Nearing elections, political unrest in Bangladesh

The Government-Opposition stand-off in Dhaka will have consequences for electoral democracy, may impact civil-military relations

If it were not for the grim reality of acute political and economic crises in Dhaka, the celebrations around India and Bangladesh “scripting a new chapter in connectivity” would mean a lot more. Prime ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina’s joint inauguration of the Akhaura-Agartala rail link, the Khulna-Mongla port link, and Unit-II of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant mark success in a subcontinent characterised by economic disconnect. Such deepening of infrastructural connectivity inevitably raises India’s stakes in Bangladesh’s politics. Occurring in the backdrop of escalating violence, it also raises the concomitant question, where is Bangladesh headed politically with parliament elections likely in January?

Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) personnel stand guard during a nationwide strike called by Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami in Dhaka on October 29.(AFP)
Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) personnel stand guard during a nationwide strike called by Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami in Dhaka on October 29.(AFP)

From Hasina refusing dialogue with the Awami League’s (AL) principal opponent, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to the latter continuing its street agitation demanding a pre-poll caretaker government despite State-led crackdowns, politics in Bangladesh has evolved along expected lines. Even the deaths of police personnel and protestors in clashes at the October 28 Opposition rally, though unfortunate, are part of a familiar trend. But away from the more visible manifestations of this standoff, there has been a movement that indicates a deepening, and widening, of Bangladesh’s political crisis.

The first is in the civil-military sphere; the second is within the civil sphere. Let’s start with the second point first. In the last 12 months, the BNP has demonstrated the capability to continually mobilise large-scale nationwide protests, endure police crackdowns, capitalise politically on widespread discontent against Hasina’s regime, project itself as a secular-liberal actor by at least publicly disassociating from the Jamaat-e-Islami and mobilise considerable diplomatic support in the West. Critically, it was disciplined enough to not use violence, despite the AL’s deliberate provocations and the Chhatra League’s street action.

The BNP’s protest tactics have begun to shift. If the recent clashes signal anything, then it is that the BNP can, and will, respond to State-led violence with violence of its own. Hasina’s continual targeting of the Opposition as being violent, or causing disruption, is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Driven by an avoidable breakdown of inter-party dialogue, and unceasing governmental pressure, the BNP is not just resisting with force on the street but also imposing transport blockades, grinding life to a halt in parts of the country. In itself, such violence is not a game-changer. But the image trap that it creates can be debilitating.

Both sides imagine that they can prevail over the other. The AL believes the use of force and mounting casualties in the Opposition camp will rupture party supremo Tarique Rahman’s command and control over the BNP. Such a prospect could influence Rahman to return to Dhaka for reasons of political survival and face incarceration, or forever be condemned to the ignominy of exile. In this worldview, the BNP’s experiment with force is akin to falling into a trap of Hasina’s making.

The exact opposite is equally true. The BNP believes it is Hasina who is falling into the Opposition’s trap. Facing public discontent in the face of a deeply felt cost-of-living crisis, unable to arrest economic decline with forex reserves plummeting by half to $21 billion from $42 billion in July 2022, and under pressure from Washington DC and European capitals over democratic backsliding, Hasina has been reduced to crushing dissent using force. Such clampdowns help the BNP’s image as being a disciplined force that is defending itself from AL henchmen and the police.

From Rahman’s viewpoint, Hasina is cornered enough to either step down or engage in violence triggering wider civil strife. The former can enable the formation of a caretaker government, but the latter could invite military intervention. The army’s re-entry into politics is unlikely to benefit the BNP substantially, but it could even the playing field in Rahman’s favour.

This takes us to the point of the evolving civil-military dynamics. There have been a series of odd developments that hint the garrison is becoming restive. The first was an order to all on-duty and off-duty military personnel in Chittagong to deposit their firearms by 6 am on October 28. This was when the Opposition planned protests and Hasina was visiting Chittagong. Hasina has visited BNP strongholds, including Chittagong in recent months, but didn’t issue such orders then. Whatever the real reason for such an unusual order, something has changed in the past few weeks.

The second is the arrest of Lieutenant General (retired) Hasan Sarawardi for helping organise a press conference at the BNP’s office where someone posed as United States President Joe Biden’s “advisor”. The detention of opponents, including politically active retired officers, is not uncommon in Bangladesh. But to charge a senior officer who was once poised to become chief of army staff of treason shortly after the Chittagong order seems ominous. Herein, the recent reshuffling of the top brass and empowering intra-army loyalists offers context. Whether Hasina is exercising control or being paranoid will become clear sooner or later. What it does show for sure is that Bangladeshi politics is charged up enough for even a small trigger to unleash wider dislocation.

To make the most of the infrastructural projects that India has developed with Bangladesh during Hasina’s rule, New Delhi will need to deftly navigate Dhaka’s broken politics. Though done for historical reasons, India’s pro-Hasina partisanship is suboptimal. But the risk now is that Dhaka is re-entering a territory where diversification of ties with the Opposition might also be too little, too late.

The best way to ensure that India preserves some positive equities, and is not compelled to explore high-cost coercive options, is to craft an impartial position that leaves the door open to reconciliation with the numerous India critics in Bangladesh after the storm passes.