar Desh, which had the back­ing of Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party. The editor of the news­pa­per Mah­mudur Rah­man, a close ad­viser of Khaleda Zia, was de­tained for pub­lish­ing a story about the al­leged cor­rupt prac­tices of Sheikh Hasina’s son.

The ‘vendetta’ con­tin­ues till to­day in one form or an­other. The Western coun­tries had wel­comed Bangladesh’s re­turn to demo­cratic rule af­ter the elec­tions of 2008 and hoped that the coun­try would progress in all fields. The Awami League had cam­paigned on the ba­sis of sec­u­lar­ism and pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics to con­test against the far-right groups. Sec­u­lar­ism re­mained the ba­sis of poli­cies of the League but pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics lost its way in the po­lit­i­cal squab­bling and the prom­ise re­mained un­ful­filled.

The idea of Dr. Mo­ham­mad Yunus found­ing a bank (Grameen Bank) three decades ago on the prin­ci­ple of lend­ing small sum of money to the poor with­out col­lat­eral had been ap­pre­ci­ated through­out the world and it was seen as the most trans­for­ma­tive and rev­o­lu­tion­ary achieve­ment for Bangladesh. The mi­cro-credit project had dra­mat­i­cally al­tered the lives of mil­lions in Bangladesh. The gov­ern­ments in the West were, there­fore, dis­ap­pointed when Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League tar­geted the founder

of the Grameen Bank and en­gi­neered his re­moval from the scene af­ter he had been awarded the No­bel Peace Prize. It was as­sumed that the Awami League felt threat­ened by the global pop­u­lar­ity of Dr. Mo­ham­mad Yunus and con­sid­ered him as a po­ten­tial threat par­tic­u­larly af­ter he had launched a party called ‘Cit­i­zen Power,’ though he had dis­banded it within a few months of its ex­is­tence. Also, Sheikh Hasina felt de­prived when the No­bel Peace Prize was an­nounced as she ex­pected to get it in recog­ni­tion of some peace moves that she had made in the north­ern ar­eas of her coun­try. The ac­tion of Mo­ham­mad Yunus’ re­moval was widely con­demned through­out the world and was viewed as a move to tar­nish his im­age in the West. The move, how­ever, back­fired and the Awami League got flak in­stead of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the ac­tion against Mo­ham­mad Yunus.

The im­por­tance of the strate­gic lo­ca­tion of Bangladesh for In­dia can­not be overem­pha­sized but it is a fact that no Bangladeshi govern­ment had been able to get any sub­stan­tial ad­van­tage in its re­la­tions with In­dia. Dur­ing his visit to Bangladesh in Septem­ber this year, the In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Dr. Man­mo­han Singh said that In­dia at­tached top­most pri­or­ity to its re­la­tions with Bangladesh and there was a national con­sen­sus in his coun­try that In­dia must de­velop the best re­la­tions with Bangladesh. Ob­servers could read be­tween the lines that a strong ‘Indo-Bangladesh al­liance’ would give In­dia lever­age in its ne­go­ti­a­tions with Pak­istan and China. Yet for 12 long years, no prime min­is­ter of In­dia vis­ited Bangladesh! That in short summed up the vi­sion about Bangladesh in In­dia’s govern­ment cir­cles.

The sig­nif­i­cance of the In­dian Prime Min­is­ter’s visit could be judged by the fact that the 136-mem- ber strong del­e­ga­tion in­cluded four chief min­is­ters be­sides the Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­is­ter, Water Re­sources Min­is­ter, National Se­cu­rity Ad­viser and the Me­dia Ad­viser. The del­e­ga­tion also in­cluded a 49-mem­ber se­cu­rity team and a 42-mem­ber me­dia team. There were high ex­pec­ta­tions from this much-her­alded visit as it promised sign­ing of the im­por­tant ‘Teesta Water Shar­ing Treaty’ for which the teams from the two coun­tries had worked and ne­go­ti­ated for 20 months. The water in all the rivers in Bangladesh came flow­ing through In­dia from the Hi­malayas and some 500 In­dian dams re­stricted the water flow into Bangladesh. The treaty was ex­pected to pro­vide good re­lief to Bangladesh. How­ever, much to the dis­ap­point­ment of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League and the peo­ple of Bangladesh, the Treaty was not signed. The West Bengal Chief Min­is­ter, Ma­mata Ban­er­jee re­fused to be a part of the del­e­ga­tion for sign­ing the Treaty un­der protest against its fi­nal draft. She was of the view that In­dia was con­ced­ing too much for too lit­tle gain. The In­dian Prime Min­is­ter termed the fail­ure to sign the agree­ment as ‘un­for­tu­nate’ and or­dered his team to find ways to come to terms with the ob­sta­cles in achiev­ing the de­sired re­sults.

Ms. Ban­er­jee’s role in fail­ure of sign­ing of the Treaty was se­verely crit­i­cized in Bangladesh me­dia as well in in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles and a lack of will on the part of the In­dian govern­ment was cited as a rea­son for the un­for­tu­nate turn of events. It dawned upon the peo­ple of Bangladesh that In­dia was tak­ing their coun­try for granted de­spite the ea­ger­ness of the Awami League govern­ment to have bet­ter re­la­tions. How­ever, the two gov­ern­ments signed a ‘Frame­work Co­op­er­a­tion Agree­ment for De­vel­op­ment’ be­tween the two coun­tries and a num­ber of MoU were also signed at min­is­te­rial and sec­re­tar­ial level cov­er­ing bound­ary dis­putes, over­land tran­sit fa­cil­i­ties, re­lax­ation in trade of items from Bangladesh to In­dian mar­ket, etc. Still, the Bangladeshi lead­ers felt let down as that water shar­ing treaty was a much awaited item and In­dia’s in­abil­ity to de­liver had put their govern­ment on the back foot while pro­vid­ing an op­por­tu­nity for the op­po­si­tion Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party to try to mobilize anti-In­dia sen­ti­ments.

Com­ing months will keep the Awami League govern­ment on the toes to with­stand both do­mes­tic as well ex­ter­nal pres­sures. While its op­po­nents at home are likely to cap­i­tal­ize on the fail­ure to get the water treaty signed by In­dia, the re­li­gious and mil­i­tant Is­lamic groups may also cause em­bar­rass­ment through their ac­tiv­i­ties. The bomb at­tack on the high court build­ing in New Delhi last month was seen in In­dia as an act of a Bangladeshi ex­trem­ist group and their me­dia was quite vo­cal on Bangladesh-based el­e­ments in­dulging in ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties in In­dia along­side lo­cal ter­ror­ist groups. The Western gov­ern­ments are also likely to take up this is­sue with Bangladesh govern­ment and de­mand strong mea­sures to com­bat the threat. The Awami League lead­er­ship will have to look in­wards for solv­ing the prob­lems and stop its witch-hunt­ing for the op­po­si­tion par­ties. Only goal-ori­ented de­ci­sions and fo­cused ac­tion by ris­ing above petty pol­i­tics can bring the de­sired re­sults. Sheikh Hasina will have to ac­cept the re­al­ity that she has to co-ex­ist grace­fully with her po­lit­i­cal ri­vals and dump the poli­cies of ‘vendetta’ if Bangladesh is to pros­per as a pro­gres­sive and demo­cratic coun­try.

It is high time the two be­gums let go their

per­sonal con­flicts.

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