Bangladesh – A Long And Firm March Towards Prosperity

Preparing to hug the half-century milestone, Bangladesh this month celebrated with aplomb its 49th Bijoy Divas or the Victory Day. On that day in 1971, over 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Joint Command of India and Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini forces, permanently altering the world map.

That slice of history may mean many things to many people today. But to succeeding generations of those who went through political turmoil followed by ten months of organised violence, and ending in a decisive military victory, remains and shall remain forever an extraordinary moment.

The parade marking the occasion showed a confident Bangladesh. Military hardware was proudly displayed on the ground and in the sky. That combined with floats and tableaux of projects, programmes and achievements made for an impressive show.

Indian veterans led by Lt. Gen. (rtd.) R S Kadian marched and so did a contingent and band of the National Cadet Corps (NCC). It struck Muhammad Iqbal’s musical note, “Saare Jahan Se Achha,” that harks back to an undivided South Asia.

Bangladesh has assigned itself a two-year tryst by which time it will complete 50 years of independence. It wants the world to notice its rise from being dubbed the “international basket case” in initial years to become, at annual 8.5 percent gross domestic product (GDP) rise, one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Putting its cheap work force to good use and with many plus points that have eluded most others among the least-developed countries (LDCs), Bangladesh has all the makings of a developing nation. Out of the food scarcity rut, it is diversifying farm and industrial output and even exporting surplus.

It aims to leap into the cyber-digital era with come-hither calls to anyone who cares to respond.  With its good debt servicing record, Bangladesh is an attractive investor’s destination. Both regional giants, China and India, are wooing and being wooed.

At independence, over 90 percent of its annual budget was foreign-financed. Two decades later, it was 70 percent and was 50 percent a decade back when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned to power.

The figure has now reversed. Ninety-two percent of the budget is being funded internally. Booming garment exports, some to marquee global brands and remittances from its 10 million working abroad contribute generously.

Bangladesh has long seen itself as a bridge between South and south-east Asia. With Cox’s Bazaar beach and Royal Bengal Tigers in the Sundarban, its tourism pitch is rising. People are warm and hospitable. But much needs done to improve infrastructure.

Many of Bangladesh’s human development indicators are better than others in the region. The economy is already the best-performing in South Asia, outdoing in proportional terms larger neighbour India and certainly, Pakistan, from which it violently separated.

Due to this past, Pakistan’s image remains negative in official and much of the popular discourse. India figures high despite the current concerns over two Indian laws with bearing on its east and northeast that encase Bangladesh. If persisted, they could have political fallout.

Sheikh Hasina cherishes India ties and has diligently worked to nurture them. For one, she has ended Indian militants’ run. She appreciates India’s contribution to Liberation and thereafter. She is trying hard to keep the current political and diplomatic discourse triggered by Indian laws, to the bare-minimum, so far. This reflects self-confidence and maturing of a nation of 165 million people.

There are other signs of a young nation with young people having the highest proportion in South Asia of women in every field. Farms and garment factories are ample proof of that. Exuberant crew members want to get photographed with passengers as part of the PR effort as more and more privately run airlines fly passengers in and out.

On political front, Hasina remains firm on punishing killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s foremost leader and her father in a 1975 military-led coup, and most of her family. The West is critical of the process employed and the Islamic world is unhappy. But both can’t ignore Bangladesh.   

Ethos of the Bengali language stir of the 1950s and the freedom movement remains strong in the face of religious extremists. When these forces inflicted violence in 2013, Muslims and Hindus together fought back at Dhaka’s Shahbag Avenue. This conflict remains a constant challenge.

Bangladesh is, uniquely both. An Islamic nation that, thanks to its culture, is also broadly secular. (Secularism as basic principle remains part of its Constitution). The society as a whole remains conservative, respectful of elders and displays overt religiosity.

