Bangladesh went to the polls on Sunday (January 5) amidst a bitter and inflexible polarisation between the two major political parties and the election results were predictable. The opposition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its 18-member alliance chose to boycott the elections even while stoking violence that led to the deaths of 30 hapless citizens. Consequently, the ruling Awami League (AL) led by Sheikh Hasina won the skewed elections in an emphatic manner. Having already secured 153 seats uncontested in the run-up to the polls, the final tally for the AL stands at 232 in the 300-member Parliament. Eight constituencies will go to the polls again on January 16 since voting was suspended due to a high incidence of violence.
A piquant situation has now emerged in Dhaka with the new legislators being sworn in from Thursday (January 9) onwards, as per the constitutional provision, even while the members of the earlier Parliament will continue in office till January 24. Thus, for about a fortnight, Bangladesh will have a total of 638 MPs. Constitutional experts are scrambling to interpret the rectitude of such an exigency.
The January 5 elections are anomalous in many ways and what has been contested is the caretaker government arrangement to oversee the national elections which was the practice in Bangladesh — but since modified by the Hasina government through a constitutional amendment. Thus while the AL government has the letter of the amended Constitution in its favour, the political reality cannot be ignored. The major opposition parties — the BNP and the right wing Jamaat-e-Islami — have remained outside the electoral process and the voter turnout is estimated to be less than half the robust 80 per cent recorded in 2008.
To her credit, PM Sheikh Hasina had sought to offer an olive branch to her arch opponent Begum Khaleda Zia before the January 5 elections — and again in recent days — to sever links with the Jamaat and renounce violence and re-enter the electoral fray. This option has been steadfastly rejected by the BNP leader who insists on a return to the caretaker arrangement; so, the unfortunate political impasse continues with many negative implications for the economy of Bangladesh, the brunt of which will be borne by the people of that country.
The procedural and constitutional interpretation apart, the January 2014 election in Bangladesh has an ontological dimension to it that goes back to the bloody birth of the young republic in December 1971. South Asia’s youngest republic is a little over 40 years old and represents the triumph of Bengali nationalism spearheaded by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman — the father of the current PM Sheikh Hasina and affectionately referred to as ‘Bangabandhu.’
The tragic history of East Pakistan that transformed into Bangladesh remains one of the more opaque chapters of the 20th century. The geo-strategic compulsions of the Cold War and the venal machinations of the Kissinger-Nixon combine allowed the Pakistani Army to engage in a ruthless campaign of oppression and mass-murder of their vulnerable Bengali citizenry in the period 1970 – 71. The official estimate is that as many as three million East Pakistani citizens were killed by their own Army with the support of local Bengali Islamist groups. Against this human carnage and the emphatic military victory of India, the new nation was born and the political emancipation that Mujibur Rehman had long sought was finally realized.
But this nascent experience of freedom was short-lived. The very forces and ideologies that led to the genocide in East Pakistan reared their heads again in August 1975 when Bangabandhu and his family were assassinated by a group of military officers. Bangladesh slipped into military rule and the intervening decades have been one of turmoil and ideological contestation to define the identity and ethos of the new and blood-splattered republic.
The birth of Bangladesh has significant relevance for the extended South Asian region and the larger Islamic world. Post 1947, Pakistan, which had been created on the tenuous two-nation theory, perceived religion to be an all-encompassing determinant of political cohesion and prioritized Islam as the unifying principle of national political identity. Ethnicity and language were subverted to domestic realpolitik considerations and it was averred that Islam would bind the two wings of Pakistan with the East being the less favoured and exploited subaltern of the Punjabi/Pathan elite in west Pakistan.
The Mujibur Rehman vision was that of a different nationalism — an equitable socio-political and linguistic representation in a democratic framework that recognised and respected the Bengali Muslim character. The normative vision of Bangabandhu for his people was that of a tolerant, liberal democratic State with a Muslim majority that could accommodate its many minorities. In many ways this was reminiscent of the Jinnah vision of Pakistan, which, alas, soon morphed into an inflexible ideological Sunni-dominated Islamic State.
From 1975 till the return of the Awami League in 2008, Bangladesh had been traumatized by its past and the many shadows and memories of 1971 have remained unresolved. Sheikh Hasina in her last tenure re-opened the 1971 war trials and despite the fierce opposition of the BNP and the Jamaat (which was culpable of supporting the Pakistan Army) brought many of the perpetrators to book. Predictably, this resurrected old fissures and in December 2013 the Pakistan government censured Dhaka for its determination to re-visit 1971.
The Hasina-led Awami League constituency in Bangladesh envisions a Bangladesh that would be more democratic and secular even while retaining its distinctive religious and linguistic identity. The BNP, supported by the Jamaat and other right-wing groups, champions a more conservative form of governance wherein violence and recourse to terror are condoned in the name of religion.
The two factions led by two formidable Begums have been using the political arena in Bangladesh to establish their supremacy and this has long-term implications for India and the region. Ideological and religious fissures that go back to August 1947 have been resurrected in the January 5 elections and the prospects of a satisfactory resolution appear bleak.
The author is former director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses