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Election won't heal Bangladesh's wounds

This month's election in Bangladesh was a muddled affair and is widely considered to have done little to resolve the problems afflicting that country. An opposition boycott that reduced voter turnout to around 39 per cent, according to official figures (much less according to other sources), damaged the legitimacy of the process. Violence on the streets before and during the polling damaged it further, so that the ruling Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina has achieved a pyrrhic victory in returning to power with an enlarged parliamentary mandate.

Many observers said a better option would have been postponement of the polls, to allow the confrontations on the streets to settle down. However, the government felt it had no alternative but to press on because the constitution required that elections be held at the appointed time. Nor was it able to hand over to a neutral caretaker administration to conduct the polls, as has been done in the past, because that option had been precluded by a recently enacted constitutional provision. The opposition accused the government of ramming through these amendments in order to change the rules in its favour. The constitutional straitjacket required that elections be held despite mounting strife and disturbance, and it was no great surprise that the poll failed to bring the hoped-for calm or public reconciliation. Adding to the difficulties were accusations of rigging.

International opinion has been critical of the Bangladesh authorities. Unusually strong criticism of the elections was voiced by Washington, echoed by a chorus of censure from many others in the West. Many of Bangladesh's international partners, including some of the most significant ones, refrained from endorsing the result, with some calling for a rerun. The big exception was India, whose prime minister sent a message of congratulations to his counterpart in Dhaka, signifying there would be no interruption of business-as-usual between the two countries.

As expected, much has been said about these events and many attempts made to understand the turmoil in Bangladesh. The personal antipathy between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her rival Begum Khaleda Zia is well known and for years there has been no letup in their intense political rivalry. Each heads a well-established political party with considerable grassroots support and seems to enjoy unchallenged authority within the party she leads. The Jatiyo party headed by former President Ershad comes a long way behind but, having participated in the election, it now has a small presence in the new Parliament. It has made common cause with the ruling party, enough to give the faint appearance of a coalition though without the real substance of one. However, Sheikh Hasina has shown evidence of wishing to broad base her government to the extent possible, so General Ershad's supporting her government is sought to be presented as a step in the right direction. She has even made a gesture towards Begum Khaleda seeking to bridge the gap but the chasm between the two leaders remains wide.

It is not the two regular parties alone that loom large in the political landscape, for the rampant Jamaat-i-Islami cannot be ignored, and though it kept aloof from the polls it made sure that its presence was felt. Jamaat includes fundamentalist elements that have never attracted much voter support but have shown readiness and capacity to promote their views on the streets. Much of the violence that marred the recent election is attributed to the street power of Jamaat. In the political churning within Bangladesh, there has been some comment to the effect that it was a tactical error for Begum Khaleda's opposition BNP to refuse to take part in the elections. It is pointed out that the incumbent party has almost invariably been thrown out by the electorate and there was no particular reason for the pattern not to be repeated this time, at the expense of the Awami League. However, the opportunity, if it existed, was not taken and the underlying uncertainties about the political direction to be followed have not been set at rest.

There is considerably more at stake, however, than the rights and wrongs of the recent election. Deeper questions about the nature and the values of the polity itself are part of the current shake-up, issues that have never been finally resolved and remain divisive after all the years since Bangladesh took birth. During the turmoil of liberation political elements tied to the old order were responsible for dreadful crimes in their quest to hold back liberation, and were never adequately called to account even after the new state had emerged. There was nothing in Bangladesh equivalent to the Nuremberg trials after World War II that tried to rid Europe of its war criminals, no attempt to exorcise the criminal elements that had wreaked so much havoc. The assassination of Sheikh Mujib in the early days of the new country made matters worse and retarded the cleansing process. It is only recently that Sheikh Hasina's government has re-activated the legal procedures to indict those accused of war crimes and brought a sense of purpose to the effort. Many have been indicted and one of the most prominent of those involved has been tried and executed. Many more are being tried on similar charges, and though the legal process has its critics there is no faltering by the authorities. It could be that the political restructuring required, including the re-polling demanded by many at home and abroad, might not be possible until the judicial process is complete.

India cannot observe these events in such a close neighbour with indifference. Nor can it afford to get too deeply entangled. Sheikh Hasina is a proven friend but India has always been ready to work closely with the leadership Bangladesh has chosen for itself, be it the BNP or the rival Awami League. Moreover, despite its preference for democratically elected governments, India has maintained good working relations with unelected regimes that have taken power in Dhaka from time to time. At this juncture when Bangladesh is going through a particularly testing period, it is important for India to maintain judicious detachment from internal political developments in this neighbour while projecting its basic interest in friendship and good relations.

Salman Haidar is India's former Foreign Secretary.


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