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In Bangladesh, has Sheikh Hasina done enough to counter a desperate opposition in January elections?

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is riding on development, inclusivity and global recognition to win January elections.

Politics in Bangladesh is going through an interesting phase, though not exactly a defining one. One can expect, though, quite a few permutations and combinations between now and the general election scheduled for early January next year. With the Awami League government determined to have the election held in line with the provisions of the constitution, that is, without any caretaker administration coming in to supervise the election, one can expect tensions and indeed increasing levels of indignation to underscore the opposition of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to the ruling party’s plans.

The BNP has daily been calling for the election to be held under a caretaker government. In the same breath, it has been propagating its one-point demand that the government led by Sheikh Hasina be overthrown for the country to go through a fair election. The contradiction in the politics of the BNP as also its allies has not been missed. That said, there is at present a sense of desperation in the opposition, seeing that it has been out of power since 2006 and would dearly like to get back into government again.

In recent months, the BNP has been rather cheered by the fact that the Awami League government has come under pressure from the United States and the European Union on the election question. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent warning that sanctions will be imposed on Bangladesh officials seen to be interfering in the conduct of a free election initially gladdened the opposition. That sense of happiness has been diluted to quite an extent with the government refusing to show any indication of moving away from its position on the issue.

The problem with the BNP-led opposition is that it has been unable to offer to the electorate any credible economic or political programme it means to implement if and when it returns to power. As a matter of fact, in all these years since the government led by Khaleda Zia went out of power in October 2006, the BNP has never gone for introspection into the reasons behind its failure to win the general election of December 2008. Neither has it indicated in all these years that if it goes to power again, it will refrain from propagating the wrong interpretation of Bangladesh’s history it has always indulged in since its founding by the country’s first military ruler, General Ziaur Rahman.

The Awami League, assuming its leadership is able to project its successes in these past fourteen years — in the development of the economy, progress in infrastructural work, pursuit of a constructive and proactive foreign policy, et cetera — convincingly before the electorate, should be in a good position to continue in office. And yet there are other areas the ruling party needs to look at, among which are price rises, the insidious role of syndicates in the market and corruption. The party must persuade the electorate into believing that a campaign against such realities will get underway before the election and, assuming it returns to power in January, will be a strong policy plank of the government for the future.

A significant factor in Bangladesh’s politics today is the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. There is little question that she has been a pivotal figure in national politics since she took charge of the Awami League in 1981 and especially since she led the party back to power in 1996 and again in 2008. Within her party, she is the figure around which all policies are shaped. On the national scale, she has demonstrated both within the country and abroad a firmness of leadership that can only be compared with that of her father, Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. She has been pretty much vocal in her assertions that the United States does not want her in power. She has been combative in defence of the policies her government has pursued since January 2009.

And yet Sheikh Hasina knows how to play the pragmatism card, a fact which became evident in her interaction with US President Joe Biden at the recent G-20 summit in Delhi. Images of the Prime Minister with the US leader on selfies have been making the rounds in Bangladesh, delighting her followers and citizens on a large scale. Sheikh Hasina’s diplomacy was also on display at Johannesburg, where she was a guest at the BRICS summit. In simple terms, Sheikh Hasina is today Bangladesh’s window to the world. Her government’s tough responses to questions raised by governments and organisations overseas on its human rights record are a big hint that Dhaka will not take such foreign criticism lying down. The government’s robust response to criticism of it abroad, criticism based on the false narratives propagated by the anti-Awami League camp, is indicative of its decision to face the world on its terms.

Much will of course happen between now and the election. The Awami League is preparing for the election. For its part, the BNP cannot afford to stay away from the vote and so lose one more opportunity to get back into the centre of things. Its insistence on overthrowing the government, a demand which does not go with constitutional politics, will need to be abandoned. The government, for its part, will surely need to reassure the country that the election will be free and fair, that on its watch and under the supervision of the Election Commission the voting will be without taint and will not come into question.

Yes, there will be permutations and combinations in the run-up to the election. An instance: lapsed members of the BNP have just elected Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, a former foreign secretary and once close to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, as chairman of a new political party called Trinamool BNP. The general secretary is Taimur Alam Khandakar, who has spent almost his entire political career in the BNP.

The Trinamool BNP, a soft reminder of Mamata Bannerji’s Trinamool Congress in India, was formed a year ago by Nazmul Huda, a barrister and long-time minister in successive BNP governments besides being a founder-member of the BNP. Huda died a few days after the Trinamool BNP was registered with the Election Commission. His young daughter has been trying to keep the party afloat in her father’s absence.

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