Saturday, May 24, 2014

Congress’ humiliating poll defeat is bad news for Awami League

 23 May, 2014

Congress’ humiliating poll defeat is bad news for Awami League
 M. Serajul Islam

There is a surreal drama being enacted in Bangladesh with the change of government in New Delhi. The ruling party is in a state of denial over what the change means to it, the government and the country. Instead it is abusing and insulting the BNP in language that has crossed the limits of decency as if it is the BNP’s fault that the Congress has lost the Indian elections. The BNP is being called a party of “ahammaks”; idiots and goats because the Awami League thinks the BNP is excited and happy at the resounding victory of the BJP.

The BNP is of course happy for very good reasons. The BNP was not fighting just the AL since January 2009 but also the Congress that had involved itself in Bangladesh’s politics as a stakeholder and senior partner of the Awami League. Its role in the January 5 elections was a major reason why the AL returned to power. If the Congress had supported “inclusive elections” like the western nations that was also the demand of the people of Bangladesh, the AL would have lost to the BNP just the way the Congress has lost to the BJP, winning 43 seats out of 542; its worst performance in history. It now looks like that the Congress that had led the movement for Indian independence may be headed the same way the Muslim League that had led the movement for Pakistan, went in Pakistan.

AL lost its sole backers
The BNP’s happiness is of course not because the Congress could be headed that way. It is happy primarily because the Awami League’s best friend that had kept it in power by interfering in an unbelievable way in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, is now gone.  The Congress had left no one in doubt that it wanted the AL to remain in power, which was a questionable way of conducting relations with a smaller neighbour for a country like India with aspirations of becoming a world power. Nevertheless it was understandable in the context of the historical relationship between the two political parties. The way the AL government made India’s interests its own at great political risks also made it understandable that the Congress led government would go out of its way to support the Awami League in Bangladesh’s politics and elections.

However, the Congress led government did not restrict itself to supporting the Awami League covertly and overtly. It went much beyond that. It gave assistance to the Awami League to remain in power at any cost where it saw India’s relations with Bangladesh as those with the Awami League and not the country. There are examples galore about the unbelievable ways in which the Congress supported the Awami League but one stood apart. The Indian Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh had made an official visit to Dhaka just before the Bangladesh elections. 

Bangladesh was then slipping into a political nightmare over the elections and many had expected that she would be carrying a massage for Sheikh Hasina to ensure “inclusive” elections. Instead, she met HM Ershad and encouraged the Jatiya Party to participate in the elections to give it credibility after the BNP/Jamaat had decided to boycott! President HM Ershad revealed the details to the media almost as soon as Sujata had left his residence after the talk. When the dust would finally settle on the present phase of politics in Bangladesh, that initiative of the Indian Foreign Secretary would no doubt go down as an example of the utter depths to which politics and diplomacy was allowed to slip under the Congress led government.

Congress’ blatant meddling 
The Congress government also ensured that the initiatives of the developed countries led by the United States in favour of “inclusive” elections in Bangladesh would be still born by encouraging the AL to go ahead and hold the “exclusive” elections. In fact, many would even suggest that the serious problem between Washington and New Delhi over Devyani Khobragade was also influenced by the differences between the two countries over elections in Bangladesh.  Sujata Singh had gone to Washington right after her Dhaka visit for furthering India-US bilateral relations. However, there too, she pursued the AL’s interests and had advised the United States to support the policy of  “exclusive” elections in Bangladesh in order to keep the BNP led fundamentalist forces from coming to power!

The Congress thus backed the one-party elections beyond limits of diplomatic norms and conduct. The Congress government was not bothered that the elections were a farce with less than 10% people voting and 154 of 300 members of parliament elected unopposed. It welcomed the return of the AL to power and took up the AL’s led government’s case with the international community that looked upon the elections as deeply flawed. Thus the Congress by backing the AL the way it did, considered the BNP the enemy like the Awami League and conspired with it to rob the BNP from the certain prospect of coming to power.

