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Widely considered pro-India, will Hasina win benefit neighbouring north-eastern region?

By Nava Thakuria* 

As Bangladesh went to polls on 7 January 2024 amidst violence and boycott call from the prime opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), it was well predicted that the ruling Awami League (AL) led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will win for the fourth consecutive term to lead the poverty stricken south Asian nation for another five years. Consequently, the 12th general election on Sunday (a working day for the Muslim-majority country of 170 million people) gave an absolute majority to the incumbent AL with 222 seats in Jatiya Sansad, the highest legislative body of the populous country strategically located between India and Myanmar.
The parliamentary election to 350-member Jatiya Sansad (where 50 women members are elected indirectly) reflecting a poor voters’ turnout (less than 42% of 120 million registered electorates exercised their franchise) witnessed the electoral victory of 62 independent candidates (many even defeated AL  nominees), a record since its birth as a nation in 1971. A compromised opposition Jatiya Party won only 11 seats and  three smaller parties emerged winning one constituency each (where polling took place in 298 constituencies).
The polling began at 8 am on 7 January 2014 and continued uninterrupted till  4 pm under high security arrangements as the country often reports widespread poll-related violence. Over 750,000 police and paramilitary forces were deployed on the ground, where Bangladesh Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel were on duty to ensure security during the single day polling in 261,912 booths under 42,024 voting centres across  the country. 
To motivate the electorate, even PM Hasina cast her vote as the first individual in Dhaka City College polling station. She was accompanied by her sister Sheikh Rehana and daughter Saima Wazed. More than 200 foreign observers representing over 30 countries and global organisations visited the country to monitor the electoral process. Three senior members of the Election Commission of India also joined the group. Over  20,000 Bangladeshi observers representing 84 organizations were also engaged in the process. Bangladesh chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal assured of a free, fair and neutral polling.
Sporadic incidents of violence and rigging of polls were reported, as BNP leaders called for a 48-hour Hartal (general strike) beginning the previous day to polls. Alleging that elections under Hasina's government would never be free and fair, the BNP and its political allies stick to their demand to conduct the polls under a caretaker neutral government in Dhaka, which Hasina strongly denied.  Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical political party of Bangladesh, even took out processions in the capital city on the polling day supporting the BNP’s boycott call.
A  mass rally on 28 October by the BNP and its friendly parties turned violent, where at least four people were killed and nearly 300 vehicles torched on the streets of  Dhaka. The government started a massive crackdown and put thousands of BNP leaders (including its secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir) and workers behind the bars.  Another BNP rally on 16 December witnessed the participation of hundreds of thousands of people reiterating their demand for Hasina to resign before the polls. 
On the eve of polls, a series of violent incidents rocked the country. The burning of Kamalapur railway station bound Benapole Express’s four coaches by the miscreants resulted in the death of five passengers and injuries to many others. Next morning, a polling station (under Bandar police station) and a vehicle were torched in Chittagong locality. Two more people were killed on the counting day of ballot papers.
Meanwhile, the UN rights chief expressed serious concern over the violence and repression reported during the electoral exercise in Bangladesh. Violations and irregularities during the campaign and on election-day should be thoroughly investigated, asserted the global rights chief, adding that the hard earned democracy in the country should not become cosmetic. The United States and the UK  stated that the Bangladesh elections were neither free nor fair. Washington also observed that thousands of political opposition members were arrested and all political parties were not associated with the electoral exercise, adding that Dhaka should investigate reports of violence and make the perpetrators accountable.
Terming the election as a fake one, the BNP leaders claimed that such a low turnout in the polling indicated the people’s rejection following the boycott call. Alleging the Hasina government of running fabricated cases against 5,00,000 BNP leaders, civil society representatives and media personnel as well imprisoning over 1,700 party workers in the last 15 years, they asserted  that the Bangladeshi voters thoroughly rejected the one-sided election. Now the BNP leaders have decided to intensify their movement against the fake regime with a series of peaceful public demonstrations across the country. BNP also boycotted the 2014 parliamentary polls, but contested half-heartedly in the 2018 election after discussions with Hasina, where she assured full neutrality but allegedly did not keep her words.
BNP’s president Khaleda Zia (78 years old) is currently ailing and amazingly the former Bangla Premier is also under house arrest for graft charges. Even the party’s acting president Tarique Rahman, son of former Bangla President Ziaur Rahman and Begum Zia, has been living in self-imposed exile since 2008. Tarique faced 18 months jail term before leaving to London and staying there till date. So the party remains almost a leaderless political force on the ground and BNP leaders were assumed not interested in contesting the elections.
