Why is India advocating for stability instead of democracy in Bangladesh

In the very beginning I want to draw the readers’ attention to two news reports published this week. The first one is a report Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha carried on 17 December. In the report the BSS quoted former Indian State Minister for External Affairs, MJ Akbar as saying “Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is victorious in the second Liberation War in Bangladesh. She has freed the country from autocracy.”

Akbar was the key speaker in a discussion titled ‘Bangladesh’s Achievements in 52 Years and Its Place in the Region and Beyond in the Coming Decades’ at the Foreign Service Academy. About the upcoming election he said he observes excellent festivity here as the democratic process continues in Bangladesh.

The second news is about the remarks of a former Indian diplomat that was passed in an event organised by a newspaper in Dhaka on 18 December. Former Indian High Commissioner in Bangladesh Pankaj Saran has said, “The people of the country will decide who will be elected through the electoral process of Bangladesh.” He also stated, “The most important thing for the people of Bangladesh is that they have to understand that one must join the election.” Pankaj said, “India wants democracy, but we don’t export democracy. Every country has its own model of democracy, and we recognise that model.”

Against this, just recall how the foreign ministry, the ruling party leaders and supporters for the last one year had been giving statements over the interference of foreigners in Bangladesh elections. All those quotes cannot be mentioned here in this short article. Although MJ Akbar held the post of state minister till 2018, he is not a professional diplomat. Rather, he is an active politician of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A question can be raised as to why it was necessary to hear appreciations of the head of our government from a foreign politician during the election period in the Foreign Service Academy.

Is democracy avoidable for the sake of so-called stability? The danger of communalism in the mainstream politics of Bangladesh cannot be denied. Can this danger be ignored in India?

MJ Akbar practised journalism for long before joining politics. He is supposed to know that Narendra Modi is probably the only head of a government who asked to vote for Donald Trump against Joe Biden in the US presidential election saying “Abki baar, Trump Sarkar!”. It is hard to say whether MJ Akbar would have talked about his delight observing the democratic process in Bangladesh had he read a report Times of India carried under the title ‘Tens of thousands attend Bangladesh opposition rally calling for government to resign’.

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Certainly the government has proved that it does not do anything during the election to influence the election by entertaining the BJP leader at the state expenditure!

Maybe the government has no direct role in the visit of Pankaj Saran. But whether the remarks of a foreigner on our internal affairs is tantamount to interference, certainly the responsibility of justifying that cannot be denied. Why will he recognise in advance an election saying ‘own model of democracy’ at a time when Bangladesh’s election is boycotted by the oppositions and seat distribution among the ruling party and its allies is being criticised at home and abroad?

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In this regard we can remember that when all the parties were on the way to boycott elections demanding a caretaker government in December 2013, Pankaj Saran was the Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka at that time and his superior, foreign secretary Sujata Singh, arrived in Dhaka and requested Jatiya Party chairman General (retd.) HM Ershad to participate in the elections.

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Earlier, Jatiya Party formed a grand alliance with Awami League led 14-party alliance in 2006. Despite that the party wanted to boycott the election as there was no environment for a fair and credible election. But at last Awami League could bring the Jatiya Party in the election leaving 40 seats in the 5 January election. Still there is a controversy over the matter. Although General Ershad sent letters for withdrawal of candidature, the Lalmonirhat returning officer did not accept that and Raushan Ershad decided to join the election. Later, Raushan took the seat of the opposition leader in parliament. Ershad in his lifetime disclosed the truth that his party took part in the election under pressure.

In that election, 153 candidates were elected unopposed on the day of nomination withdrawal on 13 December. As a result, one-third of the voters did not get the opportunity to franchise. An attempt was made to show competition in the remaining seats. For that, public works minister Abdul Mannan Khan and member of parliament in Dhaka Jalal Mohiuddin were defeated by the rebel candidates.

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There is hardly any difference between the forthcoming 12th parliamentary election with that of 2014 except one thing. The difference is the ruling Awami League’s party approved independent candidates. At that time the government could persuade 17 parties to join the election. This time the number of parties have increased to 29, most of whom exist in papers only. That is why now the focus is on showing the negotiated seat sharing as competitive.

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Just like the ruling BJP and the Indian government, the opinions the intellectuals and journalists of that country have been expressing in their media are nothing but the repetitions of their government’s outlook and policies. More surprising is that they are considering the necessity of stability in the neighbouring country, in other words the continuation of the incumbent government ignoring the principles of multiple opinions and tolerance, which are the basics of democracy. Although it is only the national interest of India, they are campaigning that it is essential for Bangladesh too.

Some instances can be cited. In First post, journalist Utpal Kumar wrote that the US should understand the result of their test for democracy in Bangladesh will be like the disaster of the ‘Arab Spring’ in the Middle East. After two days of the publishing of this opinion, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova alleged that the US is likely to destabilise the situation in Bangladesh along the lines of ‘Arab Spring’ after the election.

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In the Print, journalist Deep Halder wrote that to the minorities the Awami League is like the last hope for the sinking people. He brought allegations of rehabilitating Jamaat-e-Islami. Imankalyan Lahiri, a professor of international relations at Jadavpur University, said liberal voices will be silenced if Awami League cannot hold on to power. He told the South China Morning Post published from Singapore that if the government of Sheikh Hasina falls, the democratic and secular values in Bangladesh will be at stake, which is a problem for solidarity in South Asia.

These explanations are not only confusing but also an attempt to influence the election from the outside. The main problem of their statements is that they have assumed the revival of democracy in Bangladesh means the change of power. Secondly, the US is supporting the opposition and wants to put them in power. Thirdly, the anti-government movement means the rehabilitation of Jamaat-e-Islami and consequently reemergence of Islamic militancy. None of these are, however, objective or based on information. Rather these are the reflections of their political will and opinion. Above all, India itself is taking the side of the ruling party alleging that the US is supporting the opposition. Can they deny that?

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Then, is democracy avoidable for the sake of so-called stability? The danger of communalism in the mainstream politics of Bangladesh cannot be denied. Can this danger be ignored in India? It is the communal politics that has been dominating the mainstream politics in India for over a decade. Does that have no influence on regional stability? Do they agree to realise that the election in Bangladesh is only a matter of Bangladesh and they are not even supposed to say this?

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

** This op-ed, originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam