By Chandan Nandy/South Asian Monitor
One afternoon in the second week of June, I received a call on my mobile phone from an unknown number. Speaking in English, the caller identified himself as Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, a member of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) standing committee and a former commerce minister. After pleasantries were exchanged, Chowdhury candidly said that he was part of a three-member team of BNP leaders who were on a visit to India, primarily to meet ‘political influencers’ in the ruling BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) besides a host of Indian think tanks.
Clearly, a beleaguered BNP, whose supremo, Begum Khaleda Zia, remains incarcerated in a Dhaka prison along with a few other senior party colleagues, envisions that irrespective of the ruling Awami League’s putative proximity to the Indian establishment, it too could take the opportunity to make overtures to New Delhi ahead of the general elections in Bangladesh due sometime towards the end of 2018. “If there is an election,” Chowdhury interjected. The BNP is not quite hopeful that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would recommend dissolving the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) before calling for elections that might have an element of uncertainty and even spring a surprise.
“In the event of free and fair elections, the Awami League may end up losing at the hustings,” Chowdhury said. This was a loaded statement from a representative of a party whose top leadership is in jail, while the rank-and-file is in disarray, but more about this later.
Keeping away fundamentalist elements
The immediate task before Chowdhury and his team, comprising BNP vice chairman Abdul Awal Mintoo and the party’s international affairs secretary Humayun Kabir, was to present a benign picture of political party that would keep a safe distance from unsavoury Islamist and fundamentalist elements in the Bangladesh polity. This was, in other words, a clear reference to the anti-India Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and its militant offshoot, the Khilafat Andolan, both of which have been hit hard over the last two years by the Hasina regime.
Chowdhury did not venture into discussing this controversial topic but reports in the Indian media indicated that the BNP representatives, whose New Delhi sojourn was sanctioned by Khaleda’s son Tareque Rehman, were keen to sense the Indian establishment’s mood, besides seeking the Narendra Modi government’s support for “free and fair process during the elections” whenever they are held. Now, conventional logic would suggest that the BJP would be more “comfortable” dealing with the Awami League than the BNP which, along with the JeI, has not had a great record of being friendly towards India, irrespective of the ideological dispensation of the party in power in New Delhi. But that is where the catch lies.
Keeping all options open
Sources in India’s national security bureaucracy told South Asian Monitor (SAM) that regardless of the “optics” of bonhomie between the Indian political leadership and Hasina, while she was on a visit to Delhi, and more recently to West Bengal, “all options would be open”. The Awami League leadership, fully aware that domestic politics in Bangladesh “would not fully ensure” smooth sailing in the elections, desperately needs India’s support, sources told SAM. Hasina’s party is beset with internal strife and bickering. More recently, she has had to issue “warnings” to the warring factions—of which there are many—that all anti-party activities would be dealt with severely. The Bangladesh prime minister and some of her closest political aides are aware that 10 years of continuous rule have brought with them a “fairly large measure” of anti-incumbency which could have a greater effect on voters than all the development work and others measures that have admittedly boosted the Bangladesh economy and social indices in recent years. Though not full-blown, from time to time public anger has surfaced with every act of “repression” of political rivals.
In these circumstances, the question is whether India bet only on one horse? Successive Indian governments, while publicly acknowledging that the Awami League is a natural ally, have had dialogues with the BNP too. This is not a new phenomenon and dates back to the 1980s and even later when Indian security officials maintained clandestine contacts with the BNP leadership. It will be worthwhile to recall that during the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, the then Indian National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra visited Dhaka to meet Begum Khaleda and other BNP leaders, making no bones about his government’s intent to “dance with the devil” if need be.
Pledge not to use India as electoral punching bag
Analysts of the think tanks that the three BNP leaders met told SAM that the visitors were “given patient hearings” to gauge the sincerity in their promises of not using India as an electoral punching bag. For the BJP government in New Delhi, which is conscious of its power that both the Awami League and the BNP would prefer to leverage, might even like to see Khaleda Zia’s party in power. This serves a domestic political purpose, cynical though it may sound. A BNP government in Bangladesh, contiguous to West Bengal, could prove “electorally useful” for the BJP which is seeking to make inroads into the Indian border state where it has, of late, evoked and taken recourse to its trademark Hindutva brand of politics. Playing the BNP card, with all that the party earlier stood for vis-à-vis India, could be to the BJP’s advantage.
Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, one of the think tanks that the Chowdhury-led team was hosted by, told SAM that “there appeared to be a genuine shift” in the BNP’s stand “because at this time they have their backs to the wall, especially if they have to survive” as a political entity. Joshi, a seasoned journalist-turned-security specialist, said that the BNP leaders took pains to reflect that while “there is a lot of danger to democracy in Bangladesh”, especially when the Awami League is seen to be increasingly trying to drive the opposition out of reckoning, the BNP leaders admitted that the “Jamaat is no longer an electoral issue”. Joshi said that the team’s effort was to dispel Indian doubts about the BNP’s brand of politics, but that the visitors did little to share an alternative economic agenda for Bangladesh, if at all they have one.
Amidst this competitive wooing of India by the two principal Bangladeshi parties, on the face of it, the Awami League holds the edge. While the BNP wasn’t the first to get off the block, it still fancies itself as a beneficiary of some Indian largesse in the backdrop of the party’s reported dilution of its stand vis-à-vis New Delhi. Indian intelligence analysts claim that “the BNP will have to produce credible evidence that it has shunned its anti-India stand” besides presenting an alternative, sustainable socio-economic model for Bangladesh at a time when sub-regional institutions such BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-Nepal-India) and BIMSTECH (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) are expected to drive bilateral and multilateral ties in the region.
Strings attached and unattached
On its part, the Indian security establishment wouldn’t quite shut the door on the BNP’s face. There are reports that a section of the BNP leadership has had parlays with Indian intelligence officers in at least one Southeast Asian country over the last couple of months. These meetings have not been without strings attached, but they do indicate that New Delhi would prefer to keep its options open and not limit itself to leaning on one party, especially at a time when its influence in other countries in South Asia has eroded substantially. The BNP team returned to Dhaka with the assurance that there could be other meetings in the future.
Speaking to this writer over phone, Chowdhury said that “elections will be held alright”, but he expressed reservations on “the kind and quality of such an exercise” which he described the Awami League’s “election project”. He, however, cautioned that it “would not be in India’s interest to “put all its eggs in one basket” at a time when the Sheikh Hasina government has taken recourse to “enforced disappearances” of political rivals, imposition of false cases and arrests on a regular basis.