This complex amalgamation ensures co-existence and diversity. With that comes a high measure of political stability, due principally to Hasina’s continuance in office for a third consecutive term. She looms large over the country’s horizon. Forbes’ ranks her 29th among the world’s most powerful woman.

As investors get attracted, she has forced Western governments to ignore her hard line on political opponents, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami. Her arch rival and two-term former premier, Begun Khaleda Zia, is ailing, ageing and denied bail, currently imprisoned for graft.

There are negative indicators, too, when it comes to transparency, sanitation, ease of doing business and media freedom that, as in the rest of South Asia, should hopefully improve with longer spells of political stability.

Contradictions seemingly persist and are growing with changes in other spheres. The pristine riverine scape of the boatman and his folk songs as one read in Tagore and Nazrul literature is slowly yielding place to increasing urbanization.

A provincial capital at Independence, Dhaka has become unbearably chaotic with 24×7 traffic snarls around high-rise buildings. As bridges and fly-overs struggle to make movement faster, a rapid mass transport system now under construction shall continue to add to the chaos, till it is completed.

These are but brief, broad-brush impressions, of one who has witnessed Bangladesh for over 45 years. Handicapped by inadequate knowledge, of language in particular, they are compensated, hopefully, by best wishes for bright future for its people.

The writer recently visited Bangladesh at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

New Delhi Must Address Dhaka's Concerns

For over three decades, since 1981, the political discourse in Bangladesh has been the “Battle of 2 Begums”. Two-term prime minister Khaleda Zia whose official identity is that of  a ‘begum’ fights the three-term current incumbent, Sheikh Hasina who, despite being a devout Muslim, identifies herself with things Bengali. This is crucial in a largely Muslim society that also prides in Bengali language and culture.

Their personal (they rarely talk to each other and never share joy or grief) and political rivalries born out of differing legacies that they have inherited and perpetuated overawe Bangladesh and will continue, at least till one of them is around.

The current mood is one of intense speculation: will Begum Zia, who blundered into boycotting the last parliamentary polls and went into a politically damaging hibernation, contest the elections due this year-end or early next year?

Viewed from New Delhi, chances are that she will. This may be her last chance at political comeback. At 73, she is known to have undergone a heart surgery and has suffered joint pain for long.

Worse, she lost her younger son Arafat, said to be her favourite. He had sought exile in Singapore to escape money-laundering charges back home. Politically worst for her is the self-exile of elder son Tariq who is also wanted in Bangladesh for graft and misuse of power when the mother was the premier (2001-2006). His return would result in instant imprisonment.

An apolitical army-wife pitchforked into politics by the 1981 assassination of her husband, President Ziaur Rahman, Zia has a daunting task ahead fighting an intensely political Hasina.

Zia pursued politics, and legacy of her husband, whom India suspected of having benefitted, if not involved in, the 1975 assassination of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To carve out a separate identity free of India/West Bengal, the Zias have been adversarial towards India, leaned towards Pakistan from which Bangladesh separated and the Islamic world outside.

At home, the Islamist parties have been their natural allies. Their party, named Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has sought to define ‘nationalism’ as different from rival Awami League.

Indeed, while the husband rehabilitated Sheikh Mujib’s  killers and ended the ban on the Muslim League that had sided with Pakistani rulers, the wife aligned with that party, having League’s ministers in her government during 2001-2006. She has engaged in anti-India tirade, whether in power or out of it. Rival Hasina and her party are painted as “Indian agents.”

By a natural political corollary, she subtly leans towards Pakistan whose establishment has always wanted to undo the humiliation it suffered in 1971, of losing Bangladesh and losing militarily to India.

Under Khaleda, Islamist parties and militant bodies spread terror at the turn of this century, targeting religious minorities and the liberals. Denying their presence at for long, Zia finally acted when threatened with sanctions by the US and criticized by the world community. There were at least three recorded attempts on Hasina’s life.

As opposition parties do, the BNP is showing sudden signs of revival. This month, Zia dispatched three former lawmakers to India. The exploratory visit explains the importance of the larger neighbor, but such visits to the US and Britain cannot be ruled out.

