by Subir Bhaumik (from Calcutta) *
Bangladesh’s forthcoming parliament polls, scheduled for January 7, is taking the country towards an imminent showdown involving the ruling Awami League and the opposition Islamist coalition of BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami. But it is also setting stage for a confrontation between China and the US with India as yet undecided how far it will go in supporting the Awami League, its friend for more than fifty years.
The US has made it amply clear it wants fair and inclusive polls under a ‘neutral caretaker’ administration with non-political civil society elements, rather than political or bureaucratic personalities, conducting the polls to prevent massive electoral fraud as during the country’s last parliament polls.
India is more keen, as is China, in keeping the Awami League in power to protects its geo-political interests. Delhi wants a friendly eastern neighbourhood with Dhaka taking care of its security and connectivity concerns but it cannot afford Hasina burdening it with the fait accompli of another fraudulent election because that would leave it on arm-wrestling terms with strategic partner US. China also wants Sheikh Hasina in power to further their access to the warm waters of Bay of Bengal as a prelude to unfettered access to the Indian ocean. Precisely for that reason, US wants to bring down Sheikh Hasina and the Burmese military junta.
The Jan 7 polls pose an existential challenge for the ruling Awami League and the leading Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP, but it provides a window of opportunity for the country’s leading Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami whose registration was cancelled by the Election Commission and whose appeal to restore it failed in face of a determined legal challenge by the country’s top lawyer Barrister Tania Amir representing liberal Islamic groups.
But despite that failure in courts, the Jamaat has secretly put together four secret hit groups (Azam Squad, Raojan Squad, Al Hazrat Squad and Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya) for extensive violence and managed to come up with a covert Kashmir style United Jihad Council that makes it attractive to all concerned interested in mayhem politics (Awami League if it wants to create a situation to justify Emergency, BNP if it has to go for big time violence to oust Awami League, US for similar reasons and obviously Pakistan and hardliners in the Islamic world).
For India, the binary of only two possible electoral outcomes – Awami League or the BNP-Jamaat coalition – limits space for manoeuvre, not the least because its strategic partner, the mighty USA appears determined to oust PM Hasina Wajed-led Awami League from power that leaves Delhi with the prospect of an Islamist coalition in Dhaka. Hasina accused the first BJP Indian government of Atal Behari Vajpayee for backing the BNP-Jamaat coalition and bringing down her government through a R&AW (the foreign intelligence agency of India called Research and Analysis Wing ed.) operation 6 years ago but India’s experience with her bête noire Khaleda Zia ( PM between 2001-06) was less than happy due to terror strikes in east and Northeast India by Bangladesh-based Islamist radicals or ethnic separatists. Hasina has firmly addressed India’s security and connectivity concerns by tough counter-terrorism and transit and coastal shipping agreements that helps Indian mainland connect easily to Northeast but then started to change course over Indian failures to settle river water sharing treaties and to keep up the show of distance from a right-wing Hindutva party (Hindu nationalist party, ed.).
So though India is clearly unwilling to hedge its bets with BNP, it is clearly uncomfortable with Hasina’s recent failure to check the rising power of a strong Islamist lobby in the Awami League shepherded by Hasina’s adviser Salman F Rahman and information minister Hasan Mahmud, who have managed to corner maximum electoral nominations in the party, easing out known pro-Indian personalities strongly wedded to the legacy of 1971 Liberation War. The choice of a relative non-entity like Salauddin Chuppu ( backed by Salman Rahman’s Beximco and Masood’s S.Alam group) as president over the India-backed Liberation war veteran and former Industry minister Amir Hossain Amu is a case in point. 69 of the 300 candidates recently Awami League allotted party tickets have a history of activism in Islamist parties like Jamaat while 48 are businesspersons with strong trade links to China.
The buzz in Dhaka is this group of lawmakers who might get elected in a possibly controversial (read manipulated) election will pitch for Salman Rahman as Deputy PM and his cronies in all key ministries – a point strongly driven home when Rahman, and not finance minister Mostafa “Lotus” Kamal, attended Global Economic Policy Forum in Delhi recently.
Party insiders say Rahman has complete control over PM Hasina and is often referred to as defacto PM, not the least because PM’s son Sajeed Wajed Joy shares strong business partnership with the Rahmans. Their flagship company Beximco (a Bangladeshi multinational conglomerate holding company, ed.) and its subsidiaries puts out huge paid advertisements for observing Pakistan Independence Day on August 14, trampling over Bangladeshi sensibilities of the 1971 genocide.
Hasina may have pleased powers in Delhi by concluding a power purchase agreement with the Adanis (Adani Group is an Indian multinational conglomerate, ed.) that Bangladesh business circles say have been done at grossly inflated rates, but India’s national security and diplomatic establishment are clearly worried over the future outlook of having to back a trusted ally increasingly turning towards China for external support to ward off the US pressures and Islamists for domestic political manoeuvres.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, India becomes increasingly unpopular with Bangladeshis for Hasina who they blame for denying them a fair election in 2013-14 and 2018-19 and for mind-boggling corruption and uncontrollable probe rise, but at the same time gets increasingly marginalised in Hasina’s decision-making priorities.
India’s capacity to influence Hasina is at an all-time low because the “Iron Lady” sees a Chinese veto in UN Security Council as more useful than promised Indian support to get back to power, what with Delhi facing mounting US pressure over the FBI indictment over an alleged murder attempt of Sikh activist G.S Pannun. Delhi’s ability to influence Hasina is directly linked to India’s influence within the Awami League. If Delhi’s preferred ones are eased out systematically in Dhaka, it has fewer people in her cabinet to block, for example, the Chinese near-total penetration of Bangladesh’s telecom and infrastructure sector (projects such the Chinese-funded dredging of Teesta river) which has serious ramifications for India.
With the US backing the Islamist coalition to intensify its street agitations to topple Hasina and simultaneously pressuring India to get Hasina to step down and with both Delhi and Dhaka caught in enormous panic and confusion, it is clearly round one to Washington in the battle for Dhaka, with both Beijing and Delhi on the defensive and strangely finding themselves on the same page over a key regional issue.
The million dollar question is whether (a) China can use its UN Security Council veto to keep Hasina in her seat as it has so far done to save Myanmar’s military junta (b) whether India will go for a major confrontation with strategic partner US to keep afloat the Awami League which has failed to oblige it in parry nominations and administrative appointments amid reduced its influence in the party (c) whether US will the wholeheartedly pursue its regime change agenda in Bangladesh or strike a deal with India to allow Hasina stay in power.
On the cove photo, a Bangladeshi people assists as others prepare election campaign material in Dhaka ©Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.com
* Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent, a fellow at Oxford and Frankfurt Universities and author of five books on South Asian conflicts