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Bangladesh: Hasina's Win a Relief for India, but Will America Spoil the Party?

If the US-led West comes down hard on Hasina's government, Dhaka will inevitably seek comfort in China’s arms.

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Sheikh Hasina’s landslide victory in Bangladesh and her re-election for a fourth straight term as prime minister means an awful lot to New Delhi, especially after the rout of pro-India Ibrahim Solih at the hands of China-friendly Mohamed Muizzu in the Maldives a few months ago.

Both Bangladesh and Maldives are in India’s immediate neighbourhood where New Delhi naturally wants friendly heads of state who would give top priority to India’s national interests and keep China, our biggest adversary, at arm’s length.

Although Hasina’s victory was a foregone conclusion with the main opposition sitting out the polls making it a one-horse race, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government heaved a big sigh of relief after the Awami League bagged 223 out of 300 parliamentary seats.

As the 60-plus Independent MPs are in reality Awami Leaguers who were ordered to contest to make the polls appear inclusive, Hasina’s party has roughly 290 lawmakers, which is bizarre!

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A Boon for the Modi Government

Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first world leader to telephone Hasina to congratulate her, flagging their warm personal ties and New Delhi’s high stakes in her triumph. Modi called her barely 30 minutes after chief election commissioner, Kazi Habibul Awal, formally declared the results.

India’s High Commissioner, Pranay Verma, too beat all other ambassadors in Dhaka in presenting her a bouquet! Verma called on her before China’s envoy Yao Wen or Russia’s Alexander Mantytsky could, although both Beijing and Moscow backed her to the hilt in the run-up to the one-sided polls delegitimised further by the abysmally low 40 percent turn-out.

Hasina, who has been in power since January 2009 without a break, is already the longest-serving head of state in South Asia. After helming Bangladesh for 15 years, now she is all set to break Jawaharlal Nehru’s record who was Prime Minister of India for 16 years, from 1947 to 1964 when he passed away. She has already left women leaders like India’s Indira Gandhi, Sri Lanka’s Srimavo Bandaranaike, Israel’s Golda Meir, and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher far behind by winning election after election.

Hasina’s re-election is a boon for the Modi government which banks on her as a tried and tested ally who goes to the extent of sometimes prioritising India’s interests over Bangladesh’s. With Hasina in the saddle for another term, there is no scope whatsoever for anti-India forces to operate from Bangladesh, easing New Delhi’s legitimate security concerns.

India can rest assured that for the next five years, terrorists are unlikely to sneak in through the 4000 km-plus frontier to wreak havoc. Connectivity, transshipment, and transit facilities to fast-track the economic development of the northeast are also assured. All in all, India knows that Hasina will grant it anything it desires, like the genie in the story of Aladdin.

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Two Potential Challenges for India

But India today faces two potential challenges in Bangladesh. Firstly, as Bangladesh’s friend, a clampdown by the United States and its Western allies on Hasina for conducting elections with the sole purpose of getting herself re-elected, will have consequences for India. A rift between Washington and New Delhi over Bangladesh will hurt India’s strategic and economic interests. Secondly, if the US-led West comes down hard on Hasina's government, Dhaka will inevitably seek comfort in China’s arms, weakening India’s hold over Bangladesh.

As things stand, there is a strong possibility of the US giving Bangladesh a torrid time for holding sham elections. Within 24 hours of Modi congratulating Hasina for a job well done, the US State Department bluntly said that elections in Bangladesh were not free or fair. The State Department’s press statement stressed that “not all parties participated”, condemned the violence during elections as well in the months leading up to it, and told Dhaka to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Taking a cue from the US, the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) has also declared that the Sunday elections did not meet the standards of fair competition and respect for human rights, stressing the significant number of arrests of opposition party members before polling day. The spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and UN Human Rights Chief Volker Turk, too have expressed distress over the “environment” in which the polls took place.

After such trenchant criticism, there is a high probability of the US clamping sanctions on Bangladesh as it had taken, along with the European Union and Western governments, a sharply critical view in the run-up to the polls, with Washington even warning of a visa ban on Bangladeshi government officials undermining credible elections.

I see a distinct possibility of the US, the largest buyer of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) multibillion-dollar industry, imposing trade sanctions for holding sham elections. Last month, a key garment supplier to the US was warned of sanctions in a letter of credit (LC) by a US buyer. According to published reports, the letter said that the buyer would not be liable for payment for a shipment in the event of the US government imposing trade sanctions.

Sanctions on a key revenue earner like RMG will hit Bangladesh’s already stuttering economy hard and create hurdles for foreign direct investments and trade partnerships. The resultant unrest and political instability might drive the new government lacking the people’s mandate, to resort to repressive measures triggering a countrywide backlash against the Hasina regime propped up by a one-sided election. And God forbid, if Bangladesh burns, it will be a major challenge for India to insulate itself from the fire.

(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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