The Bangladesh elections will witness a clash between the forces of secularism and powers of theocracy.
General elections are scheduled to be held in Bangladesh by the end of this year, though the poll schedule is yet to be announced by the Election Commission. As in the previous elections, so in the coming elections, too, the primary battle will be between the two Begums – Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister and head of the ruling Awami League; and Khaleda Zia, chairperson of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, backed by Jamaat-e-Islami, which provides the muscle power to the BNP to take on the Awami League.
Begum Zia insists that the elections should be held, not under the Awami League government, but under a caretaker government. She has threatened to boycott the polls if a caretaker government is not installed after the elections are announced. Sheikh Hasina is equally adamant that she is not going to accept an un-elected "caretaker" government for which there is no Constitutional provision. The Bangladesh Supreme Court has also annulled the system of a caretaker government.
Begum Zia is now in prison. Leaders of her BNP apprehend that she will not be released before the elections. So, they have worked out a two-fold strategy: to intensify the movement for her release, while, at the same time, preparing the party to participate in the elections, if need be, without her. At the moment, the BNP leadership is sedulously cultivating Western diplomats posted in Dhaka. Senior BNP leaders are known to have held several rounds of 'secret' parleys with select foreign diplomats in the recent past.
The stage has thus been set for an open confrontation between the two Begums and their respective parties. The danger is that if the confrontationist politics degenerates into uncontrolled violence during the elections, it may give an excuse to the army to intervene and assume power, as it did in 2007. Large-scale political violence may also trigger an exodus of the Hindu minority people to adjoining West Bengal and Assam, adding to the latter's problems. Already, Assam has witnessed widespread protests in the Brahmaputra Valley against the Modi government's decision to assign citizenship rights to the post-1971 Hindu migrants from Bangladesh
Radical Islam has also gained strength in Bangladesh, fed liberally by Saudi money. According to one unconfirmed report, Saudi Arabia has funded over USD one billion to several hundred mosques and madrasas in Bangladesh to spread Islamic radicalism. The extent of influence radical Islam has gained will be known only after the elections. The Saudi connection with Bangladesh politics is well known. Media in the Arab world have reported that Khaleda Zia and her two sons (one is now dead) acquired property worth twelve billion dollars in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They allegedly made the money through corrupt means when they were in power.
The Chinese influence is also growing in Bangladesh. China has acquired 750 acres of land to set-up an industrial hub in the country. This is a cause of worry for India as the consumer goods produced there are likely to find their way into adjoining West Bengal. Chinese goods have already flooded the Indian market. Besides, China is also investing billions of dollars in Bangladesh for developing infrastructure. So is India, but India comes nowhere near China in terms of the volume of the investment made. China is also keen upon establishing closer defence ties with Bangladesh. Dhaka has already acquired two submarines from China, adding to New Delhi's worries.
One favourable factor for the Awami League Government is that the economy is in good shape now. According to IMF, Bangladesh has a GDP growth rate of 7.1 per cent. Nevertheless, about one-third of the people continue to live below the poverty line. As Bangladesh transforms itself from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy, its demand for power is steadily rising. It is projected to rise to 34,000 MW by 2030. Domestic power generation is now 15,000 MW. India is helping Bangladesh by supplying 600 MW of power. It is expected to go up shortly to 1000 MW.
But, the primary condition for the development of Bangladesh is peace and social harmony, which are being threatened by disturbing fundamentalist forces supported by Pakistan and others. Conditions for a stable peace will be created only when Bangladesh solves its basic problem of identity – whether its nationality is Bengali or Muslim. As prominent Bangladesh economist Abul Barkat has analysed in his recently published book 'Bangladeshey Moulabad' (Fundamentalism in Bangladesh), the growth and rise of fundamentalism has been possible primarily because the economic and political criminalisation of the country has led to the people losing their complete faith in the so-called democratic politicians.
His explanation is that when people feel threatened, they lose their faith in the state and its institutions; they give themselves up to fate. In an agrarian country like Bangladesh, where 60 per cent people have become landless and where religion has developed on the basis of agriculture, the 'vacuum' created between the tillers and the loss of their land makes the ideal ground for the fundamentalist forces to grow. He has pointed out how democratic and secular forces in Bangladesh failed to prevent Gen. Zia-ur Rahman from expunging 'secularism' from the Bangladesh Constitution in 1977 and making Islam the state religion.
The next general elections in Bangladesh will again see a political battle for supremacy between those committed to democracy and secularism and those championing fundamentalism and committed to turning Bangladesh into a theocratic state. Well-wishers of Bangladesh, like India, can only hope that the forces of secularism and democracy will be able to defeat fundamentalism.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)