Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Start for Bangladesh?

Last year, this time, we were mourning the death of Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan looked irretrievably in trouble. The global financial crisis was just about breaking in, but the party, especially in the Mumbai Stock Exchange, was not yet over. The hope for progress in Bangladesh withered away, and the caretaker government seemed to have lost its way. In Sri Lanka, the war began in earnest, and there were aerial raids on Colombo. Nepal had a shaky government, and Bhutan was looking forward to its first election, with an iota of uncertainty. And, back home, the Manmohan Singh's government was fighting its own battle on the Indo-US Nuclear agreement, and the Left parties were threatening to scuttle the deal. In summary, 2007 ended in uncertainty and chaos.

2008 proved to be a difficult year. For the region as a whole. There was Mumbai, the most blatant organised terror incident since 9/11. We must not forget there were a series of bomb blasts too. The chill of Global Financial Crisis finally reached Indian shores, and wiped off more than 50% of value from BSE. Manmohan Singh survived a bruising battle. Thousands lost their jobs in the IT and ITES sectors, and future looked very uncertain for those who did not.

But, 2008 was also a year of democracy and hope. It was the year of Barack Obama, when American Democracy and American Spirit triumphed over the campaign of fear and hatred. In Pakistan, a fragile democratic government made a fresh start, and despite its limitations, it is still going and progressing in baby steps. In Sri Lanka, the army is pushing deep into tiger territory and there is hope that war may actually be over soon. In Nepal, Maoists have taken power through democratic elections. In Bhutan, the elections happened peacefully and the king stood down. And, finally, the end of year cheer is brought by Bangladesh, where an election took place after seven years, and a coalition, headed by Sheikh Hasina of Awami League, won handsomely.

The events in Bangladesh deserve a special mention, because it is so crucial for the peace and stability in the region and prosperity of India. Bangladesh was lately becoming a safe heaven for all unsavoury activities of ISI and its terror brethren. India's strategic nightmare, before 1971, was to fight wars in both Eastern and Western fronts simultaneously. While the events in 1971 created a separate, prosperous and secular country, the failure of democracy and corrupt governance seriously undermined that prospect. India's economic prosperity was unsustainable because, even a year back, it was surrounded by the who's who of world's failed states : Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. However, the events in 2008, as I recounted above, suddenly makes the region look a lot more stable.

I remember arguing with a friend, at the time when the current caretaker government took over in Dhaka, about the sustainability of democracy in Bangladesh. He, like many others, opined that Bangladeshi people need democratic education and time before the system can work. I was arguing that the Bangladeshi people, despite the general poverty and lack of education, have always behaved wisely when given the opportunity to vote [And, indeed, so did the Indian voters and Pakistani voters]. I now know that both of us were right. Bangladeshi people have voted wisely, yet again. But he was right too - as argued Fareed Zakaria in an eloquently written THE FUTURE OF FREEDOM - democratic institution building and constitutionalism must necessarily precede democratic governance through mass voting.

One would hope that despite the many administrative failures of the caretaker government, they have achieved two things : (a) Established the fear of God in previously unrestrained politicians; and (b) Strengthened some of the institutions, like an independent election commission and a judiciary, and a role model for a responsible army, which will act as a counter-balance to political institutions in the coming years.

The victory of Sheikh Hasina led coalition is being interpreted in different ways across the world. It is being celebrated as a victory of democracy. While it is indeed so, this thought may prompt us to go back to the millennial years, when Awami League had another shot at Governance and messed up big time. This time, it is very different from the people power revolution that ended Ershad's rule in early 1990s [the irony of fate is that HM Ershad is Hasina's coalition partner this time] and brought Khaleda Zia into power. This time, the democratic mandate is a conditional one, and comes with cautious optimism. Shiekh Hasina, more than anyone else, is in a position to understand this, and hopefully she has learnt her lessons this time.

On a more practical, shall we say cynical, way, this is also being interpreted as a win of coalition politics. Bangladeshis, more than anywhere else in the world, vote along party lines, and the victory in election, therefore, can be achieved by consolidating party votes through crafting coalitions. It is often said that the shock victory of BNP in 2001 elections was primarily due to their coalition with Jamaat and IOJ, and a consolidation of conservative votes in the country. This time, it was Awami League which tried to consolidate the liberal and secular votes, and won handsomely because young people voted for it. [Bangladesh has a disproportionate number of young voters in the electorate]

This view is possibly correct, though it undermines the widespread hope that the people of Bangladesh voted against terrorism and corruption in an united way. Without taking away anything from the optimists, one must note that it indeed seems a vote along party lines. While many Bangladeshis overseas are celebrating the defeat of people like Matiur Rahman Nizami, the head of Jamaat and a collaborator with the genocidal Pakistani Army in 1971, I also noted that many of Mafia leaders of 2000, like Nasim Usman of Narayanganj has made a comeback. However, a soul searching exercise, both in the winning party and the losing one, is a distinct possibility now, and one would hope that this will be done with the full perspective of the recent experience.

There are people in India who will celebrate this victory as Awami League is seen as a friendly party. But that view is possibly mistaken. Awami League has to carry out Bangladesh's agenda, and while this should be built on the bedrock of a friendship with India, this isn't unilateral and India must do its bit to make this relationship work. India's Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, is correct in saying recently that this is a very different reality than 1971 and India will work with whoever gets elected in Bangladesh. One would hope such realism will drive Indian policy making and the new Bangladeshi government will have to meet Indians half-way down the road.

Having said this, it indeed helps to have Awami League, as opposed to a doctrinaire party like Jamaat or a party like BNP, which has no mass base and will have to continuously play up the popular sentiment to keep its mandate. With a massive mandate, the new government will have a relatively freer hand and will be able to take decisions / actions as necessary. This is a significant opportunity window for India to build a strong, sustainable relationship.

I shall end with a note of caution: we squandered such opportunities in the past. The Bangladeshi politicians must understand their responsibility and display their accountability to keep the mandate. India too, must abandon its big brother stance and make real concessions to build a relationship based on fairness, rather than expecting gifts of friendship and gratitude from the Bangladeshi government.

A new start for Bangladesh, possibly. But all of us must act responsibly to make anything come out of it.

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