Poll Trail in India’s Backyard

 In Democracy & Governance, G Parthasarathy, Governance, India & Regions, Politics & Society, SAARC

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This article was published earlier in ‘The Tribune’.

A DEVELOPMENT that has received scant notice in global politics is the democratisation of South Asia, where elected governments rule all the regional countries. An alliance of Maoists and the Communist Party (UML) was voted to power in Nepal in November-December 2017. Scheduled elections were held this year in Bhutan, where the enlightened monarchy voluntarily ceded power to elected governments. Pakistan saw a change in government recently, when the Imran Khan-led Tehreeq-e-Insaf party was voted to power, though there is evidence that the victory was ‘facilitated’ by the army. The Maldives saw a welcome change in government, with opposition parties joining hands to nominate the soft-spoken Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, to oust the authoritarian and anti-India government of President Abdullah Yameen.

Bangladesh is now headed for general election on December 30. This will be followed by the General Election in India next year. Presidential elections are also scheduled in Afghanistan next year. Interestingly, it is President Ghani who is determined to hold these elections next year. The Trump administration, however, seems keen to thrust a government with Taliban participation on the Afghan people, to facilitate the expeditious withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, instead of backing a constitutionally mandated election.

After going through the traumatic experience of having its elected government arbitrarily dismissed and its legislature dissolved by President Sirisena, Sri Lanka has seen its elected government and parliament being restored, with the judiciary asserting its constitutional authority. Presidential and parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka are scheduled in 2020. But given the continuing personal and policy differences between President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe, the island nation appears headed for uncertain times politically and economically in coming months.

Developments in South Asia will also be seriously affected by what transpires in the elections in Bangladesh, the results of which will have a bearing on the security of India’s Northeast. The results could shape the contours of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India, by groups operating from Bangladesh. India has seen a vast improvement in relations with Bangladesh during the past decade, because of the cooperation and understanding of the Awami League government headed by Sheikh Hasina.

The last decade saw the resolution of the long-pending problem of demarcation of India’s borders with Bangladesh and exchange of enclaves, which was completed in 2016. Likewise, the demarcation of the maritime boundary with Bangladesh was completed, with a UN tribunal awarding Bangladesh 19,467 sq km of the disputed 25,602 sq km in the Bay of Bengal. Sheikh Hasina’s two terms in office in recent years have also seen a remarkable strengthening of anti-terrorism cooperation with India. This involved firm action against Indian separatist groups, which were provided a haven by Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh National Party, with Pakistani involvement. India and Bangladesh have acted jointly against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism on their soil by measures like the decision not to participate in the SAARC Summit to be held in Islamabad.

India’s economic cooperation with Bangladesh has increased substantially in recent years, with projects for the supply of over 3600 MW hydroelectric and thermal power by India. This has been accompanied by substantial expansion in road and rail communication links. Moreover, under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, Bangladesh achieved an unprecedented rise in economic growth, with a threefold increase in per capita income and a reduction of people living below the poverty line, from 19 per cent to 9 per cent. Bangladesh is no longer classified as a ‘least developed country’. A booming textile industry and moves to step up growth in areas like pharmaceuticals and IT have spurred optimism that Bangladesh could soon reach a 9 per cent growth rate.

Hasina has virtually decimated her rival Khaleda and her party. Also, the formidable Jamat-e-Islami has been banned from participating in elections. Khaleda is in jail, convicted on charges of corruption. Accusations of authoritarianism against Sheikh Hasina have, however, resulted in the forging of opposition unity. The octogenarian Dr Kamal Hossain, who played a leading role in the Bangladesh freedom struggle and became a close associate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, engineered this development. The opposition parties, including Khaleda’s BNP and members of the Jamat-e-Islami, have joined this alliance, labelled as the Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front), to take on the Awami League. Pakistan has maintained close ties with the BNP and Jamat-e-Islami.

Sheikh Hasina has welcomed Chinese assistance, including financing of important projects. China has committed $38 billion in loans, though Bangladesh officials have made it clear that they have no intention of walking into a debt trap, like Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But Bangladesh has welcomed Chinese efforts to find an amicable solution to the Rohingya issue. Sheikh Hasina has averred that Bangladesh will not get involved in US-China rivalries, stating: ‘Our foreign policy is very clear. We want friendly relations with everyone. What China and US are doing is between them.’ But China let the cat out of the bag about its preferences in Bangladesh, when Khaleda met President Xi in 2016 during his visit to Bangladesh. A press note by the Chinese embassy in Dhaka noted: ‘President Xi Jinping appreciated that the BNP has firmly maintained a friendly policy towards China for years.’ Despite protestations of ‘non-interference’, China has given indications of its involvement in the internal politics of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where Chinese and Pakistani preferences have been identical. Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League are approaching the electorate with a creditable record on economic development. The challenge by a united opposition can’t, however, be ignored.

Ambassador G Parthasarathy is a former diplomat and a prolific commentator on geopolitics. He is a trustee of TPF. The views expressed are his own.

Note: Since the time this article was published, Bangladesh went to polls and Sheikh Hasina has won a land-slide victory. This is bound to have a very positive impact on the region, and on India-Bangladesh relations in particular – TPF research team.

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