Bangladesh’s ruling party, Awami League (AL), recently sent high-level delegations to India and China to talk to the ruling parties in these countries. These meetings assume significance in the context of the Bangladesh parliamentary elections due in January 2024 in which Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League will be seeking a third consecutive term under challenging conditions.

On Monday, an AL delegation met the BJP President J.P.Nadda in New Delhi. It was led by party Presidium member and Agriculture Minister Md. Abdur Razzaque, said to be a key personality in the party. Its other members were: Joint-General Secretary and Information and Broadcasting Minister Hassan Mahmud, Organising Secretary Sujit Roy Nandi, Aroma Dutta, MP, and Prof. Marina Jahan, MP.

In May, an AL delegation met the head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Liu Jianchao. It was led by Muhammad Faruk Khan, Presidium member of the AL and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The AL delegation assured Nadda that Prime Minister Hasina has “zero tolerance” towards terrorism. On his part, the BJP President said that his party is eager to work with the AL “for the sake of political stability and curbing terrorism in the region as in the past.”

On AL’s meeting with the CPC in China, Xinhua said that the two sides exchanged views on “strengthening institutionalized communication between the two parties, promoting nation-building, safeguarding regional peace and stability and the common interests of developing countries.”

For the AL, expressions of support from the BJP and CPC will definitely be a psychological booster. But India and China would rather wait and watch events in Bangladesh for the next five months and shape their policies accordingly.

Importance of India and China

The AL delegations’ talks with the BJP and CPC have to be seen in the context of the importance of India and China in the economy and the politics of Bangladesh.

India is a major trading partner and aid giver to Bangladesh. The bilateral trade in 2021-2022 amounted to US$ 15.5 billion. India has also given Bangladesh Lines of Credit totalling US$ 8 billion. As for China, it is one of the largest sources of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Bangladesh with investments totalling US$ 9.75 billion in infrastructure projects. Around 1,000 Chinese enterprises in operation in Bangladesh have generated 550,000 employment opportunities. Bangladesh joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2016.

Sheikh Hasina has been cultivating both India and China adroitly and gaining from both.

However, India and China are economic and strategic rivals in Bangladesh trying to shape Bangladesh’s decisions in their favour.. For this, both need a friendly regime in Dhaka. But this poses a perpetual challenge to Bangladesh.

Hasina’s Political Weakening

Today, Hasina is in a weak position. Despite ensuring impressive economic growth, she has messed up her political chances due to bad governance. Given the growing democracy deficit and unemployment, Hasina could be fighting the 2024 polls with her back to the wall.

While the GDP grew at 6.8%, unemployment grew at 6.9% when previously, unemployment had been at a manageable 4.5%.

Though the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is organizationally weak, with its leader Khaleda Zia being very ill and having been in prison for corruption for years, it still can get the votes of the disillusioned and disgruntled sections of the population which are burgeoning. The BNP’s recent street demonstrations have drawn impressive participation.

Boycott Call

But a major flaw in the BNP’s stance is that it is still sticking to the condition that it will not contest elections in the absence of a neutral Caretaker Government, a condition that the AL considers unconstitutional.

However, the BNP is under inner-party pressure to contest. Some of its members have left to join the Bangladesh Development Party (BDP) that is going to contest. Given the incumbency factor, the opposition, in whatever form, could seriously dent the AL’s support base if it tried resolutely.

Democracy Deficit

On Bangladesh’s flawed democracy, The Daily Star editor, Mahfuz Anam’s indictment is telling. In a recent piece, he said: “We may have dug the first under-river tunnel in South Asia, built a bridge over one of the mightiest and toughest of rivers in the world, made virtual revolution in agriculture and other sectors, caught up with modern cities in building metro, elevated expressway, etc., yet we have not progressed even an inch with our democracy. This is where we have failed ourselves most miserably.”

“ The sad state of our parliament, which has transformed from being the House of the People to nothing more than an extension of the government of the day, exemplifies this failure most dramatically. Democracy remains totally under the thumb of the party that forms the government and defines what is and what is not democracy. It remains violence-ridden where freedom of expression is totally compromised by the fear of laws like the Digital Security Act and where the culture of dissent is demonised to an extent that dissenters are seen as enemies rather than as integral to the democratic process.”

“One of the most dangerous aspects of power is that those who wield it for long become used to their own make-believe world. It starts with them denying the truth and leads to them believing their own rhetoric. As they keep on claiming nothing is wrong, they soon start believing ‘we can do nothing wrong.”

“This is when civil society, grassroots level NGOs, professional think tanks and independent media become the enemy, whose views are not only rejected but also suppressed and their institutions demonised,”

However, Anam admits that when the BNP was in power in 1991-1996 and 2001-2006, it behaved in the same way. No AL-affiliated student could live in the Dhaka University dormitories for example. When AL returned to power in 2008, the tables were turned.

Western Pressure

However, thanks to Western pressure, there have been some changes for the better and Hasina may be forced to med her ways and hold free elections.

The sanctioning of some top officers of the Rapid Action Brigade (RAB) by the US, brought down incidents of extra-judicial killings and kidnappings.

On May 23, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new visa policy vis-a-vis Bangladesh to make Bangladesh hold free, fair and peaceful elections.

The new policy states that the US would “restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh,” including “current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services.”

The policy lists actions that would undermine the election process. These include “vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views.”

The visa ban threat will certainly pinch Bangladesh’s ruling class who for understandable reasons, greatly value a US visa.

Digital Security Act   

The government on Monday said that it would repeal the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) and replace it with a modified Cyber Security Act (CSA). Law Minister Anisul Huq said that journalists will be fined for defamation, and not sentenced to imprisonment under CSA.

However, Amnesty International warned that the government must ensure that the Cyber Security Act does not rehash the same repressive features of the DSA. The primary concern about the Digital Security Act was its inclusion of several non-bailable provisions. The Law Minister has assured that the non-bailable sections will be revised.