Dhaka-based  political analysts argue that it was indeed an opposition-less election indeed as  Jatiya Party also received political  favour from the ruling AL. Initially, the Hussain Muhammad Ershad founded party was planning to boycott the election along with the BNP-led opposition alliance.  But  the ruling party vacated 26 seats for their nominees to get the only opposition party on the fray. Hasina’s party also encouraged more AL leaders to file nominations so that the election can be shown as a participatory one. Most of the independent candidates were either deprived AL leaders or just dummies. Thus Bangladesh has emerged as a one-party nation, where the logical question arises who would play the role of opposition in the parliament.
The Paris-based global media rights body Reporters Sans/Without Borders (RSF) also condemned the violence against the journalists during the Bangladesh polls, when at least 12 reporters were attacked and expelled or denied entry to voting stations, in most cases by supporters of Hasina's party. The AL supporters attacked reporters covering the cases of electoral fraud, asserted the RSF, adding that the relevant authorities should launch independent probes so that the responsible individuals can be brought to justice.
“Furthermore, in a context of stifled media freedom, muzzled by governmental suppression of all criticism, we urge the newly re-elected authorities to finally adopt strong measures to safeguard unrestricted Internet access and protect the freedom of the press enshrined in Bangladesh's constitution and freedom of expression, which is being obstructed by the draconian new cyber security act. The government’s toxic control over news and information must end,” asserted the statement.
On a polling day marked by tension – with the main opposition party (BNP) boycotting the polls- many journalists were physically attacked or were subjected to harassment and intimidation, and were either expelled from or denied entry to voting stations. Most of the harassment and violence was the work of ruling AL supporters targeting reporters trying to cover irregularities.  In another serious violation of the right to report, access to the website of a Bengali newspaper was blocked. The newspaper management claimed that it had no internal technical issues when it experienced the access problems in the alternate media space on 6 January.
“The Bangladeshi authorities also refused to issue visas to journalists from the headquarters of many leading international media outlets, including BBC News, New York Times, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Al Jazeera. Most of the foreign reporters who managed to obtain visas were those based in New Delhi. Some foreign reporters were also asked to sign a statement accepting that their photographs and video footage would have to be approved by the Bangla authorities before being sent, and could not harm the national image,” asserted the statement.
Hasina (76),  who earlier ruled the country as its premier during  1996 to 2001, had won the last three national elections conducted since  2008 and established herself as the longest-serving government head among women in the world. Daughter of Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina maintained that only her party can lead Bangladesh towards peace, prosperity and growth. In the election manifesto, Hasina promised to convert the digital Bangladesh to a smart nation. She also committed to protect and promote the spirit of democracy, offer quality education to youths, modernise agriculture, and make healthcare services affordable to all Bangladeshi nationals.
Indian high commissioner in Dhaka, Pranay Verma was the first foreign diplomat to call on Hasina at Ganabhawan to convey greetings after her re-election and victory to her party. Ambassadors representing China, Russia, Bhutan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka etc also soon followed and assured cooperation from their governments and countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also congratulated Hasina on her poll victory and pledged a mutually trusted relationship with Dhaka. Hasina reciprocated the goodwill from New Delhi.
Her victory has been termed as a positive outcome for the India’s landlocked  north-eastern region   as many strategic and infrastructure related bilateral agreements between Dhaka and New Delhi are on the card. The healthy working relationship between Hasina and  Modi  helped influence the Bangla government to crack down on  north-eastern militants  taking shelter in their soil. Dhaka also agreed to develop rail connectivity with India (from Agartala to Akhaura and Benapol to Kolkata) and allow four of its seaports (including Chittagong and Mongla) to be used by Indian traders.
Moreover, Hasina permitted the use of waterways touching the Bangladesh territory to connect the mighty river Brahmaputra with the mainland Indian ports for transporting goods and also tourists. The world’s longest river cruise (from Varanasi to Dibrugarh) covering a 3,200 kilometers long route turned into a reality because of Dhakas’ cooperation. As Bangladesh is dependent on essential agri-products like rice, sugar, onions,  garlic, ginger, with many  other items from India, its relationship with New Delhi will help them in a better way. But for any reason, the stability of the government and law & order situation in Bangladesh will be an utmost priority for Hasina.
Traditionally New Delhi remains sympathetic to Hasina’s regime  as she maintains seemingly a comfortable relationship with India (read the Hindus in her country). Even though many Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries were vandalised by the radical Islamists from  time to time with impunity during her long time rule too. It’s only expected that Hasina will effectively safeguard the interest of religious minorities (Hindus, Buddhists and Christians) in the land of nationalist Bengalis, as she is widely considered as pro-Indian in nature compared to her rival Begum Zia.
---
*Independent journalist based in  Guwahati

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