Former Commerce Minister Amir Khosru addressed Indian think tanks and gave media interviews to emphasize that India was “mistaken” in thinking that Begum Zia and the BNP are anti-India. Their effort is to keep India out of the polls discourse and build a scenario of lasting relationship, particularly the economic ties (on which Bangladesh heavily depends and gains) whatever the election’s outcome.

How India looks at Zia and her past record to judge the future remains uncertain. In the past, India has been subtly accused, particularly by the Western powers who are vary of India’s domination in South Asia, of siding with Hasina and prompting her to push on with the 2013 elections. When Zia boycotted them, Hasina received a walk-over and five more years in power.

This discourse leads with Zia, and not Hasina, for three reasons. Firstly, the Islamist forces have gained ground in Bangladesh impacting India’s internal security in the east and north-east. This is despite Hasina emasculating Zia’s main ally, the Bangladesh Muslim League, trying and imprisoning its top leadership and hanging some of them, for targeting unarmed civilians and religious minorities while siding with the Pakistani regime during the 1971 freedom movement.

The nationalist sentiment remains strong 47 years after freedom, but pro-Pakistan sentiment, and the feeling of being ‘surrounded’ by India, do influence the powerful middle class’ mind. They are also influenced by Islamist resurgence that promotes extremism in some parts of the world and a general rightwing lurch across it.

Targeting of liberals has been serious under  Hasina. Her response has been inadequate – she is caught between a pious Muslim identity needed to govern and the need to defend and protect democratic freedom. She could fall between the two stools.

Secondly, in power for over nine years, Hasina faces serious anti-incumbency challenge from a volatile Bangali populace that does not easily re-elect a party and a government. Many socio-economic indicators have certainly improved in last nine years and the economy is performing better than, say, Pakistan or Nepal. But it is a mixed bag of achievements.

Thirdly, the India factor, since Hasina, by her legacy and record, is perceived as pro-India. She has to ‘gain’ from India without ‘surrender’. Like Zia’s, this is also a daunting task.

The extent to which India can and has helped is open to serious doubt and debate. Hasina closed the camps of militants from the Indian northeast, helping the region’s internal security. She naturally expects a quid pro quo. Even allowing for expectation of a smaller neighbor from the bigger one, she has not felt compensated enough.

The Land Border Agreement settled the population/territorial dispute that was legacy of the 1947 Partition. The maritime boundary has also helped. India has not pursued river projects in the northeast to avoid raising alarming sentiments in Bangladesh.

 But water sharing agreement on Teesta river remains crucial to India-Bangladesh ties, no matter who rules in Dhaka. West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee has pursued narrow politics to thwart it, first during the UPA rule and then with NDA. PM Narendra Modi, who has won some support in Dhaka, has failed to convince Kolkata. Looking at Mamata’s political posturing against Delhi and her fear of the BJP, any pact on Teesta seems impossible.

When Teesta pact has not materialized, it is hardly surprising that Bangladesh continues to allow India access through its territory to the Indian northeast.  In denying Teesta waters, India is losing much more.

Imagine a situation if and when Zia returns to power. She could well take Teesta, like she did Farakka issue, to the United Nations General Assembly.

Imagine the prospect of Zia, or any future government in Dhaka, approaching the upper riparian China to pressure India to release more water on the Ganga and less water from Brahmaputra. Dhaka is already on the Belt and Roads Inititiative (BRI) bandwagon and China is already Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and arms supplier.

Whatever the political compulsions of Delhi and/or Kolkata, the larger neighbour has failed the smaller one. India can compensate on the trade front. But that would be grossly inadequate.

 At a time when even tiny Maldives and Seychelles thumb the nose at India, in a region where Chinese Dragon is spreading its presence,  New Delhi should work really hard to keep the only neighbor with which it has a genuinely positive relationship.

The author can be reached mahendraved07@gmail.com]]>