4th October, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
A New Delhi-based official news agency BSS correspondent has been giving spin in the media more out of some mysterious hand’s direction than reality on the way Bangladesh-India relations are fading out with the terms of the AL led government in Dhaka and the Congress led Government in New Delhi ending soon. In August, report from this source tried to create optimism in Bangladesh with the news that the BJP had come around on the LBA issue and the much-expected LBA agreement bill would be passed in the monsoon session of the Indian parliament.
That did not happen. The same source reported that Mamata Banarjee had conveyed to Manmohon Singh that her party would not oppose the LBA ratification and the Indian Prime Minister would convey this good news to Sheikh Hasina during his meeting with her on the sidelines of the UN. That meeting is now over. Manmohon Singh has not conveyed any good news to Sheikh Hasina from Mamata Banarjee.
The spins from the New Delhi source notwithstanding, no one really has been surprised that Manmohon Singh did not convey any good news to Sheikh Hasina. Communications Minister Obaidul Qader did not mince words when he criticised New Delhi for its failure to deliver the LBA and the Teesta deals when he said recently: “India must keep in mind that we too are accountable to the people. Friendship is not one-sided. Both sides have to come forward.” Incidentally, the Indian Deputy High Commissioner was present when the Minister expressed his frustrations. Prior to the Manmohon Singh-Sheikh Hasina meeting, Foreign Minister expressed in the media a view diametrically opposite to her cabinet colleague. She said Bangladesh-India relations are now the “best” of all times.”
Much hyped meeting
Prior to the Sheikh Hasina-Manmohon Singh meeting significant interest was generated among the people of Bangladesh because of the widely held perception in the country that the AL led government is adamant to hold the election its way against national and international opposition because New Delhi is behind it. They thought that in the New York meeting, the Indian Prime Minister would convey to Sheikh Hasina where New Delhi stood over the controversy between the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP over the way to hold the next election. There were some who thought that the Indian Prime Minister would convey to Sheikh Hasina the need to reconsider holding the election under Interim Government to be headed by her taking into consideration the current reality in Bangladesh’s politics instead of giving her the green signal for a one-party election that would push Bangladesh to the brink.
The New York meeting did not reveal any clear signs on the critical issue of Bangladesh’s national election. The aides of the Bangladesh Prime Minister and later the Prime Minister herself talked in the media. In these media briefings, it was revealed that the Indian Prime Minister reiterated India’s commitment to deliver the LBA and the Teesta deals. The Indian Prime Minister also congratulated Sheikh Haisna for turning Bangladesh into a terror free country. Sheikh Hasina briefed the Indian Prime Minister about her government’s intention to hold the next election according to the Constitution. She was confident that the EC that had successfully conducted over 5000 local government elections freely and fairly would also be able to hold the national election freely and fairly. Aides of Manmohon Singh did not speak to the media about the meeting. There was also no news from formal and informal sources around the Indian Prime Minister about what really transpired at the meeting, particularly in the 20 minutes exclusive meeting between the two leaders. Manmohon Singh, apparently, did not comment on Sheikh Hasina’s briefing on holding the next election in Bangladesh.
Ended in a failure
The New York meeting thus failed to answer the curiosity of the people of Bangladesh in any manner. Nevertheless, India remains of crucial importance to Bangladesh about what direction politics moves in the course of the next few weeks. In building the international consensus about the way the election issue should be resolved, various countries and world leaders have spoken openly and publicly. The US Secretary of State, the UN Secretary General, the EU, China and Bangladesh’s development partners have urged the AL led government to hold talks with the BNP to ensure a free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” national election. The US Secretary of State and the UN Secretary General have made personal interventions. Side by side, a national consensus outside the ruling party has also emerged for an “inclusive” national election.
The national and international consensus on way to hold the next election in Bangladesh has emerged after the arguments of the Prime Minister and her party have been considered and rejected conclusively outside the ruling party. The case that Sheikh Hasina made with Manmohon Singh that the Election Commission would deliver the country a free and fair election is the weakest. The EC would have to depend entirely on civil bureaucracy and the police for holding the election.
It is common knowledge in Bangladesh the AL led government has politicized these two vital institutions critical to holding a free and fair election. Further the 15th amendment will allow the AL parliamentarians, some 234 in a total out of 300, to remain as Members of Parliament during the election. With Sheikh Hasina in office, with the civil/police administration heavily politicized, with the speeches of the ruling party leaders and their body language against the opposition, the ruling party has made the perfect case for the non-party government without the BNP’s assistance. A former Minister’s recent threat to the civil bureaucracy/police has extinguished even the feeblest support in the mind of anyone outside the ruling party about elections under a government to be headed by Sheikh Hasina.
For whom the bell tolls
India has its own sources – its High Commission in Dhaka and its independent intelligence in Bangladesh – and thus knows the real situation in Bangladesh; that it is not by a long stretch the way Sheikh Hasina briefed Manmohon Singh. It knows that the AL led government has rendered itself totally immune to any influence, even those from powerful countries and organizations vital to Bangladesh’s development and future, on the issue of election. Of course, it is aware that it has the influence to encourage the AL led government to see the writing on the wall and hold a free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” national election. India thus could bring the country from the brink or push it over the edge by choosing Bangladesh over the interests of a political party that stands alone in what it wants.
There is of course an array of other reasons why India should choose Bangladesh ahead of a political party. India’s own interests are tied with choosing Bangladesh. A one-party election, apart from being un-democratic, would invariably lead to civil disorder where an undemocratically elected AL would just not be able to govern. Such a government would unleash undemocratic forces where terrorists/insurgents and what not would be drawn to Bangladesh like pins to the magnet. That situation would no doubt harm Bangladesh but it would also be a nightmare for India. It would push Bangladesh towards becoming what Condoleezza Rice had in 2005-said “a second Afghanistan” while on a visit to New Delhi.
Then of course there is the fundamental issue of India’s role as the flag bearer of democracy worldwide. That role together with the one as the regional leader should encourage India to use its influence to see a democratic Bangladesh where governments change by participation of all political parties instead of helping a one party election in the country designed to bring a party to power a second term, a party that has itself amended the Constitution with its 3/4th majority designed to keep the major opposition out of the election.
India finds itself in a historic cross road over Bangladesh where the country is looking at New Delhi. The ball has been unwittingly sent to its court. By assisting in ensuring “inclusive” democratic election, India could render itself as a friend of Bangladesh instead of standing behind the Awami League to hold a one-party election that will not help the party to regain and retain power democratically, malign India in Bangladesh and internationally and jeopardize its national interests.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador.