AFTER MONTHS OF bitter campaigning and violence, the atmosphere among journalists at the Bangladesh Election Commission was one of sardonic humour. Each result that further cemented the parliamentary majority for the ruling Awami League (AL) party evoked chuckles. Finally, it was said, the rigging had reached astounding levels. With nearly 90 per cent of the overall vote and 288 out of 300 seats, the scale of the victory for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s party was unbelievable.
Within no time, statements of ‘concern’ or outright dismay at the election process poured in from all over the world. The European Union, for example, noted that, ‘The mobilisation of voters and the participation of the opposition in the elections for the first time in 10 years reflect the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to democracy. However, violence has marred the election day, and significant obstacles to a level playing field remained in place throughout the process and have tainted the electoral campaign and the vote.’ Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)—for long near political participants in Bangladesh—decried the results.
There is little doubt that the electoral process was accompanied by high levels of violence, but that is just one part of the complex story that is Bangladesh. In early December, ‘alleged’ activists of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) attacked AL activists in Noakhali and Faridpur. This was followed by further attacks at Moulvibazar. After that there was no looking back. Nearly 300,000 cases were filed against opposition activists and leaders in what can only be described as a crackdown. To this extent, the claim of Bangladesh being ‘authoritarian’ sounds plausible.
The trouble is that the degree between plausibility and reality in the case of Bangladesh is large. In a certain sense, Bangladesh displayed signs of acute political polarisation a long time ago, much before the world discovered the threat it posed to governance and political stability. Unlike the classical Westminster model that is generally thought to guarantee political stability, Bangladesh has seen a curious twist. A two-party system has persisted now for more than two decades, but that has markedly increased divisiveness in Bangladesh. If one looks at the tenures of the two prime ministers from the main parties— Khaleda Zia of the BNP (currently in jail after a conviction) and Hasina—their terms have been marked with extreme bitterness on the part of the leader out of power. When Hasina is in power, the BNP simply refuses to accept the legitimacy of her victory or the right to govern Bangladesh. The reverse is true when she is out of power. The ‘solution’ of handing power to a neutral, non-party, caretaker government was one option that was tried from 2006 to 2008 after Zia completed her term as prime minister. But that was a one-off option when Bangladesh became virtually ungovernable. It is doubtful if that is really a sustainable solution in a democracy. Bangladesh, in any case, has had its bout with military dictatorship from 1983 to 1990 under Husain Muhammad Ershad.
At the root of the problem are two very different political visions for Bangladesh, a secular nationalist one espoused by Hasina—the legatee of the freedom struggle from Pakistan— and an Islamic one envisaged by Zia and the BNP. This is not just an academic distinction and has had real consequences for the country.
Since 2014, Bangladesh has seen a swelling of support for Islamist ideas. Had these remained ideas or had they been contested through regular electoral politics, matters would have been more or less normal. Instead, the battle for ideas has turned violent. In the last five-odd years, a number of secular bloggers have met their end at the hands of terrorists. In July 2016, in perhaps the biggest terror strike in Bangladesh, 29 people were killed at an upscale eatery in the capital. This has only polarised the political environment further with positions hardening at either end of the political spectrum.
At the same time, this period has been one of dramatic economic growth in Bangladesh. The country is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that Bangladesh will grow at 7.9 per cent in 2019, a remarkable speed in an otherwise sclerotic world economy. The country is an outlier in terms of economic growth and social indicators, a combination that is very difficult to sustain as the former requires sustained investment in physical infrastructure and other capital-intensive projects, while the latter needs large doses of spending elsewhere. Much has been written about Bangladesh’s success formula but most countries in South Asia have found it difficult to replicate it.
Relations between India and Bangladesh under Hasina have remained on an even keel and New Delhi has tried to insulate them from the domestic turbulence in Dhaka. These bilateral ties have remained steady even as give and take between the two countries proceeds in fits and starts. For its part, Bangladesh has cracked down on terrorists operating on its soil against India. Much of the leadership of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was deported from Bangladesh during Hasina’s term as prime minister. In contrast, the Bangladeshi demand for sharing of Teesta river waters has remained mired in India’s domestic political squabbles. But one thing is obvious, in Hasina, New Delhi has a reliable partner.
It is quite likely that the world will move on after this round of elections in Bangladesh. It should. These are days when any leader with a strong parliamentary majority is quickly dubbed a strongman (or strongwoman). Even if one leaves aside the disputed nature of the electoral process in Bangladesh, the equating of authoritarianism with strong electoral performance by a single political party is now greeted with resignation by academics and ‘civil society leaders’ alike. This should be taken with a pinch of salt, especially in the case of countries with complex political histories. Bangladesh certainly falls in this category.
There is another lesson that Bangladesh teaches us: the dangers of letting NGOs and ‘civil society’ dictate what is politically acceptable and what is not. For a very long time, due to its aid-dependent economy, Bangladesh was virtually in the grip of aid agencies and NGOs. In a democracy, that is not acceptable: if one wants to participate in the political system, one has to form a party and join electoral politics. One cannot avoid the rough and tumble of such politics and yet continue to have political authority. On paper at least, it is subversive of larger democratic goals in which a people via their elected representatives are the final arbiters of a country’s present and future. It is not surprising that the most noise against Hasina comes from ‘civil society’ types who do not contest elections but call the shots from the sides. That danger is visible in many democracies of the developing world.