The Face-Off

As Hasina tries to re­main glued to her chair and Khaleda strug­gles to wrench her away, the peo­ple of Bangladesh watch in sus­pense.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S.G. Jilanee The writer is a se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and for­mer ed­i­tor of SouthAsia Mag­a­zine.

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.

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