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A Year of Revival of Democracy in Bangladesh

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 29, 2010

    The Shaikh Hasina government in Bangladesh recently completed a year in office. This had prompted many people both in Bangladesh as well as outside the country to make an assessment of the performance of her government. There is greater interest this time because Hasina government had come to office following the prolonged spell of a caretaker government. Hasina has not disappointed the Bangladeshi people during this period, but a year is too short a period to bring about any drastic change in the country.

    The most prominent achievement of the Shaikh Hasina government has been in fighting terrorism. When Shaikh Hasina came to power Islamist forces were staring Bangladesh in the face. The country was also used by Indian insurgent groups for launching terror operations. Immediately after taking over Hasina made clear that she will not allow terror to have a free run in the country and delivered on this promise. Domestically, action was taken against Islamist forces. The Awami League government also acted against Indian insurgent groups and handed over all top leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). This was a clear message to other terror outfits to close shop and look for other alternatives. These actions of the government have put a check on Bangladesh’s slide into terrorism. During the rule of four-party alliance Bangladesh had become a conduit of arms smuggling and staging ground for terrorists. The Hasina government has also taken steps to check arms smuggling and bring to book people involved in earlier cases of arms trafficking.

    The government was successful on the foreign policy front too. Shaikh Hasina visited several countries including Bhutan. She addressed the UN General Assembly last September. A new beginning was made in the relationship with India due to visits of foreign minister, Dipu Moni and the subsequent visit of Shaikh Hasina herself. While a close relationship with China has continued the country also improved ties with the US and Europe. Bangladesh successfully highlighted the problem of climate change at international fora. It was represented at Copenhagen climate change conference by a hundred strong delegations. Shaikh Hasina herself visited Copenhagen during the conference and addressed it. Bangladesh managed to present its case successfully and stands to benefit from help offered by the international community.

    The Awami League government has strengthened its pro-poor image by ensuring good performance in agriculture sector by giving farmers regular power supply. This was noteworthy in a country which has an acute shortage of power. This will help the party keep its rural base intact. However, the government faces a major challenge to keep food prices low while ensuring a reasonable profit for farmers.

    The global financial meltdown was handled effectively. Bangladesh maintained its average growth rate of five to six percent. The Bangladesh economy registered a 5.9 per cent GDP growth in FY2008-09. It was among the few countries which kept growing despite the slowdown. The financial sector in Bangladesh showed its strength and made reasonable profits. Bangladeshis working abroad sent home a record 3.61 billion dollars in remittances in the first four months of the current fiscal, registering a 21.24 percent growth over the same period in the last fiscal period. This rise in remittances showed confidence of expatriates in the domestic banking system.

    Though some may argue that the country did not manage to attract enough FDI and imports of capital goods remained low, it would be useful to note that progress in these areas depends on prolonged political stability and no government can do that in a short span of time.

    There are also several challenges before the government. The country faces a major shortage of power. Power is needed for domestic consumption and also for industrial production. The present supply of power is insufficient for existing industries. In such a situation it is difficult to encourage people to establish new industries.

    The country would also be looking for massive infrastructural development. For this the India’s offer of a one billion dollar credit line could be useful. The Bangladesh government is also planning to sign a similar agreement with China.

    Domestic politics however did not improve. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) continued with its boycott of the parliament. The opening session of the ninth parliament had generated some hope of a productive session. Now it is quite clear that there is no change in the political culture of the country and the lessons learnt during the prolonged caretaker government have been conveniently forgotten. The Awami League has been different in one sense in that it constituted several standing committees of parliament and gave chairmanship to opposition parties, but that has not been sufficient to satisfy the opposition. The BNP led opposition is boycotting parliament on ten issues, none of which benefit the people.

    The last one year of democracy in Bangladesh has once again made clear to the world that both Shaikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia remain supreme in their respective parties. To the credit of Shaikh Hasina she managed the foreign policy of Bangladesh as well as macro economic situation of the country well. However, we should not forget that the last one year has been generally free from natural catastrophes for Bangladesh. Though a mutiny within the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) occurred, it was successfully overcome. Shaikh Hasina government must be appreciated for acting decisively against terrorism and making a new beginning in the area of counter-terrorism in South Asia.