Avinash Paliwal on What Lies Ahead for Bangladesh

Recent Features

Interviews | Politics | South Asia

Avinash Paliwal on What Lies Ahead for Bangladesh

“If [Prime Minister] Hasina is unable to curb electoral violence, and is unable to offer patronage to the military elites, the chances of [military] intervention increase.”

Avinash Paliwal on What Lies Ahead for Bangladesh

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters shout slogans during a protest rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 28, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu

Bangladesh is due to vote in general elections in January 2024. Opposition parties are threatening to boycott the election if the Awami League government does not meet their demand for elections under a caretaker government. The opposition’s protest rallies have been peaceful so far, but this could change in the coming weeks and months, especially if the stalemate persists. The situation is complex; Bangladesh has a rich history of the military intervening in politics. Will that happen this time around? What roles are India, the United States, and China playing in the unfolding crisis?

Dr Avinash Paliwal, reader in International Relations at SOAS University in London and author of the forthcoming book “India’s Near East: A New History,” warns that if the current deadlock continues, “Bangladeshi politics could take multiple violent pathways.” In an interview with The Diplomat’s South Asia editor Sudha Ramachandran, Paliwal said that while “the re-entry of the Bangladeshi army into politics… seems unlikely” for now, the possibility cannot be ruled out “entirely.”

What lies ahead for Bangladesh if the stalemate between the Awami League government and opposition parties continues?

Bangladeshi politics could take multiple violent pathways if the current stalemate persists. For starters, political violence, already playing out on the ground, could become decentralized. The current spate of poll-related violence is largely state-led, wherein the police and local intelligence units are targeting the opposition. This is occurring in the context of the Sheikh Hasina government’s systematic campaign of enforced disappearances of Islamists and mainstream political opponents. It has created discontentment with the regime.

Increasing frustration over the stalemate could empower hardliners within the main opposition i.e., the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), who want the party to depart from its ongoing abidance to peaceful protests. If the BNP takes a violent turn, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) could independently opt for similar methods. Such multi-sided violence, which is often driven by local factors, risks a breakdown of law and order (even if temporary) and could deepen Bangladesh’s political fault lines leading to long-term instability. Such instability could persist regardless of whether elections are held—and especially if electoral integrity is compromised (again).

The other possibility is the re-entry of the Bangladeshi army into politics. For now, this seems unlikely given how entrenched Hasina’s loyalists are within the institution. But if Hasina is unable to curb electoral violence, and is unable to offer patronage to the military elites, the chances of intervention increase.

Bangladesh has a rich history of coups. What observers often focus on are the coups that succeeded i.e., 1975, 1981-82, and 2007-08. But the number of attempted coups is just as high. The successful thwarting of attempted coups in 1996 and 2011 are cases in point. In 1996, Chief of Army Staff General Abu Saleh Mohammad Nasim tried to oust the civilian President Abdur Rahman Biswas amidst acute electoral instability similar to the current situation, but failed because government loyalists disobeyed orders. In 2011, rebel army officers with alleged support from the Hizb-ut-Tahrir planned a putsch, but were arrested before they could execute the coup.

You have written about the “possibility” of “third-party intervention” and in this context pointed to the military. What kind of intervention do you envisage? To maintain law and order in support of the Awami League government? To break the logjam? Or something else?

Military intervention during such a moment of flux is unlikely to be in support of the Awami League. After all, if the army needs to intervene to maintain law and order, it means that Prime Minister Hasina has already lost administrative control. Such an intervention, even if ostensibly in support of Hasina, will be a blow to her power.

There are two reasons why I envisage such an intervention as “third-party” in nature and not an extension of Hasina’s writ. One, because the army has an interest in maintaining institutional discipline. Pro-Hasina partisanship is likely to undermine such discipline, and tarnish the army’s apolitical image. Two, an overt pro-Awami League tilt could expose the army chief to similar criticism around authoritarianism and corruption that Hasina has been subject to. The army wouldn’t want to bear the weight of Hasina’s failures and her party’s malpractices.

In this context, if the army does intervene, it’ll have a choice to either stay in power for a prolonged period or quickly deliver untainted elections. The prudent path will be to hold elections and return to the barracks. But much of it depends on how the people of Bangladesh and powers such as India, China and the U.S. react. If the domestic and international criticism isn’t intense and the army feels that it can safely hold elections and hand over power to a freely and fairly elected party, it might do so. This will require deft, patient diplomacy by all powers interested in democratic deepening. But if internal and external pushback — especially from India — is high, a cornered army might feel the need to hold on to power and offer itself as a fait accompli. That could turn the clock back on Bangladesh’s democratic experiment, ushering in long-term uncertainty that accrues to countries run by military juntas.

The Bangladesh army has remained in the barracks for over a decade. Could you share your insights into how politicized it is? What is its appetite for a larger role in politics?

This aspect requires unpacking three interrelated themes i.e., the army’s relationship with the AL, its self-image as a national institution, and its interest landscape. The relationship between the armed forces and Hasina is marked by a Faustian bargain wherein the latter respects the former’s self-image as an apolitical and professional institution, and caters to its interests by offering high budgetary allocations towards defense, and securing paid U.N. peacekeeping roles. In return, the army culls its ranks of Islamists and keeps to the barracks. The primary role of Hasina’s defense and security advisor, Tarique Ahmed Siddique, who is also a member of her family and faces corruption charges, is to maintain this bargain. But the rub of the matter is how this bargain was struck in the first place.

