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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 of these events felt that postponement of the polls could have been a better option, for the confrontations on the streets did not augur well and it may have been better to let things settle down first.
However, the government felt it had no other alternative but to press on because the Constitution requires 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 to considerable acclaim, 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 process failed to bring calm or to initiate the public conciliation that might have been hoped for in the aftermath of a less contentious election. To add to the difficulties, there were accusations of rigging, for with the Opposition keeping away it was alleged that the incumbent rulers had a free run at the booths.International opinion has been censorious of the Bangladesh authorities. Unusually strong criticism of the elections was voiced by a US spokesperson and there was a chorus from many others in the West to censure and disapprove. A demand for a re-poll was raised in some quarters and many of Bangladesh’s international partners, including some of the most significant ones, refrained from endorsing the electoral result.
The big exception was India whose Prime Minister sent a message of congratulations to his counterpart in Dhaka, thereby signifying that there would be no interruption in business as usual between the two countries.?As may be 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 Gen. 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 as ever it kept aloof from the polls it made sure that its presence should be felt.
The 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 the 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 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 too, 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 shakeup, 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 face similar charges and are being tried, 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, may 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.
This article first appeared in The Statesman.