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Bangladesh: Should Anti-incumbency Outweigh Growth and Stability?

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 22, 2013

    The history of electoral politics in Bangladesh has been quite interesting especially so after the restoration of democracy in 1990. The country has never returned the same government. As a result both the major political parties in the country – the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have been alternating in power. This has also made opposition parties launch vigourous movements on the eve of elections with the hope of coming to power. This trend has however created hurdles for peaceful elections or smooth transfer of power.

    The same trend again is being witnessed as the term of the present government is to end on January 24, 2014. Sensing the possibility of return to power, the BNP is already on the streets creating furore over the issue of the caretaker government and war crime trials. It has been further emboldened in its effort by certain opinion polls, though one does not know their accuracy, which gives the party an upper hand in the coming elections. Though it is for the people of Bangladesh to decide who to elect, the important question is whether anti-incumbency should outweigh growth and stability and should a well performing government be penalised just because it has been in power for the last five years. This issue is important because the choice made by the Bangladeshi electorate is not going to affect only Bangladesh but the South Asian region as a whole.

    The Awami League government may not have done everything right in the last five years, but it has done commendable work by South Asian standards. The Bangladesh economy has grown consistently at the rate of around six per cent. The inflation, in general, and the food inflation in particular, has been under check. The successful economic management of the country has led to the Bangladesh currency Taka actually appreciating against both the dollar and the Indian rupee, without declining exports for Bangladesh. What it meant was cheap imports from India for Bangladeshi people. It also meant more goods and services for Bangladeshi people travelling to India.

    The remittance of Bangladesh has continued to grow. The country now has significant foreign exchange reserves. Last year, the country had positive trade balance, a rarity in the post liberation Bangladesh. The manpower export of the country has grown regularly. Bangladeshi workers are sought after in Gulf countries and in Malaysia. Investment has grown in the country.

    The country has also done equally well in the area of security. Unlike Pakistan and Afghanistan where extremism threatens to gobble the state system, Bangladesh has contained these forces. After coming to power, Sheikh Hasina took steps which checked the growth of extremism. A clear policy direction has enabled the security forces to act against such elements. This was in contrast to what was happening during the rule of four-party alliance government led by the BNP. For example, Sheikh Hasina government allowed the police to bust international terror modules of Lashkar-e-Toiba (also known as Jama'at-ud-Da'awa) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). It also busted many modules of the indigenous terror groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

    The Sheikh Hasina government also took action against Indian insurgent groups, especially the major insurgent groups active in the northeast India. Resultantly, the security situation in the northeast India has perceptibly improved. Because of such firm action against extremists and terrorism, Sheikh Hasina has been able to build trust and goodwill with India resulting in a peaceful period of five years. This has also possibly attributed to the high economic growth of Bangladesh. Not surprisingly, many international rating agencies see Bangladesh as an emerging tiger economy.

    The last five years of Awami League rule has been unlike the previous rule of the four-party alliance, where parties like Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh consciously tried to encourage Islamist forces. Jamaat even today refuses to acknowledge the legislative power of Bangladeshi parliament. It also refuses to acknowledge the equality of women before law. The party has till date not nominated even one female candidate and no woman can head this organisation. It is interesting to note that parties like the BNP who despite being headed by a woman have chosen to ally with Jamaat.

    The election commission of Bangladesh has deregistered Jamaat for its regressive ideology, but the BNP has still not shunned partnership with them. In fact, it is being helped by the Jamaat cadres in the ongoing political strikes that is being organised by the party. BNP has also taken the help of the Hefajat-e-Islam, a radical quami madarsa based organisation, which is another front of Jamaat to further its political ambitions.

    The politics followed by the BNP and Jamaat might give them short-term political dividend, but it may not be in the larger interest of Bangladesh or the region, which is already facing huge challenges against extremism. Today the politics of Bangladesh is at the crossroads and the secular and pro-liberation forces are pitted against extremist and anti-liberation forces. The verdict of Bangladesh elections will not only decide the political future of Bangladesh but will also leave a major impact on the security situation in south Asia.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.