Unlike in previous elections, India has stepped back from a proactive role in shaping the electoral outcome. While China is backing Prime Minister Hasina, the U.S. is pushing back.
In December 2013, Bangladesh’s Awami League (AL) government faced a crisis of legitimacy ahead of the general election. The largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB), announced a boycott of the election, following the government’s rejection of their demand to hold elections under a neutral caretaker government.
Meanwhile, JIB leaders and activists took to the streets in violent protest against the trial of their top leaders by the International Crimes Tribunal, a local court established by the AL government, which was under heavy criticism from the international human rights community for failing to ensure a fair trial. The police response to the protests was excessively violent, resulting in one of the deadliest years of political violence in post-independence Bangladesh, with over 500 fatalities.
Despite the opposition boycott, the AL was determined to go ahead with its plans to hold elections under its own administration. However, the international community refused to accept an election boycotted by major parties. In this crucial situation, the AL sought the support of neighboring India.
In December of that year, then-Indian Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh arrived in Dhaka for a two-day visit and held meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, former military dictator General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, and BNP leader Khaleda Zia. Singh’s visit played a pivotal role in shaping the political landscape. Following the meeting with Singh, Ershad, chairman of the Jatiya Party (JP) — Bangladesh’s fourth-largest party — changed his stance and participated in the election.
Singh conveyed two significant messages to the press during her visit. Her first message emphasized India’s desire for the JP to participate in the election, promoting broader political participation. Singh even suggested that if the JP did not participate, there was a risk of Islamists rising to power. Her second message was that India sought stability in Bangladesh. Locally the message was interpreted as India prioritizing the continuity of the AL regime, regardless of the election’s quality.
Despite the lack of credible opposition contenders and a low voter turnout, the AL formed the government. India, Russia, and China backed Hasina’s government.
However, apart from India, major democracies called for a re-election. Indian journalist Suhasini Haider commented, “India is too strategically powerful and too close a neighbor to play a partisan role in favoring any political party over another in Bangladesh.”
In 2018, Hasina organized another controversial election, with the opposition participating. However, the poll’s credibility was tainted by widespread vote rigging, voter intimidation, and extrajudicial killings of opposition activists in the run up to the election in the name of the war on drugs. The official in charge of that controversial war on drugs was Benazir Ahmed, who enjoyed one prized position after another under Hasina, and was later punished by the United States.
By openly supporting Hasina in these past farcical elections, India isolated itself both in the political realm and in public perception. However, Hasina skillfully utilized this opportunity to expand Chinese influence in Bangladesh with an aim to gain leverage and send a signal to India and the West, particularly the United States.
Fast forward to 2023, and Bangladesh finds itself once again in a similar political impasse as it prepares for the next election scheduled for January 2024. Hasina remains persistent in administering the election under her own authority, while the opposition demands an election under a neutral caretaker government to ensure fairness. However, the opposition is also gearing up for a mass upheaval, and the AL is not necessarily confident in its ability to quell the opposition through brute force, as it did in the previous two elections.
Many state agents are wary of manipulating the upcoming elections as they are apprehensive that the United States will impose visa bans on them and their family members. Canada has reportedly indicated its intention to follow the U.S. course of action. The U.S. and Canada are popular retirement destinations for Bangladeshi officials, and they also send their children to study at Western universities.
Prior to threatening visa bans on Bangladeshi officials that undermine “the democratic election process,” in December 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department levied human rights sanctions on Bangladesh’s paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and six of its senior officials. The U.S. State Department also imposed visa sanctions on two officials, one of whom was already on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list.
These decisions received strong support from human rights activists and opposition parties.
In response to U.S. pressure, Hasina publicly claimed that the U.S. is seeking to topple her government. She is unwilling to subject her popularity to a fair and credible election. Over the past decade, her government has failed to organize any election that is deemed free and fair by those outside her party or administration.
While the U.S., as a major export destination for Bangladeshi ready-made garments, has made it clear that it will not remain idle while Hasina attempts to hold another election under her own administration to retain her power, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed support for Hasina, “denouncing all forms of hegemony and power politics.”
In contrast, India appears to be taking a back seat this time, with no official statement regarding Bangladesh’s upcoming election. The Indian High Commission in Bangladesh and the Indian High Commissioner have limited their activities compared to previous election periods when there was greater engagement with civil society, political parties, and the press. Unlike previously, when Indian high-ranking officials frequently visited Bangladesh, the current scenario reflects a quiet change.
This silent shift in India’s official approach could be attributed to its closer alliance with the U.S. and the increasing influence of China in Bangladesh. In contrast, U.S. high-ranking officials are making frequent visits, and global financial risk analysis firms, such as Control Risk, are advising investors to prepare for a post-Hasina regime.
As Bangladesh navigates through this political turmoil, the role of India, the United States, and China will undoubtedly shape the country’s future. The nature of the upcoming election will not only determine the political landscape but will also impact the country’s international relations and regional dynamics.