Can Hasina balance domestic discord with democratic temper in Bangladesh?

C. Uday Bhaskar
C. Uday Bhaskar
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Bangladesh, which was originally East Pakistan, was born in December 1971 after being “liberated” from the genocidal shackles of the Pakistani military and more than three million lives were lost in the freedom struggle led by the charismatic Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.

India played a critical role at the time though the major powers such as the US and China were not very enthused by this geo-political development – the birth of a new nation even as the Cold War was being played out in varied proxy manner in different parts of Asia.

The trigger for the birth of Bangladesh was the invalidity of the two-nation theory that led to the creation of Pakistan in August 1947. It was averred that religion – in this case the Islamic faith common to the Muslim population of the sub-continent was adequate to provide the bonding and basis for creating a nation. Consequently two wings of Pakistan were created, the dominant west and the subservient east.

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However the ethnically and linguistically different Bengali Muslim citizen of Pakistan was denied equitable constitutional status and kept under the equivalent of the double colonial yoke – first the British and then the Punjabi Muslim elite.

Hence the demand for a new state based on linguistic and cultural identity was inevitable and hastened by the murderous policies followed by the Pakistani military in 1970 – alas with the tacit support of the major powers.

Thus the basic identity of Bangladesh and the orientation of the state have been bitterly contested and in the last four decades there have been assassinations (including that of the founding father Mujibur Rehman) and bouts of military rule.

While being accused of being authoritarian and following a policy of relentless vendetta against her opponents, PM Hasina has enabled a growth trajectory that is the envy of many developing nations

C. Uday Bhaskar

Father’s vision

A core old guard with loyalty to the Pakistani ideology has resisted the liberal, moderate Islamic path and this has played out in domestic politics with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina committed to her father’s vision and her rival – Begum Khaleda Zia representing the old guard and its support base that include the religious right-wing.

Thus, the democratic principle while being venerated is yet to take firm root and the 11th general election held on Sunday (December 30) reflected this inherent tension between the rhetorical commitment to liberal democracy and its actual practice.

The Hasina-led Awami League (AL) won 288 of the 300 seats that were contested and this is a victory percentage that is akin to what ‘authoritarian’ democracies are better known for.

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The opposition has cried foul and sought fresh elections but the global community led by India has accepted the December 31 verdict (the results were formally declared on Monday) and PM Hasina will have the distinction of winning a third consecutive term – and also commencing a fourth tenure as PM of Bangladesh.

The Hasina led AL has brought much needed stability for socio-economic development and in the last 25 years, Bangladesh with a current population of 162 million has moved from being deemed a basket-case (per capita $330) to being acknowledged as a success story in the Islamic world. In two decades, per capita income has risen to $1640 and on the global stage Bangladesh is second only to China in garment exports – its USP for years.

While being accused of being authoritarian and following a policy of relentless vendetta against her opponents, PM Hasina has enabled a growth trajectory that is the envy of many developing nations – what domestic cynics refer to as the poor man’s Singapore model.

Faustian bargains

The Islamist constituency that has been accused of supporting domestic and regional terrorism has been kept at bay but some Faustian bargains that go against the liberal, democratic may have been covertly entered into by the AL and its supporting parties.

Thus in her third term, Hasina will have to address the visible domestic discord and opposition to her rule and remain wedded to the democratic temper in word and spirit – though authoritarianism is the current flavor in most democracies!

The Bangladesh PM elicited regional and global appreciation for her Rohingya policy and has demonstrated a certain political resolve and innate compassion, that if extended to her detractors – would lay the foundations for a robust and vibrant democratic ethos where a constructive opposition has a critical role to play in nation-building.

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Bangladesh has received valuable support and financial aid in its evolution from many external interlocutors and has been a very credible recipient nation. To Hasina’s credit, she has managed Dhaka’s external relations with India, China, Japan and the oil-rich Arab nations in a rather adroit manner.

Supporting Beijing in its BRI initiative even while being considered to be a critical partner for Delhi is deft and commendable politics. It is instructive to note that the first call congratulating PM Hasina on her decisive victory was from Indian PM Narendra Modi.

Building on this widespread goodwill and enabling Bangladesh to address the complex challenges it faces (from climate change and sea-level rise, to improving human-security indicators and staying the course in relation to the minorities) while remaining wedded to the constitutional imperative will test the acumen of Sheikh Hasina in her fourth term.
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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