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India knows Sheikh Hasina isn’t a perfect PM. Here’s why Delhi supports her while holding its nose

Bangladesh is in the middle of a political churn that hasn’t been seen in recent years. The ruling Awami League is determined to win the general election to be held on 7 January 2024 and bring Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina back to power for an unprecedented fifth term.

Meanwhile, its main opponent Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), having spent 17 long years in the political wilderness, is hoping that Hasina’s sins of omission and commission will help it wrest power — even if the ruling party seeks to control several instruments of power like the Election Commission.

What is even more interesting this time is that outside powers have shown keen interest in the Bangladesh electoral outcome. The United States, which has spent the past several weeks sheltering Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, whose military has been relentlessly bombing Gaza, has been spinning democratic homilies to Hasina and urging her to dialogue with her political antagonists.

Significantly, India, which has gone out on a limb to befriend the Americans, seems determined to strike an independent note on Bangladesh. China, meanwhile, is waiting and watching to see the direction in which the wind blows.

Eyes on India-US positions

During the fifth India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue on 10 November, external affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi was asked a question about the recent Hasina-ordered crackdown in Bangladesh, in which about 10,000 opposition leaders and activists were reportedly arrested. His reply was revealing: “Crackdown, jailed opposition leader, etc. are your interpretation. Please don’t ascribe them to me. We do not want to comment on the policy of any third country. Elections in Bangladesh, as I have said, are a domestic matter for them. It is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their own future.”

Only days before, a US State Department spokesperson had answered the same question in a totally different way, prioritising rights and their violations as a key part of the American position on the Bangladesh polls. “We continue to closely monitor the electoral environment in Bangladesh leading up to this January’s election, and we take any incidents of violence incredibly seriously. We are engaging and will continue to engage with the government, opposition parties, civil society, and other stakeholders to encourage collaboration for the benefit of the Bangladeshi people,” he had said.

So, why is there such daylight on the Indian and US positions on Bangladesh, considering all three nations are democracies? Why is the US taking such a tough line, considering it has long shielded friendly regimes across the world even if they are led by despots, dictators, and demagogues?

The answer is a simple one. India understands the troubled neighbourhood in which it lives. It understands that Hasina is not a perfect prime minister — that she rules with a tough hand, often tougher than necessary. That she has cracked down on the free and independent media, that she has persuaded the Election Commission to take the ruling party’s line, that she is trying to break the BNP into factions contesting with each other so as to make the election look like it’s free and independent — and in case the BNP boycotts the poll like it did the last two times, it won’t look so bad.

India also acknowledges that there is no alternative to Hasina. If she loses and the BNP comes to power, then the Islamic fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami follows close behind. And if the Jamaat is anywhere around the levers of power, then its backers, Pakistan’s military establishment, will be in the driving seat.

This is essentially the reason why India will hold its nose even if Hasina commits or orders the committal of unparliamentary practices as she seeks to hold on to power.

Also read: India-Bangladesh launch 3 big projects, Modi’s praise for Hasina can keep her in power

How the cookie crumbles

As it fights several assembly polls and goes into the Lok Sabha election in five months, the Modi government also understands that the exercise of power is not a kitty party. That eggs will have to be broken to make an omelette.

One more thing: PM Modi knows that his government is on a bit of a back foot with Hasina because of the indiscreet comments made by Amit Shah when he described Bangladeshis living illegally in India as deemak” or termites. The comments were made in 2018 when India was trying to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which has since run aground.

Bangladeshi officials privately say that Hasina is too proud to ever raise the matter publicly, but she will never forget the insult.

Notwithstanding all her other idiosyncrasies, there’s one thing about Hasina that will gladden any subcontinental heart — she is fully secular and determined to keep Bangladesh secular too, despite all the communal troubles that have beset the Hindu community even under her watch. Hasina won’t think twice about locking up Jamaat or other fundamentalist outfits if she feels that they are stoking the ground. Idol desecration incidents around the time of Durga Puja in the past few years have been dealt with extremely seriously.

In many ways, as the space for equal rights for minorities shrinks in large parts of the subcontinent, especially in Modi’s India, Sheikh Hasina has stood out as a fierce beacon of hope.

The Americans, on the contrary, aren’t impressed. They continue to wield the democratic whip, hoping that Hasina will turn into a modern-day Mother Teresa, but she’s unlikely to comply.

US President Joe Biden may have been forced to come to terms with Modi and the BJP’s blemished record on minorities. He can see that there is no country within sighing distance — save India — that can take on China. The rest of his party leaders, though, have long given up exercising the same kind of patience with Hasina.

And that’s how the cookie crumbles. When Bangladesh goes to the polls on 7 January, it may not turn out to be a perfect election in which men, women, and young adults will hold hands at the polling booth and sing Rabindra Sangeet. But it will be reasonably free and fair.

Moreover, it doesn’t matter at this point whether or not Hasina has the trust and faith of the rest of the international community because India, at least, stands fully behind her.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

Source: The Print

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