Sheikh Hasina is all set to become the longest serving leader of Bangladesh, with the results of the parliamentary election held on January 7 showing that Hasina’s party, the Awami League, had won 222 out of 298 seats. The Awami League’s victory and the incumbent Prime Minister’s fourth consecutive term in office became an inevitability after the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), decided in December 2023 to boycott the election.
However, the BNP, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and other political opponents of Hasina are unlikely to accept the verdict. Hasina will probably face a long period of political unrest and street protests from her opponents in the coming weeks. How she deals with the situation will be watched with interest by her countrymen and observers in other countries. Many experts fear that instability in Bangladesh can impact the stability of the region.
Also Read | More hype than substance
The emerging scenario poses a dilemma for Hasina. Most senior leaders of the BNP and the opposition have been put in jail for taking part in violent protests against the government. Once they are released, they are likely to regroup and organise protests to force her resignation. And any government crackdown on the protesters can worsen the situation and lead to more protests. But keeping the leaders in jail beyond a reasonable period will increase the pressure on Hasina and raise questions about the fate of democracy in Bangladesh.
The unfolding scenario will also be challenging for India, testing the resilience of its strategic partnership with the US. Despite agreeing on the need to check China’s growing footprints in Bangladesh, India and the US have differed fundamentally in articulating their interests in Bangladesh and their approach to Hasina. While India has found a stable and reliable partner in Hasina, the US has ignored her importance to India and made every effort to encourage her opponents and weaken her position in Dhaka. If the differences between Bangladesh and the US continue to grow after the election, it can affect India-US relations in other South Asian countries.
Jayant Prasad, former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, said India’s relations with the US had grown significantly in past years, and India would like strong ties with the US. “But in South Asia, India is the premier power and it should not play second fiddle to any country.”
Other experts point out that despite occasional differences, India-US relations have now reached a stage where none of these differences can affect bilateral ties.
“US-India relations have become close to foolproof in recent years, in that thanks to increased trust and strategic convergences, the partnership can weather the occasional shock,” said Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asia at the Washington, DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He pointed out that India refused to take a strong stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and that has done nothing to damage the US-India relationship. “It’s the same with the Bangladesh factor,” he said.
Over the past year, Hasina has been under intense pressure from the US regarding the democratic backsliding in Bangladesh. The Joe Biden administration believes that Hasina has been winning elections by intimidating political opponents. It even imposed a series of sanctions on her government to ensure free and fair elections. Encouraged by the US’ tough line, the BNP and other opponents of the Prime Minister, including the Jamaat-e-Islami—a political outfit accused of siding with the Pakistani army during Bangladesh’s liberation struggle in 1971—hosted a series of anti-government rallies and demonstrations in recent months.
They soon realised that despite the US’ backing, it will be difficult to defeat Hasina as long as she remains in power. So they raised the demand for a caretaker government. But in 2011, a constitutional amendment repealed the provision for a caretaker government after the Supreme Court ruled that elections should be held by the country’s Election Commission. Therefore, Hasina is legally and constitutionally in a strong position despite the opposition’s objections to her.
- Sheikh Hasina has been re-elected for a fourth straight term as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. However, the opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is unlikely to accept the verdict.
- The problem is complicated by the differing stances of India and the US towards Bangladesh. While India has been traditionally Bangladesh’s ally, in recent months, the US has put intense pressure on Hasina regarding the democratic backsliding in Bangladesh.
- In recent years, China has also invested heavily in Bangladesh, challenging India’s position in the region. Stability in Bangladesh will also depend on how quickly Hasina is able to revive the economy.
The US’ stance
Hasina also seems to know that as she refuses to soften her stand vis-a-vis the US. The recent court conviction of Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate and the creator of Grameen Bank, for allegedly violating Bangladesh’s labour laws is being seen by observers as Hasina’s act of defiance against her detractors in the US administration. Although Yunus was released on bail and allowed to appeal against the court ruling within a month, the development was noted and widely criticised in the West. Yunus is one of the best-known Bangladeshis in the international arena: his concept of microcredit has successfully pulled millions of people out of poverty in his country and elsewhere. But Hasina sees him as a political rival: he was projected as a plausible leader for Bangladesh when she was under house detention on corruption charges in 2006.
“In recent years, China has invested heavily in Bangladesh, challenging India’s position. Today, China is Bangladesh’s top defence supplier as well as a major trade partner and investor.”
Yunus is a close friend of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and enjoys support from her close associates, who hold key positions in the Biden administration. Hasina fears that the US pressure on her comes at the behest of Clinton and her supporters in the State Department.
The US and its partners in Europe are unlikely to accept Hasina’s victory unquestioningly. They are sure to contest the validity of an election held without the participation of the opposition. In the run-up to the election, the US called for “unconditional dialogue” between the parties, a suggestion that neither Hasina nor her opponents accepted.
Robust partnership with India
India, meanwhile, called Bangladesh’s election an “an internal matter”. “As close friends and partners of Bangladesh, we respect the democratic process in Bangladesh and will continue to support the country’s vision of a stable, peaceful, and progressive nation,” said Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra some months back.
Hasina’s win will certainly give a boost to India-Bangladesh ties. India has a history of friction with the BNP, which was accused of encouraging Indian insurgent groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom and similar outfits to operate from Bangladesh. The BNP had also refused to cooperate with India in areas like trade, energy, connectivity, and security. After coming to power, Hasina reversed that trend, building a robust partnership with India and a strong rapport with her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. Indian observers have always been a little surprised at the US’ decision to take a tough line against Hasina despite being aware of her importance to India. Some experts think that the reason behind the US’ stand against Hasina is her closeness to China.
Traditionally, India has been the big power in the region and played a crucial role in supporting Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971. But in recent years, China has invested heavily in Bangladesh, challenging India’s position. Today, China is Bangladesh’s top defence supplier as well as a major trade partner and investor. Between 2016 and 2022, China invested $26 billion in Bangladesh. In 2022, it was the largest foreign direct investment provider of the country at $940 million. Bangladesh bought defence equipment worth $3 billion between 2011 and 2020 from China.
“The stakes that India and the US have in Bangladesh are different; they have different priorities and outlooks. This is only to be expected,” said Srinath Raghavan, a professor of history and international relations at Ashoka University, Sonepat, Haryana. He pointed out that in the past, the US actively undermined India’s standing in South Asia. “That phase may well be behind us, but India still cannot expect the US to follow its line in the region,” he said.
Stability in Bangladesh will also depend on how quickly Hasina is able to put the economy back on track and check the rising inflation that has affected the prices of food, fuel, and other essentials. If she manages to win back the confidence of the people that she remains their best bet, the opposition to her controversial victory may fade away from the public discourse in Bangladesh.
Pranay Sharma is a commentator on political and foreign affairs-related developments. He has worked in senior editorial positions in leading media organisations.