What Bangladesh PM Hasina’s vic­tory means for the In­dia-China power play in South Asia

People's Review - - COMMENTARY - BY C. UDAY BHASKAR

The Awami League party led by Bangladesh Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina pre­dictably won the na­tional elec­tion held on Sun­day, giv­ing the in­cum­bent leader a record fourth term – and her third con­sec­u­tive vic­tory. The AL, which has gov­erned Bangladesh for the last 10 years and had formed a coali­tion known as the “grand al­liance”, won 288 of the 300 seats, hand­ing Hasina a de­fin­i­tive ma­jor­ity. But the win came with elec­tion day vi­o­lence, which caused the deaths of 17 peo­ple, and brought al­le­ga­tions of booth rig­ging. Land­slide elec­tion win for Bangladesh PM Hasina amid protests, vi­o­lence and vote rig­ging claims The op­po­si­tion coali­tion, called Jatiyo Oikyo Front, with the main op­po­si­tion party Bangladesh Na­tional Party (BNP), has re­jected the elec­tion out­come and called for an­other vote. Do­mes­ti­cally, pol­i­tics in Bangladesh has been char­ac­terised by in­tense bit­ter­ness and per­sonal ri­valry be­tween the two ma­jor play­ers – Hasina and for­mer prime min­is­ter Khaleda Zia, now in jail on cor­rup­tion charges. In­ter­na­tion­ally, the coun­try is caught be­tween two equally daunt­ing gi­ants, each with their own strate­gic agen­das.

Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina ges­tures af­ter cast­ing her vote in the morn­ing dur­ing the gen­eral elec­tion in Dhaka on Sun­day. Photo: Reuters Cast­ing al­le­ga­tions and as­per­sions have been a cen­tral fea­ture of Bangladesh pol­i­tics over the last four decades. This lat­est vic­tory may be chal­lenged, but it is un­likely that there will be any sig­nif­i­cant change to the out­come of the polls. It is also ev­i­dent that Prime Min­is­ter Hasina and her team will steer Bangladesh for an­other five years, and con­sol­i­date the sub­stan­tive so­cioe­co­nomic progress it has made over the last decade. With a pop­u­la­tion of more than 160 mil­lion, Bangladesh (for­merly East Pak­istan) is a pop­u­lous Mus­lim state that was cre­ated in 1971 af­ter its cit­i­zens were sub­jected to eth­nic and po­lit­i­cal dis­crim­i­na­tion by the mil­i­tary rulers of West Pak­istan, lead­ing to a geno­cide that re­sulted in the death of three mil­lion peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to Dhaka’s of­fi­cial fig­ures. In­dia mid­wifed the birth of Bangladesh, ef­fec­tively al­ter­ing the po­lit­i­cal map of South Asia in a de­fin­i­tive man­ner.

The early years were bloody and the founder of the na­tion, Hasina’s fa­ther Sheik Mu­jibur Rehman, was as­sas­si­nated in Au­gust 1975, plung­ing the coun­try into years of tur­moil and mil­i­tary rule un­til the AL, led by his daugh­ter won its first poll. Hasina be­came Bangladesh’s leader in 1996.

At the time, the coun­try’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct stood at US$46 bil­lion with a per capita in­come un­der US$400, mak­ing Bangladesh a “bas­ket­case”.

To her credit, Hasina was able to nur­ture a do­mes­tic ecosys­tem that en­abled steady eco­nomic growth. GDP is now US$265 bil­lion and per capita in­come is US$1,620.

More im­por­tantly, how­ever, Hasina has dealt firmly with ex­trem­ist and Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ist forces, which killed her fa­ther. BNP has been ac­cused of sup­port­ing such ex­trem­ist groups, thereby stok­ing the bit­ter po­lit­i­cal di­vide.

Smoke­screen Ro­hingya: the bad ac­tors ex­ploit­ing a grow­ing refugee cri­sis Con­se­quently, Hasina has been ac­cused of be­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian and en­gag­ing in a per­sonal vendetta against Khaleda Zia, but the re­al­ity is that the AL of­fers the more vi­able op­tion for Bangladesh to emerge as a rel­a­tively mod­er­ate Is­lamic state with the most promis­ing so­cio-eco­nomic and hu­man se­cu­rity in­di­ca­tors in South Asia and the Mus­lim world. The cur­rent chal­lenges for Hasina are to con­sol­i­date her do­mes­tic agenda and bal­ance her coun­try’s re­la­tions with In­dia and China – the neigh­bour­ing gi­ants. While In­dia en­abled the cre­ation of Bangladesh, it is a com­plex re­la­tion­ship with a num­ber of ar­eas of dis­cord, in­clud­ing il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

Hasina has been able to main­tain an in­her­ent em­pa­thy with New Delhi, even while forg­ing a ro­bust re­la­tion­ship with Bei­jing. Cur­rently, China is Bangladesh’s ma­jor trad­ing part­ner and top mil­i­tary sup­plier, and this in turn has im­pli­ca­tions for In­dia. For ex­am­ple, Bangladesh will soon op­er­ate sub­marines bought from China, mak­ing the naval dy­namic in the Bay of Ben­gal more crowded. For Bei­jing, the ge­og­ra­phy of Bangladesh is an at­trac­tive strate­gic de­ter­mi­nant, and one that is part of Xi Jin­ping’s flag­ship Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, which has iden­ti­fied Dhaka as an im­por­tant node and promised a US$24 bil­lion in­vest­ment.

But Hasina re­mains cau­tious about China’s pledge, af­ter the ex­pe­ri­ence of Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Mal­dives and an al­leged debt-trap. Un­doubt­edly, the crit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship for Dhaka is the one with New Delhi and re­cently there has been an un­stated ap­pre­ci­a­tion that Bangladesh is ac­tu­ally In­dia’s most im­por­tant re­gional neigh­bour, not Pak­istan. Ma­hathir’s push­back against Chi­nese deals shows belt and road plan needs re­view In­dia needs to ori­ent it­self in such a man­ner that Dhaka does not have to make a bi­nary choice – an ei­ther-or choice in re­la­tion to its neigh­bour­ing gi­ants.

In­dia should also re­mem­ber Bangladesh is a na­tion that sym­bol­ises eq­ui­table so­cio-eco­nomic growth, has a demo­cratic ethos and a mod­er­ate Is­lamic DNA that pro­tects its mi­nori­ties and is gen­der sen­si­tive.

For China, the most de­sir­able long-term out­come would be to man­age its re­la­tions with Dhaka in such a man­ner that In­dian anx­i­eties are as­suaged and a re­gional win­win frame­work link­ing China- Bangladesh- In­dia is a pos­si­bil­ity. In its most de­sir­able ex­ten­sion, this could well be the tem­plate for the cur­rently dis­cor­dant China-Pak­istan-In­dia tri­an­gle

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