Why is Bangladesh election being discussed in Delhi?

At the foreign and defence minister level discussion between India and USA held at Delhi, the Bangladesh election issue was discussed. There are three questions in this backdrop. First, why was it necessary to discuss at Delhi about how the election in Bangladesh will be held? Second, when did the interest and enthusiasm of the foreigners about Bangladesh politics become an ‘involvement’? And third, what will the future be of this involvement of foreigners. This is the first part of a two-part discussion on the issue

US secretary of state Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh participate in a family photo as part of the so-called "2+2 Dialogue" at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Sushma Swaraj Bhavan (SSB) in New Delhi, India, 10 November 2023.

The discussion between India and USA about the election of Bangladesh at New Delhi in a sense shows that the opportunity of deciding their own fates is no longer in the hands of the Bangladeshi citizens. The those in power did not turn a hair. The obvious question arises, how independent is the Bangladesh government? (Mahfuz Anam, The Daily Star Bangla, 6 October 2023). After the discussion between the US and India, apparently a kind of hope has sprung up among the leaders and activists of Awami League.

The basis of their hope is a comment of Indian foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra at the press conference after the bilateral meeting. He said, “We put forward our point of view about Bangladesh very clearly. Bangladesh election is their internal matter. The people of that country will make decisions about their future. We respect the democratic process of Bangladesh as a friend and partner state. (BBC Bangla, 10 November, 2023).

This comment and the absence of Bangladesh in the statement that was published after the bilateral discussions proved false the claim of ruling party general secretary Obaidul Quader, “There has been an understanding behind the scenes. Delhi is there and the US needs Delhi. As Delhi is there, so are we.” (Daily Star Bangla, 3 October 2023). Perhaps the incumbents were worried that India may change its stance due to its proximity with the US.

As this did not happen, Awami League activists are implying that the stance of India about the forthcoming election will be the same as it was when they safeguarded the ruling party in the 2014 and 2018 elections. Their hope and their strategy is that even if the forthcoming election is gerrymandered or not credible, India will still safeguard them. Obaidul Quader said, "There's nothing to worry about." It was as if he was implying that the support of Delhi is enough for to remain in power in Bangladesh.

The reason for such words is the lack of balance in relations with India, which has started since the Awami League came to power in 2009. Bangladesh's foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said in August last year, "I went to India and said that Sheikh Hasina must be remain in power. I have requested the government of India to do whatever it takes to keep Sheikh Hasina in power.' (BBC Bangla, 19 August 2022).

These words are not mere rhetoric. The reason for the dependence on India is the internal politics and governance of Bangladesh. Over the last decade or so, the opposition has been suppressed, democratic processes and institutions have been virtually destroyed, freedom of expression has been curtailed, and citizens' fundamental voting rights have been trampled upon, leaving the country bereft of inclusive politics.

It was seen in the 2014 and 2018 elections that the ruling party had not only succeeded in keeping political parties out of elections, but also the voters, the biggest stakeholder in any election. As a result, it is unlikely that the voters will be able to vote in the election in 2024 in the name of constitutional obligation. An electoral system is required that can reduce the monopoly of the ruling party and its control over the administration and law enforcement.

The opposition parties have been demanding this for long. A large part of the country’s citizens also thinks so as is evident from a poll conducted by the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) which shows that 44 percent of people say that the caretaker government needs to be reinstated. In 2011, it was unilaterally canceled in favour of the ruling party. An additional 25 per cent of the people feel that elections should be held under an all-party government. In other words, 69 percent of people think that elections will not be free and fair in the existing system.

The leaders and activists of the ruling party ignored this demand by saying that there would be fair and free elections under them. There are countless examples of that being impossible. It has been reflected in the two by-elections held recently. The Election Commission, without taking responsibility for these failures, is in tune with the ruling party and says, "The elections must be held at any cost." (Kalbela, 10 November 2023).

In the past, the Election Commission and the ruling party trashed democracy and voting rights as the 'cost of elections'. If the Election Commission considers the dispersal of the BNP rally on 28 October by law and order forces, mass arrests, cases and harassment of BNP leaders and activists, and continued violence as 'at any cost' and considers it a democratic process, only then it is possible to say that the election must be held ‘at any cost.’

Where is the relevance of India in discussions of Bangladesh’s internal politics? One may question that. Since 2009 India’s point of view is that this kind of election and governance is the democracy of Bangladesh. The Indian foreign secretary said, "Bangladesh's election is their internal matter. The people of that country will make decisions about their own future." But it is seen in various analyses of Indian media and YouTube after 24 May, when the US announced visa policy, that they want to keep their support for the Sheikh Hasina-led government in any situation. (Ali Riaz, Bangladesh Election 2024: What role will India play?, Atlantic Council, 15 June 2023).

During such arguments, they bring forward the question of India's national interests and security, but there is no way to forget that, in the last nine years, India got anything and everything that they sought from Bangladesh. This unequal relationship was established because those in power did not rely on the mandate of the people. A large part of the economic and security benefits that India has enjoyed, would have been in question if free, fair elections and inclusive politics were present.

This influence of India has spread in the South Asia region after US disinterest and observed Bangladesh politics through the lens of India since 2001. The US considered India as its representative in this part of the world to combat the influence of China. But that was not effective. The latest example of this is the victory of ‘pro-Chinese’ Mohamed Muizzu in Maldives’ presidential election. In the last few years USA could comprehend that the success of India is tiny as far as combating the influence of China is concerned, that is true even regarding Bangladesh.

Despite that rather than democracy in Bangladesh, India prefers such a government in Bangladesh whose mandate would be questionable and thus the regime depends on India. Due to such dependence and the geographical position a large part of the Bangladeshi citizens thinks, if the support of India is lessened from Awami League, the attitude of the latter will be changed. The regime is also aware of this fact. For that reason, Obaidul Quader says without any hesitation, “As Delhi is there, so are we. There is nothing to worry about.”

Bangladesh will be able to pursue a balanced foreign policy as whoever comes to power through a participatory election and the possibility of change of power in future elections if the democratic process continues. One of the cornerstones of this balanced foreign policy would be to make Bangladesh look East rather than considering the country as a country 'surrounded by India'. Leveraging the geopolitical importance of the Bay of Bengal to link the economies of developing India and the Pacific Ocean with the region's geography and security infrastructure. It is noteworthy that India has framed its foreign and security policies accordingly. But in the case of Bangladesh, India's view is that the political dependence of Bangladesh should be on India.

Apparently, the US position is the opposite; The message given by the US in the last one and a half to two years is that the foreign policy of the country should be taken by the mandated government through the democratic process. If the democratic process continues, the majority of citizens will take a stand against authoritarian ideals, which will be reflected not only in domestic politics, but also in foreign policy.

The negotiations in New Delhi are not negotiations between adversaries; India and the USA are close allies. But the need for this discussion has arisen due to the differences in the perspectives of the two countries in terms of regional and global considerations. There India stated its position; There is no sign that the US agrees with them. It remains to be seen what steps the US will take in this context.

In the internal politics of Bangladesh, such a system has been established, where the paths of the people of Bangladesh to determine their own destiny have been made so narrow and uneven, and behind it, the support and interests of India are dominant. That's why Bangladesh is absent in the discussion about how the election of Bangladesh will be, and foreigners are deciding the course.

*Tomorrow the second part: Why is foreign involvement in Bangladesh politics, what lies ahead?

*Ali Riaz Distinguished Professor at the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, USA, a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS).

*This op-ed appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Syed Faiz Ahmed