Former Army Chief General Moeen Uddin Ahmed, who ran a military caretaker government in 2007-08, held elections and transferred power to the winning party i.e., the AL, only after he received guarantees from New Delhi that Hasina would not target him afterwards. The 2009 Bangladesh Rifles mutiny, which occurred a month after Hasina became prime minister, tested this arrangement. It saw New Delhi threaten military intervention on Hasina’s behalf at the peak of the mutiny. The then-Congress leadership in India feared that if General Ahmed used force against the mutineers, it could undermine Hasina’s political power and lead to her premature ouster or worse. When the army did quell the mutiny, it was done under the watchful eye of the home ministry and after Hasina succeeded in calming the tempers of the officer corps by hearing out their grievances.

This bargain has been dented — but not eliminated — by the recent Rohingya crisis, Hasina’s decreasing ability to offer higher budgetary allocations towards defense and attract international defense contracts, and the U.S.-led sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The Bangladeshi army has long been wary of its Myanmar counterpart and expectedly views the Rohingya crisis from a security-centric lens. Its inability to stand up to Myanmar for political reasons but also due to capability deficits has generated a sense of unease within the officers’ corps and the rank-and-file alike.

The opposition’s mounting criticism of Hasina’s failure to manage this crisis has takers both within and outside the army. Coupled with the U.S.-led sanctions, there is an undercurrent in the garrison that Hasina is wavering on, if not jeopardizing, her part of the civil-military bargain. If the Rohingya crisis is being viewed as an affront to the army’s martial abilities, decreasing defense funding and sanctions risk spoiling the army’s image and interests alike. Given the history of military coups in Bangladesh and the emergent strenuous undercurrents in civil-military ties, one cannot entirely rule out a “third-party” intervention.

Personnel of Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion, which has been accused of forced disappearance of opposition leaders and activists and journalists. Wikimedia Commons/ Nahid Sultan

The AL has sought to project the view that a victory by the BNP and its allies will provide a boost to Islamist forces in Bangladesh. How credible are its claims? How strong are the Bangladeshi Islamists?

There is no doubt that Bangladeshi Islamists, especially the Jamaat, are far from being politically dead. But these forces are not as potent as they once were. This is due to Hasina’s successful crackdown against the JI’s leadership during the International Crimes Tribunals, a domestic court set up by the AL government to try JI collaborators with Pakistan during the 1971 liberation war. This, coupled with proactive co-opting of sections of the Hefazat-e-Islam, has resulted in Hasina blunting the political force of Islamists. If anything, her own conservative tilt has created unease among secular Bangladeshis and in India.

Herein, the AL’s projection of the BNP’s victory giving a boost to Islamists has a kernel of truth but is also exaggerated. The BNP, for one, has disassociated itself from the Jamaat precisely to avoid such hyphenation. This is done to reduce the taint of the 2001-06 BNP-Jamaat coalition period that witnessed Islamist violence, including a bomb attack against Hasina (then in opposition) that nearly killed her. The BNP wants to curate independent political space for itself as a secular force in the current milieu, and has, for now, maintained its distance from the Jamaat.  So, a BNP win could strengthen conservatives, but whether that will translate to cross-border Islamist violence or systematic targeting of Hindus and Buddhists within Bangladesh remains uncertain.

China has had warm relations with BNP governments in the past and has expanded its footprint in Bangladesh under the AL. What is its approach to the unfolding crisis in Bangladesh?

China is firmly backing the AL. It has clarified this in multiple statements, and signaled intent when Hasina met Chinese President Xi Jinping in a one-to-one meeting at the recent BRICS summit in South Africa. Ironically, in contrast to the perception that China has warm ties with the BNP, the main opposition party has much firmer support from the U.S. and its allies than from Beijing. The BNP has been signaling Western capitals that it will reduce, if not entirely roll back, China’s footprint in Bangladesh. If anything, we’re looking at a situation where both China and India are backing Hasina, but also trying to outbid each other.

The biggest risk for India today is to lose Hasina politically to Chinese influence, while failing to carve space for itself within the BNP — or working with smaller parties such as Jatiya that lack a wider support base.

The lack of strategic conversation between New Delhi and the BNP bereaves India of wider strategic equities in Bangladesh. But the BNP too has shied away from truly addressing Indian concerns when in power, and when being courted by India. The resulting mistrust is such that any attempts to build bridges — and there have been some in recent times — have not yielded results.

I think a serious conversation between the U.S. and India on this count could go a long way. If Washington D.C. could convince India that it’ll use its leverage to prevent the BNP from undermining Indian strategic interests, limit Islamist influence, and contain Chinese ingress, there could be a possibility of rapprochement. Without such guarantees from the U.S., India is unlikely to accept the BNP’s rise to power, even if that comes at the cost of Bangladesh’s democratic integrity.

Compared to previous Bangladeshi elections, India’s profile this time around is low key. Why?

Just because one doesn’t see many Indian statements on Bangladesh, or a clear stand on the current stalemate, doesn’t mean that India has a low-key profile. If anything, Indian officials are likely working overtime to figure out the ground situation, prepare for multiple scenarios, and try to influence an outcome that is in India’s interest but also viewed as legitimate by the majority of Bangladeshis. The top leadership of the Jatiya party, for instance, was in New Delhi recently, and communication between India and the U.S. over Bangladesh has increased.

Clearly, India prefers Hasina over other candidates. But whether it wants to bear the diplomatic costs of the AL’s electoral malpractices forever is a question on which the jury is still out. Having said that, the geography and history of these two countries is such that their destiny will always be tied together. Given the asymmetry of size, Bangladeshis understand this aspect more acutely than most in India.