As Hasina tries to remain glued to her chair and Khaleda struggles to wrench her away, the people of Bangladesh watch in suspense.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is determined to stay in office and hold elections under her guard.
Political standoffs in Bangladesh between rival parties, particularly the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) – one led by Sheikh Hasina and the other by Begum Khaleda Zia – are nothing new. But lately the situation has taken a new and ominous turn that does not bode well for the country.
At issue is the kind of government that will conduct the general elections due in January 2014. The term of the incumbent 14-party coalition, called mahajote, led by the Awami League, ended on October 24. But Prime Minister Hasina is determined to stay in office and hold elections under her oversight.
This is unacceptable to the opposition. It demands a caretaker government comprising nonpolitical and neutral persons with unquestionable integrity. In fact, Khaleda reminds Hasina how she had raised hell for a caretaker government when the shoe was on the other foot and Khaleda was prime minister.
With the end of the government’s term, therefore, Khaleda upped the ante. She demanded that the incumbent prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, should resign and a caretaker government inducted.
To press her demand, the BNP held a mass rally at Dhaka’s Suhrawardy Uddyan on October 25, where Khaleda called for a continuous 60-hour strike throughout the country, from 27th to 29th October. Reacting to the BNP’s move, Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina took a dramatic step and made a telephone call to her rival on October 26 though they had not spoken to each other for many years.
But Khaleda was wary. She detected the trap set for her. Therefore, in the thirty-seven minute talk, she fully availed the opportunity to
India has remained aloof so far even though it is Bangladesh’s closest neighbor and also maintains intimate relations with Sheikh Hasina. In fact, Bangladesh owes its birth to India’s midwifery and Hasina, her safety.
give the caller a piece of her mind. Hasina invited her rival to dinner at Gonobhaban, her official residence, to talk their differences over. But she also requested that Khaleda should call off the strike.
Accepting the invitation, Khaleda called her rival’s bluff, pointing out that the call for the strike was given on October 24. So, if Hasina was really sincere about holding talks she should have called the next day. In that case perhaps something could have been done. But now it was too late because the hartal was to start the next morning. Khaleda, therefore, suggested that both talks and hartal should go on simultaneously.
This was obviously unacceptable to the prime minister. Meanwhile, the government made public the contents of the conversation through the media. This ploy also boomeranged because it helped Khaleda to put her case across before the people’s court without any effort.
On October 28, Hasina presided over a mass meeting at Suhrawardy Uddyan. Incidentally, once again her meeting took place one day before another 60-hour strike was declared by the BNP.
In her rally speech, Hasina repeated her request to Khaleda to call off the strike and talk. But it is the issue of the interim government that is the bone of contention. Hasina has softened her attitude from insisting on the continuation of her government during the interim period. She has now agreed to form an all-party government and asked Khaleda in the public meeting which portfolios she wanted for her party in an interim government. Thus the see-saw goes on.
To foil the strike and suppress agitators, Hasina has taken the unwise step to encourage her party’s student wing – the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), which is already notorious for violence and killings – to assist the police. The presence of the BCL adds a new dimension to the face-off as it pits one party directly against the other. This policy is likely to add to the tally of the loss of life and property during
hartals and, might ultimately push the country into a civil war-like situation.
It is certain that the BNP alliance will increase pressure with every passing day. It may boycott the elections and has also threatened to obstruct it physically. If the BNP boycotts, then Jatiya Party – one of Awami League’s important allies – will also follow suit, its chief Hussein Mohammad Ershad has declared.
Important foreign powers such as the U.S., the U.K., the E.U. and China, besides UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, are exhorting the rival leaders to defuse the volatile situation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has written letters to both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia to “sit down and find a negotiated way out of their political differences so that there would be free, fair, transparent and inclusive national elections in Bangladesh”.
However, India has remained aloof so far even though it is Bangladesh’s closest neighbor and also maintains intimate relations with Sheikh Hasina. In fact, Bangladesh owes its birth to India’s midwifery and Hasina, her safety. Without India’s assistance, Bangladesh would not have been independent. And if Indira Gandhi had not taken Hasina and her sister under her protection after their parents had been killed, they would have been very insecure.
Understandably, therefore, India feels most comfortable with an Awami League government under Hasina having complete rapport on all issues. With the BNP in power, that equation changes. But India has to play its role for political peace in Bangladesh.
India and Bangladesh are both unhappy with the U.S. because of the interest its ambassador in Dhaka, Dan Mozena, has been taking to promote dialogue between Hasina and Khaleda and his meetings with the latter. India was therefore cold on his recent visit to the Secretary of India’s External Affairs Ministry to sound India out on the situation. A MEA source said that “India and Bangladesh are on the same page in the emerging situation.” It also added that they knew “who was on which side in 1971. This was a reference to U.S. support to Pakistan while India supported Bangladesh.
Given the existing level of polarization how the present impasse will be resolved remains to be seen.