India has just gone through its ugliest elections in five states. The campaigning was marked by a surfeit of lies, skyrocketing promises, falsehood and abuses. Mercifully, it is over. There is a far more important election unfolding in our neighbourhood that merits our attention. Bangladesh votes for a new Parliament on December 30. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister and leader of Awami League, faces the electorate with an anti-incumbency baggage.
She is perceived as corrupt and arrogant who has done nothing to improve living conditions of the common man, businessmen, intellectuals and Hindus who traditionally supported her, also feel betrayed. Senior leaders are sulking and predicting that the party will be wiped out in the polls. But they have nowhere to go. Hasina remains the party’s unquestioned leader and the only winnable face. It reminds you of the dilemma of the BJP.
Hasina’s main opponent is Khaleda Zia, chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). She did not contest the last election, giving Hasina a cake-walk. This time, the court has debarred her from contesting because she is a convict in a graft case. Though a large number of BNP workers have been arrested, the party is still confident of a massive win, helped by a sympathy wave for Khaleda. Jamaat, which Hasina got disenfranchised for crimes committed during the liberation war of 1971, has decided to vote en-bloc for BNP. Delhi’s stakes in this election are very high in terms of its long-term impact on our connectivity with the north-east, economy and security.
While in power, BNP had refused to give us any transit facility but built a strong trade and defence relationship with China and Pakistan. As a result, Beijing became supplier of 93 percent of its defence requirements and Islamabad, its political benefactor. The ISI was given a free hand to train, arm and push terrorists, Rohingyas and insurgents to India while Jamaat was allowed to attack the Hindu community, lend logistic support to ISI, exfiltrate Bangladeshis illegally and mount vicious hate-India propaganda.
Hasina’s credentials to fight terrorism is far more impressive. She may have involved China in supplying defence hardware and building infrastructure in a big way but she is astute enough to know how to tango with China without ignoring India’s unique advantage of geography and shared history.
Thanks to her and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiatives, relations between both countries stand today at an all-time high. The major highlights of this bonhomie are joint construction of a coal-field power plant, laying of friendship pipeline and rail lines, providing road and inland water connectivity linking India with Bangladesh and its north-eastern states. These would be unthinkable in any BNP government.
Delhi, therefore, must support Hasina covertly but avoid scrupulously being seen as favouring Hasina, for it will give a handle to BNP to build a vicious anti-India campaign.