On November 10, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra told a press conference in New Delhi that India “respects the democratic process in Bangladesh.”
“When it comes to developments in Bangladesh, elections in Bangladesh, it is their domestic matter. It is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their future,” Kwatra said, describing India “as a close friend and partner” of Bangladesh.
Within hours of these comments, former Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Md. Touhid Hossain told the Dhaka-based news channel, Desh TV News, that India’s stance would bring relief to the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government.
“We know the Hasina government wants to get done with an election, which would not be free and fair. They were possibly in some dilemma because they weren’t sure if India was backing them. It is also possible that they already knew of India’s support. In any case, [the government] would feel relieved with India’s response,” Hossain said.
AL presidium member Abdur Rahman told BBC Bangla that India’s remarks contained nothing for the AL to feel either ecstatic or disappointed about, as the election is Bangladesh’s internal affair. “We are not supposed to be concerned with what others discuss about it,” Rahman was quoted as saying.
Dismissing “the idea that Foreign Secretary Kwatra’s recent remarks emboldened the Hasina government” as “gossip in Bangladesh,” Smruti S. Pattanaik, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) told The Diplomat that “India has always maintained that elections in Bangladesh are its internal affair and it is for the people of Bangladesh to decide.”
Kwatra’s remarks came after an India-U.S. bilateral meeting on November 10, where the issue of the Bangladesh election was discussed. India shared its perspective “very, very clearly” with American officials at that meeting, Kwatra said at the Delhi press conference.
The U.S. has been taking a keen interest in the Bangladesh elections and for several months now, it has been pushing the AL government to hold free and fair elections. In May, it announced a new visa policy under which visas would be restricted to any Bangladeshi national, including politicians and government officials, who are “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” This was aimed at supporting “Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national elections” and to back “all those seeking to advance democracy in Bangladesh.”
In September, the U.S. started implementing the visa restriction policy in a bid to increase pressure on the AL government. The move is widely seen as boosting the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party.
However, on November 15 the U.S. said it “remains neutral ahead of the upcoming polls.” “We are on no particular political party’s side,” U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas said after a meeting with Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader in Dhaka, adding that “We want free and fair elections conducted in a peaceful manner.”
Later that day, Bangladesh’s chief election commissioner announced the election schedule and said that voting would take place on January 7.
As BNP spokesperson Ruhul Kabir Rizvi pointed out the elections have been announced “ignoring the expectations and opinions of the people of Bangladesh and repeated appeals from the international community.”
For over a year now, the BNP has been saying that it would boycott the elections unless it is held under the supervision of a non-party, caretaker government. It alleges that an election held while Hasina remains at the helm will not be free and fair.
The Hasina government has been accused of increasingly authoritarian rule and rigged elections and the BNP was hoping that international pressure would force the government to agree to their demands of conducting the election under a non-party caretaker government.
Over the past year, India has been watching developments in Bangladesh without commenting or airing its opinions.
India has been “conscious and restrained” in its approach to the upcoming Bangladesh election compared to the elections in 2014 and 2018. It has “made no rash comments,” Bangladesh’s Revolutionary Workers’ Party (RWP) General Secretary Saiful Haque told Bangla Tribune in August.
According to Kolkata-based journalist Suman Bhattacharya, India has been in a “wait and watch” mode over the past few months but growing Chinese interest in winning over Hasina seems to have prompted India to make its stand of non-interference known.
It probably prompted India to reiterate its policy of “non-interference,” a Dhaka-based journalist told The Diplomat on condition of anonymity. “It appears that Indian tried to ensure the US does not end up pushing Hasina government closer to China,” the journalist said.
“At a time when the BNP is looking for international pressure on Bangladesh, India’s stance has likely emboldened the Hasina government to go ahead with the election, irrespective of the BNP’s participation,” Bhattacharya told The Diplomat.
An Indian government official who wished to remain anonymous said that over the past few months, the BNP had put out several “feelers” to India, clarifying that they should not be perceived to be anti-India. The usual anti-India pitch in BNP’s campaign has also been largely missing over the past few months.
The BNP’s keenness to get India’s support is perhaps reflected in the way the party responded to remarks coming from India and China.
Just a day after India’s remarks, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Yao Wen, said that Beijing hopes the elections “will be conducted as per the constitution, and after the elections, there will be stability, life will return to normal and our cooperation will continue.”
Wen added that Beijing adheres to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and opposes any force interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
The BNP did not respond to India’s remarks but criticized China’s comments. “Wen’s comment that China wants to see the upcoming elections in Bangladesh as per the Constitution does not reflect the will or aspirations of people,” BNP’s Rizvi told the media.
The BNP’s ties with India have been far from smooth.
Drawing attention to the support extended by BNP regimes to anti-India militants in its Northeast, Pattanaik recalled how ten truckloads of arms meant for Indian insurgents landed in Chittagong even as the BNP regime (2001-2006) remained in denial mode. In contrast, there has been robust security cooperation with India during Hasina’s rule.
Bitter rivalry between the BNP and the AL, which goes back several decades, underlies the BNP’s demand for elections under a caretaker government. Notably, it was the BNP’s Khaleda Zia government, in the face of an AL-led movement, which brought the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1996, making provision for a non-party caretaker government under which elections would be conducted. The AL had, at that time, given a similar election boycott call. The 1996, 2001 and 2008 elections were held under such caretaker governments.
However, the system became controversial after the Zia government in 2006 was accused of tweaking norms to appoint a partisan caretaker government, which subsequently remained in power for two years.
In 2011, the Bangladesh Supreme Court struck down the 13th amendment and opined that the next two elections may be conducted under caretaker governments for the sake of security and continuity but after making necessary reforms in the appointing system. The AL government, though, abolished the system altogether through the 15th amendment to the constitution in the same year.
The BNP has been demanding restoration of the system since 2014, and revived protests for this purpose since August last year, but the AL government never agreed, calling it “a dead issue.”
Pattanaik pointed out the BNP might be hoping that their non-participation in the election would delegitimize the process in the eyes of many Western countries and attract sanctions on Bangladesh. “But they might be hoping for too much,” she said.