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.
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