Test of Awami League in Teesta water sharing
To win the next election, the Awami League desperately wants India to clear the Teesta river and land boundary pacts
The comprehensive defeat of Awami League candidates in five-city corporation polls in June-July has raised the spectre of a regime change in Bangladesh. The trend of anti-incumbency seems to have dogged the Awami League since its Chittagong mayor A B M Mohiuddin lost out barely a year after the party’s landslide in the December 2008 parliament polls. But the defeats in June-July, barely five-six months before parliament polls are due in Bangladesh, provide cause for serious introspection.
That concern also extends to India whose position could dramatically change if Sheikh Hasina and the League are voted out of power and an Islamist regime with the Jamaat-e-Islami in the coalition assumes power. Foreign minister Dipu Moni warned during her Delhi visit that the Awami League would suffer if India did not go ahead with the Teesta river water-sharing treaty and implement the land boundary agreement, that is stuck in Parliament with the BJP and some regional parties opposing it.
No government in Bangladesh has lasted more than a term since the country returned to demo-cracy from military rule in the early 1990s. Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party has been in power for two terms as has Hasina’s Awami League.
But while the victories in the 1990s were by narrow margins, the League’s mandate in the December 2008 polls was massive. The party won 230 of the 300 seats with its allies bagging more than 30 seats — the most resounding mandate for the Awami League since independence.
So what is going wrong for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister? Hasina led the Awami League to a landslide in December 2008 because Bangladeshis were desperate to end the violent and corrupt regime of Begum Khaleda Zia backed by her ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had emerged as the organising platform for a plethora of Islamist militants like ‘Bangla Bhai’ who carved out Taliban-style turfs, killing judges and journalists, attacking foreign diplomats and anybody who contested their writ.
The Awami League suffered the worst as scores of its top leaders, including former ministers, were killed and the entire top leadership nearly wiped out in a bomb attack on a party rally that left Hasina injured as well.
The global media started to write off Bangladesh as the next Afghanistan. The neutral army-backed caretaker government exceeded its brief of holding polls within a few months by staying in power for two years, causing huge resentment in an electorate dominated by young voters. In a country created by a powerful Bengali identity built around language and culture rather than religion, the revulsion against Islamic radicalism became evident at the ballot box.
As Hasina announced the war crimes trials to punish the leading collaborators of the Pakistan army in 1971 (mostly from the Jamaat), the nation appeared united in support. When Jamaat’s Abdul Quader Molla got away with a life sentence, Bangladeshis flocked to Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square in an unusual display of anger.
Later, the organisers of the Shahbagh protest called for a ban on the religion-driven politics of the Jamaat-e-Islami and even sought nationalising of its commercial institutions like the Islami Bank. The Islamic right, desperate for survival, hit back with a relatively unknown group, the Hifazat-e-Islam, organising a Chittagong-Dhaka long march. Hasina had to order tough police action to drive the Hifazat men away, provoking wild speculations about ‘thousands killed’.
It was perhaps a mistake for Hasina to forcibly stop the Shahbagh demonstrations which disillusioned her huge secularist vote bank even as the Islamic right was on a counteroffensive.
The five-city municipal polls also revealed that rampant corruption, endemic factionalism and weak leadership caused the Awami League defeats. Scams, like the one at the stock markets, or pauperisation of tens of thousand by Ponzi firms that enjoyed ruling party support were coupled with unbridled factional feuds.
At Gazipur, where the Awami League lost the mayoral elections, the prime minister had to intervene to get a rebel candidate to withdraw at the last moment but she kept questioning the party’s choice of candidate even during the campaign. In Barisal, the sitting Awami League mayor blamed his defeat on a powerful leader and Hasina’s relative Hasnat Abdullah. The picture was no different in the other cities.
The Awami League’s organisation is now led by rookies whose loyalty to Sheikh Hasina is valued more than their abilities. Hasina has marginalised the entire old guard of the party and leaders like Tofail Ahmed, Amir Hossain Amu and Suranjit Sengupta have been consigned to the sidelines. It is time for the League not only to put up a united face as a party but also as the vanguard of all pro-Liberation secular forces with the old guard back to lead it in the tough poll battle ahead.
The Hasina regime has been great news for India. Her security concerns have been largely addressed with crackdowns against rebels from India’s northeast. Bangladesh has also promised use of the Chittagong port, already allowing Tripura to bring in foodgrains through it. Indian investments in Bangladesh are on the rise.
The choice for India is unambiguous: to squabble over a few hundred acres of territory or bargain for a government in Dhaka which will raise the hackles for India. Because, without Teesta and the land boundary agreement, Hasina will face the charge of having done much for India without getting anything in return. In a recent media survey, most Indians voted Bangladesh as the country they trust most. But will Bangladeshis find India a good enough neighbour to trust? Not if New Delhi fails to deliver on Teesta and the land boundary agreement.
The writer is senior editor of the Dhaka-based bdnews24.com