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Bangladesh: Will Sheikh Hasina Capitulate to Demands for a Caretaker Government?

The system of a non-partisan caretaker government was first adopted informally in 1990 and codified in 1996.

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At the heart of mounting clashes between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led opposition, resulting in a dozen deaths in police firing, destruction of public properties, strikes, and blockades, and the detention of over 8000 protestors, is the demand that Hasina steps down and allow a neutral government to supervise the general elections in January.

The political turmoil, worsened by a massive agitation by tens of thousands of garment workers for tripling their monthly pay, has grave implications for India which, to be honest, wields more influence in Bangladesh than the Security Council’s five permanent members put together.

As New Delhi has a far bigger stake than any other foreign power, it is keeping a sharp eye on the unrest but the External Affairs Ministry hasn’t said anything publicly so far.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government obviously doesn’t want Hasina to succumb to BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami’s pressure to resign and hand over power to a non-partisan caretaker administration to oversee the polls as that would inevitably result in her Awami League’s crushing defeat which is not in India’s national interest.

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How New Delhi and Washington are Viewing the Upcoming Polls

In power since 2009, authoritarian Hasina, 76, is eyeing a fourth straight five-year term as PM to perpetuate her one-party, one-leader rule. And getting her re-elected in January is the biggest priority of our foreign policy-cum-security establishment. There is no denying that we have become absolutely dependent on her as all our needs in Bangladesh, ranging from connectivity and transit to defence and strategic requirements, are invariably met without even having to ask.

Naturally, New Delhi not only wants her to win but to win by any means. India is not bothered about the means she adopts as long as she is sworn in for yet another term. In both 2014 and 2018, India was the first country to congratulate Hasina for winning the elections which were evidently rigged – especially the landslide victory last time. This time too, New Delhi wants her to conduct the elections -- instead of a caretaker government -- so that her victory is guaranteed.

In contrast, the United States and western powers are insisting on free, fair, and democratic elections which have come as a huge relief to the opposition.

Washington has even threatened to cancel the visas of any Bangladeshi official or politician subverting free and fair elections, raising beleaguered BNP’s and JeI’s hopes. But importantly, the US-led West has stopped short of telling Hasina to hand over power to an interim administration – and New Delhi is hoping that it doesn’t because any election conducted by a neutral government would surely evict the unabashedly pro-India Hasina from power.

In Pakistan, a caretaker government led by Anwaarul Haq Kakar took oath in August and will oversee the upcoming national polls in which Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, and Bilawal Bhutto will slug it out. The Bangladeshi constitution too had a provision for a caretaker government overseeing elections but it was done away with by Hasina to perpetuate Awami League rule.

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The Caretaker Government System in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, the system of a non-partisan caretaker government was first adopted informally in 1990 by three political alliances after General Ershad was forced to resign. Subsequently, it was codified in 1996 through the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Elections in 1996, 2001, and 2008 were indeed supervised by a neutral administration.

Importantly, Awami League was sincere about the caretaker government system but BNP Prime Minister Khaleda Zia subverted it in 2004 by passing a law raising the retirement age of then-Supreme Court chief justice, K M Hasan, from 65 to 67 years so that he could head the next caretaker government. The move was against the basic tenet of neutrality as Hasan was a BNP secretary who had become a judge of the apex court!

The Awami League raised a big stink forcing Hasan to excuse himself, but irreparable damage was done to the institution of caretaker government itself. After the BNP’s term ended in 2006, there was such a constitutional crisis that President Iajuddin Ahmed became the head of the caretaker government.

Then a state of emergency was declared in 2007, accompanied by the installation of a Draconian army-backed caretaker government headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed which threw both Zia and Hasina into jail, before finally conducting elections in December 2008 and ultimately brought Hasina to power on 6 January 2009.

As PM, Hasina ensured that the Supreme Court declared the system of interim administration unconstitutional in May 2011 and the very next month Parliament ended the non-partisan caretaker government arrangement 15 years after it was introduced to safeguard democracy and prevent the ruling party from rigging elections with the help of the state machinery at its command.

It is indeed ironic that the BNP which is so vehemently demanding today that upcoming elections must be held under a caretaker government, had blatantly subverted it in 2004 while in power from 2001 to 2006. Its manipulation has come back to bite it.

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A Big Trust Deficit Between Government and Opposition

The battle lines are drawn in Bangladesh with the government and the opposition refusing to budge. Clashes between the police and opposition cadres demanding elections under an interim administration have become a daily feature across the country even as its economy is stuttering thanks to the pandemic and the Ukraine war.

Dhaka wants a $4.47 Billion IMF loan and its foreign exchange stocks have plummeted to an unprecedented low of $20.66 Billion.

Amid bloody street battles, there are reports of striking garment industry workers who have rejected a 56 percent pay rise and are insisting on tripling the figure, fighting the police and para-military forces alongside opposition cadres, fuelling even more violence.

There is such a big trust deficit between the government and the opposition that the need of the hour is a third party capable of mediating and resolving the stalemate. There is no such candidate in Bangladesh who can bring the warring sides to the negotiating table.

Among foreign powers, the US-West is seen as biased towards the opposition and therefore not acceptable to the Hasina regime. India, on the other hand, is viewed as too pro-Hasina – and rightly so – to instill any confidence in BNP-JeI as an honest broker.

In this grim scenario, there is every possibility of more bloodshed and volatility in our backyard as the election looms.

(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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