The BNP has other very good reasons to be happy with the Congress’ humiliating defeat. A major reason why the Congress government interfered in Bangladesh in unbelievable ways was the personal interest of the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee in Bangladesh and in particular in Sheikh Hasina. He used his undoubted command in the party to make Bangladesh his own turf where the need to keep Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League in power at any cost were the key elements. SS Menon the National Security Adviser executed those two key elements uncompromisingly and unambiguously where the AL led government or Sheikh Hasina did not have to request New Delhi what needed to be done to keep them in power; these were delivered by the two in New Delhi obligingly. 

Why is BNP happy
SS Menon would be gone and the Indian President for whom Narendra Modi and the BJP has no great love would have his powers clipped making him once again a figure head; all reasons to make the BNP smile. The BNP has another great reason to be happy that the Congress is gone. A new international equation would soon emerge with the exit of the Congress. The Modi Government, in particular Narendra Modi himself would need the United States for his own credibility and that of his government. In that new equation, Bangladesh would emerge in a different way. 

The Congress’ argument to convince the US to keep the AL in power was the fundamentalist argument. For the BJP, itself a fundamentalist party, that argument would no longer be tenable. Further, the Congress’ unqualified support for the AL has divided Bangladesh more dangerously than the so-called fundamentalist threat where the current peace is misleading. The prospects of civil disturbances leading to civil war in Bangladesh are real; prospects that would put into jeopardy the great US investments in the region, particularly in opening up Myanmar. Therefore, the US would encourage the new Indian Government towards a democratic resolution to the dangerous prospects before Bangladesh.

The BNP’s happiness could also be easily explained by the fact that its enemy’s best and extremely powerful friend has left the scene. Nevertheless, in fairness to the BNP, it has not shown excitement in the manner that would justify the AL’s BNP bashing. The AL’s BNP bashing is indeed a reflection of the deep sense of insecurity and nervousness that has gripped it because the Congress that was the fundamental source of its power is now gone. Therefore, with BNP bashing, the AL is also trying to convince itself to believe that Indian foreign policy does not change with change of government and therefore, between the BJP Government in New Delhi and with it, it would be business as usual. The Foreign Minister has stated in the media that Bangladesh-India relations would reach newer heights in the coming days and had nothing to say about the issue of the illegal Bangladeshis and the fate of the two deals over which he too went into total denial.

What will BJP do?
Nevertheless, the new BJP Government would no doubt, these issues notwithstanding, want to establish good relations with Bangladesh. In that effort, there is no reason to expect that it would encourage the AL led government to hold new elections in Bangladesh as the BNP may be expecting. However, in developing relations, the BJP Government would no doubt review the way the Congress conducted these relations because there were just too many faults with it some contradicting India’s democratic beliefs.

In reviewing these relations, the BJP would have no reason to put AL and Sheikh Hasina’s interests as those of its government’s and India’s. It would also examine how India’s acceptance has nose dived in Bangladesh by the Congress policy of putting the interests of the AL and Sheikh Hasina over those of Bangladesh. It would no doubt review how RAW had taken over the day to day operations of Bangladesh-India relations and how India’s image in Bangladesh has suffered as a consequence. In particular, in such a review, there would be no reason for the new government to see the BNP as the villain. The BJP and the BNP have had reasonable working relations while the two were in power together in the BNP’s last term. With its own fundamentalist basis, the BJP would not let BNP’s alliance with the fundamentalist as the excuse for supporting the AL led government.

In reviewing its Bangladesh policy, the BJP would no doubt also see that the BNP has changed since it was in power last, particularly its publicly stated commitment for India’s security. The BJP would also not fail to see how the BNP has changed on the issue of land transit that the party has linked to reciprocity. The BJP would see the changes in the BNP as extremely positive for long-term relations with Bangladesh in the backdrop of the importance of Bangladesh to India’s critical national interests. Therefore, instead of pursuing India’s interests with a government in Bangladesh that has lost its credibility and legitimacy for which many in Bangladesh blame the Congress; the BJP would most likely wait to see how Bangladesh resolves these question before it shows inclination to do business as usual with Dhaka.

