Millennium Post

For a South Asian reset

Both countries insist that the polls must be as free and fair as possible, without violence. So does the larger international community. The steadily escalating political violence in Bangladesh makes a mockery of such pious intentions.

With ominous significance for India, while the US officially maintains that the eventual electoral outcome ‘does not matter,’ Dhaka-based media reports quote American officials as saying that they feel ‘more comfortable with the opposition BNP’ than the ruling Awami league. This, despite the known bonhomie between the BNP and religious fundamentalist parties like the now banned Jamaat-e-Islami, currently active under other banners. Therefore, the apparently neutral US stance is more symbolic than substantive. This should certainly start alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. For obvious reasons, India cannot afford to be as (apparently) disinterested as the US in any eventual outcome of any elections in Bangladesh, its next-door neighbour. Recent protestations of the BNP that it is neither anti-India nor anti-Hindu cannot be taken at face value. The present writer recalls his experience of interviewing over a score of scared, harassed students who had crossed over illegally into India during a particularly hot spell of riots from Khulna and neighbouring areas some years ago under BNP rule. None returned ‘home,’ it may be added.

For India, pre-poll diplomatic discussions have been held at several levels with Bangladesh political parties and leaders in both the ruling and opposition camps.  Officials of EU countries and the US have gone through the same drill in Dhaka. The present volatile situation in Bangladesh affecting regional political stability and security has been discussed in considerable detail among Indian and American officials and leaders at the highest level. US ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena has visited New Delhi for consultations, even as US officials have been visiting Dhaka regularly.

As things stand, the international community, monitoring the present situation closely, is worried over the level of confrontation and violence in Bangladesh. The US and EU countries have urged upon both sides to observe the maximum mutual restraint, to no apparent effect. The British high commissioner has expressed his disappointment over recent developments. Both sides continue to bicker endlessly over modalities like the composition of a proposed caretaker administration and other interim arrangements. But even as negotiations continue, grassroot level supporters on both sides settle differences with arms on the streets, leading to much loss of life and property, disrupting industrial production through strikes and affecting exports. A new complicating factor is the open moral and material support given to the opposition camp, especially to its rigid Islamist segment, by agencies and organisations based in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. These countries, seen as ‘champions’ of the international Sunni Muslim bloc, were offended by the banning of the Jamaat as a political party under the present Awami League dispensation.

Observers wonder whether the Awami League leader and present prime minister Sheikh Hasina has not boxed herself into a corner, taking on the international Islamic fundamentalists and the US at the same time. The US administration, never comfortable with her strong stand against 1971 pro-Pak war criminals, her dealings with Mohammed Yunus on the Grameen bank controversy or her unflinching support to the cause of Bengali nationalism, have not concealed their displeasure with her administration. In any case, given the US administration’s remarkable ability in Asia to make friends tomorrow with its own worst enemies of today – witness its recent chumminess with the ‘good moderate Taliban forces’ in today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan – it should surprise none if Washington finds it a better option now to favour the ‘Islamist’ BNP. ‘The US could never remain friendly with Pakistan or Saudi Arabia all these years if it were really squeamish to sup with the very devil if necessary, to further its own interests in the region,’ says one observer.

 If that act was to be repeated in Bangladesh, it would not just be the Awami League or the cause of secularism that would suffer in the process as a direct outcome of US policy, which strongly opposed the emergence of a free secular Bangladesh to be carved out of Pakistan in 1971. The possibility of a fresh influx of impoverished Hindus escaping from Bangladesh if religious fundamentalists were to regain control can never be ruled out. It would also hurt India economically, as its funds invested in infrastructure, power and other projects in Bangladesh, as part of its own Look East policy would suffer. The gains made through the transit facilities and other arrangements worked out so far would be in jeopardy.

Given Manmohan Singh’s known aversion to discuss controversial issues at home or abroad, his dispensation to maintain an ambivalent silence on critical issues affecting the country he heads, for fear of offending the Americans in particular, observers can only wonder if he has put forward India’s case with sufficient force or conviction during his recent talks in the US.  A choice between the ruling Awami League and the BNP is not easy for the US either. The US must decide whether it wants its strategic partnership with India to be put on a firmer footing. Recent Washington-based reports suggest that President Obama has discussed how to take the partnership forward in his talks with the Indian Prime Minister, even if the Congress does not win the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Bangladesh has also been an important regional partner of the US in its global drive against international terrorism of which Islamic fundamentalism is a major component. It is for the US policymakers therefore to maintain a stable political balance in the region as a whole, balancing their own long-term strategic requirements as against short-term expediency, dictated more by personal likes and dislikes of individual leaders, an approach reminiscent of the Nixon-Kissinger style of politics vis-a-vis Indira Gandhi. Whatever reset the West works out in the map of diplomacy, it must take the long-term objective of its own anti-terror campaign into account for the region as a whole.

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