Without being overtly vocal about its sentiments, India is traditionally known to have a soft corner for a Sheikh Hasina-led Awami league. However, in the changing landscape, India would do well to adopt a more neutral approach, more so because the coming elections are perceived to be state-controlled.
Bangladesh goes to polls Jan 5 amid growing unrest and question marks on the integrity of the election process. Following months of protests, strikes and blockades, the Khaleda Zia-led opposition party BNP formally announced a boycott of the election citing unfair conditions.
Zia has repeatedly said the poll process should be conducted under a non-party neutral caretaker administration. Zia's demand for a level-playing field has been dismissed by Hasina, an action perceived as autocratic by many. A June 2011 decision to rewrite the constitution now appears to be a blunt power grab, letting the government run the 2014 general election by scrapping a "caretaker" arrangement.
Opinion polls, including one commissioned by the Awami League, reflect overwhelming public support for elections under a neutral government, and not under an all-party umbrella where the Awami League enjoys superiority in number. There is no doubt that if Bangladesh goes to polls with Hasina as the premier, BNP will be adversely and unjustly affected.
India cannot afford to be seen as keeping a blind eye to the destructive brinkmanship. The Indian leadership needs to adopt a non-partisan stand and push for a "constructive dialogue" between the major political parties and against any election excluding the main opposition party. India must go beyond its traditional stated stand and not pursue a "one-friend policy" in Bangladesh. The ramifications for maintaining a hardened, soft approach towards the incumbent government could easily portray the UPA as divisive among the minority Indians in Bangladesh. India could do without the anti-India suspicion and resentment among ordinary Bangladeshis.
The Bangladesh government, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has an obligation to take administrative, legislative and judicial initiatives to guarantee the rights of the people. Sadly, it is not agreeing to create a level-playing ground for the general election. The authorities appear to be determined to hold a farcical election, excluding the major parties. The excuse of "protecting the constitution" is not going to solve the problem on the ground. India must design its policy based on the facts, not sentimental association and fears of radical uprising.
The UN has intervened and urged the government to organise an inclusive and fair election, free of violence, to help Bangladeshis exercise their mandate and India needs to undertake a similar stand.
With respect to support to democracy and its processes, India should be invested more in the political process that leads to free, fair and credible elections. If India puts undue impetus on the outcome, which is ultimately not in its control, its image might take a substantial hit in the international community.
Hasina will have to address the critical question of an interim government that both the parties could live with. Otherwise, can Hasina be trusted to deliver free and fair elections? Unless a negotiated resolution of the predicament emerges, the spectre of imposition of national emergency looms large.
(14.12.2013 The writer is an observor of Bangladesh politics. The views are his own.)
--IANS (Posted on 14-12-2013)