The changed stance

The BJP has already toned down in stand on the illegal Bangladeshis and would no doubt, having come to power with a huge mandate, be willing also to deal with Bangladesh on reciprocity but would not like to deal with the government for building long term relations with a government that is way too short on credibility and legitimacy.

Therefore, it’s unlikely to be business as usual with New Delhi to relieve the AL’s sense of nervousness. It would also not mean new elections in Bangladesh to make the BNP happy. On balance though, Congress’ loss is a paradigm shift in the AL’s fortunes because unqualified and unquestioned support of New Delhi was one of the two major foundations of its strategy for holding on to power since the January 5 elections. The other foundation, namely that of using RAB/Police against the opposition, has also now run into trouble, a policy that the BJP would have no reason to support. All these notwithstanding, the people of Bangladesh are worried and concerned about what the BJP has said about Bangladesh during the elections and therefore shocked at the AL’s BNP bashing and BNP’s failure to articulate the new dangers from New Delhi.

The BJP’s victory would no doubt lead to a change of New Delhi’s Bangladesh policy without doubt where the wishes of neither the AL nor the BNP would be the deciding factor. Sheikh Hasina has inadvertently revealed the direction in which Bangladesh-India relations would move in her message of congratulations to Narendra Modi where she compared the BJP’s massive mandate similar to its own. By that, she has pointed to where the change would come in Bangladesh-India relations under the BJP.

The BJP would have no reason to consider the AL government as one stalled in power with any mandate at all and therefore would know that relations with the AL led government would not have long term validity; neither in what it would give to Bangladesh nor receive from it. Therefore, the BJP Government would in all likelihood wait and see how Bangladesh resolves its political problem and the issue of legitimacy that is hanging over the AL led government like the sword of Damocles. It would however not be encouraged to remove that sword but would like to wait for it to be gone before conducting long-term relations with Bangladesh.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and his email is


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Saturday, 24 May 2014
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam
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The Awami League leaders are more concerned whether the BNP would gain any advantage from the change of guards in New Delhi to bother with the realities of the change. They are abusing and insulting the BNP by calling the party as one of “ahammaks”; idiots; goats; etc, etc because they think that the BNP leaders are gloating at the victory of the BJP. The Prime Minister ridiculed the BNP as Indian agents for expressing excitement and happiness at the BJP’s victory. In doing so, the AL leaders have gone into denial over what the Indian elections mean for Bangladesh and of course for its own future.

Narendra Modi had said during his campaign trail that his government would start “pushing back” the alleged 20 million Bangladeshis his party believes are in India immediately upon assuming power. The prospect of the LBA deal being delivered by the BJP Government would be remote. The Trinamool’s strong performance in Paschim Bangla would mean a similar fate for the Teesta deal. In addition, the BJP has come to power riding the Hindu fundamentalist wave. Therefore, New Delhi would no more have the compulsion of fighting the fundamentalist agenda in Bangladesh. The Prime Minister and AL leaders should therefore have been worried and concerned with the changed reality instead of going into a tangent with BNP bashing.

The AL’s BNP bashing of course makes sense from the perspective of the party’s interests and those of the government. The Congress’ defeat is very bad news for the Awami League and the BNP bashing underlines that fact. Since January 2009, New Delhi had looked after the interests of the Awami League ahead of those of Bangladesh. It interfered blatantly in the January 5 elections to ensure that the Awami League would return to power at any cost. Its support to the AL led government after January 5 elections gave it the breathing space in the face of widespread national and internal outcry that the elections did not reflect the will of the people with less than 10% people voting and 154 of the 300 members of the parliament being elected uncontested.

The question over the legitimacy of the January 5 elections still persists in Bangladesh and abroad. In fact, if anything, the question has gathered momentum. The AL’s problems at home over governance, particularly on law and order and human rights issues have re-enforced that question. At such a time, the AL led government’s need for continued and unqualified support of New Delhi is huge. That unqualified support would now come under the spanner in New Delhi because the support has not just brought the AL to power in questionable ways; such support also has caused Indian acceptance in Bangladesh to fall into an all time low. There is no reason why the new government would not consider these realties while conducting relations with Bangladesh.

