Crucial B'desh elections
New Delhi must ensure that Beijing does not exploit the situation
General elections in Bangladesh will be held by the end of this year. The Constitutional requirement is that the elections be held between October 31, 2018, and January 28, 2019. This time the elections will be held in conditions that are different from those in 2014. Then the biggest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia, boycotted the polls because Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League refused to have the elections conducted by a caretaker government. The boycott helped the League immensely. It entered Parliament with a huge majority.
This time around, Begum Zia will not be able to lead the party into the electoral battle. In February she was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for misappropriating $2.53 lakh which she had received as donations from overseas sources for an orphanage run by her. She is also debarred from contesting elections. Though she assured her weeping supporters before being taken to jail that "There is no need to cry; you all wait, I shall be back soon", that seems rather improbable. But this time her party, BNP, is going to enter the election fray, if necessary, without her. It will not repeat the mistake of boycotting the polls and practically giving a walk-over to the Awami League.
As a political party, the BNP depends primarily on the Jamaat-e-Islami which provides the cadre and the muscle power to fight elections. The Jamaat has a black record. It had collaborated with the Pakistani army during the 1971 freedom struggle and was responsible for the killing of many freedom fighters, intellectuals, and cultural personalities. According to a February 2016 study of the Jamaat by the European Foundation for South-East Asian Studies (EFSAS), "Given the present situation in Bangladesh, it is evident that the past has caught up and the future of Jamaat-e-Islami looks grim, With most of its top leaders and financiers gone, it is almost certain that the backbone of Jamaat has been crushed. (It) will need a miracle to make its way back to the political and societal structure of Bangladesh."
This is true but the Jamaat still retains the power to indulge in large-scale violence and targeting of the minorities and sniper attacks on its political opponents. Its mischief-making potential should not be under-estimated. It can always whip up communal passion with the help of jihadi elements and disturb law and order.
Several countries including India are closely watching the current political developments in Bangladesh in the run up to the general elections. India has several concerns. First, it would want to see that a non-communal government comes to power which will combat terrorism and terrorist outfits. Secondly, that it should treat Chinese overtures with caution. And thirdly, that it will maintain friendly relations with India and widen the field of Indo-Bangladesh cooperation. At the moment, it is advantage Hasina.
The Chinese have been making overtures to Bangladesh for a long time, Dhaka has supported the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. When Begum Khaleda Zia visited China in December 2002, as Prime Minister, she signed the Sino-Bangladesh Defence Cooperation Agreement. Today, the defence forces of Bangladesh are equipped mostly with Chinese military hardware – from tanks to aircraft to frigates and patrol vessels. In 2016, the Hasina government acquired two Chinese submarines, setting alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.
A section of public opinion in Bangladesh is very sensitive to their country entering into any defence agreement with India. Even some retired and serving army officers are reported to have strong reservations about Bangladesh getting into any defence partnership with India. The Hasina Government is aware of it and has to contend with it. When Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi in April last year, as many as twenty-two bilateral agreements were signed. India offered a $500 million credit line specifically for defence purchases from India, but the details were not made public. Hasina visited India again last week and had talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India's primary concern in Bangladesh is China. India is no match for China in terms of investment in Bangladesh. In April, 2016, China and Bangladesh signed several agreements under which China would make a total investment of $38 billion in Bangladesh -- the biggest assistance ever offered to Bangladesh by any other country. As recently as March this year, Chinese ambassador Zhang Zuo, announced that his country had begun implementing $10 billion worth of infrastructure projects in Bangladesh.
It is here, in the field of development, that India is facing the biggest challenge from China in Bangladesh. The terms of Chinese 'assistance' are not known and it will not be surprising if Bangladesh finds out at the end that the only way to repay the loans is to sell the equities of the projects to the Chinese companies concerned, as has happened in the case of the Hambantota port project in Sri Lanka. But that is still a long way off. Meanwhile, New Delhi will have to think out of the box as to how to counter the growing Chinese footprint in India's neighbouring countries because this has also long-term strategic implications for India.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)