Also, the BJP has no historical reasons to support the Awami League at any cost. Having come to power with a landslide, the BJP would have no reason to ditto the Congress’ Bangladesh Policy that many would say also reflected what went wrong with the Congress to have suffered its worst ever defeat in history. There are a few other reasons for the Awami League to be worried and concerned. A lot of the unqualified support that New Delhi gave to the Awami League came from two sources.The Indian President had taken the interests of the Awami League and more importantly, those of Sheikh Hasina in a personal way. Shiv Sankar Menon, the National Security Adviser was equally committed to the Awami League and was responsible for the hard to believe “Bangladesh Policy” of the Congress. The Indian President’s powers to do whatever he wanted in Bangladesh would now be clipped and SS Menon would no longer be around.

The Congress government did not just support the AL in Bangladesh at any cost. When the USA expressed support for “inclusive” national election in Bangladesh, New Delhi put its own relations with Washington on line. The case of Devyani Khobragade, some would say, went to nasty level among other reasons also because of New Delhi-Washington differences over Bangladesh. Good relations with Washington would top the agenda in the foreign affairs priorities of the BJP government.  Narendra Modi would need Washington’s support desperately for both personal as well as India’s interests. Therefore, the differences between Washington-New Delhi over Bangladesh seen under the Congress could very well turn into cooperation and the Awami League would be seriously cornered if that were to happen.

These realities after  the Indian election would thus explain the AL’s anger and abuse of the BNP. The BNP is of course happy that the Congress has been dumped because it literally took away its chances of coming to power from its grasp. In fact, impartial observers also believe that without the Congress’ unfair interference for the AL, the latter would have suffered the same fate on January 5 as the Congress has suffered now. The BNP, on its part however, has not expressed any joy and happiness in public to bring upon it the sort of abuse and insult that have been heaped on it. It has resulted from AL’s insecurity that the Congress would no longer be around to back it at any cost.

The AL would do itself favour if it stopped its BNP bashing for a better grasp of reality. Even if the BJP were not to support the AL like the Congress, there is no reason to think that it would ensure for the BNP a new election in Bangladesh. The BJP would like the Congress do what would be in the interest of India. As for election in Bangladesh, that would depend on the efforts and abilities of the BNP, the opposition parties and the civil society. The BNP, to be fair to it, has not stated publicly that they would want or that they expect the BJP to do any such thing. For the BNP, the fact that the Congress has been dumped should be enough reason for rejoicing.

The Foreign Minister has stated that the Bangladesh Government is waiting eagerly to start bilateral relations with the BJP government to take these to greater heights. That statement too has been made out of the same feeling of insecurity and nervousness as those of insults and abuse of the AL leaders. It is indeed a reflection on Bangladesh as a country that when it would needs to come together to deal with new dangers that could come from New Delhi, its mainstream parties are considering their respective party’s interests and showing little or no concern about how to deal with these dangers. In fact, the ruling party in any other country would have consulted with the opposition to respond to the dangers that have appeared in Bangladesh-India relations as a result of the recent Indian elections.

The reactions in Bangladesh particularly those from the ruling party are therefore strange ones. In particular, the comparison in Sheikh Hasina’s congratulatory message that the BJP’s historic mandate is similar to one AL received by the AL on January 5 has been made in utter denial to reality. The BJP will conduct relations with Bangladesh based on India’s national interests and in that, little will change. Nevertheless, the BJP will, unlike the Congress, also look at the long-term prospects of pursuing India’s interests in Bangladesh; in particular its acceptance or the lack of it in pursuing these interests. 

It will also consider where the AL led government is going with governance and how Congress’ support for it at any cost has made it unpopular as well as India. Therefore, while the new BJP government will most certainly not do anything to benefit the BNP immediately; it will also not give the AL blank cheque to use Indian support to rule in Bangladesh the way it is doing at present.  The AL led government’s problem with RAB will also discourage the BJP government in giving the AL led government unqualified support. That could make sense why the BNP is gloating, as they no doubt are in private.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and his email id is : . The above are the views of the writer’s very own not necessarily shared by this paper

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