Fox and lion in Bangladesh

Pub: Friday, January 11, 2019 8:39 AM   |   Upd: Friday, January 11, 2019 8:52 AM

Sheersha Khobor Dot Com

Ideological rivalry is responsible for volatility in India’s eastern neighbour
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint:
Elections in Bangladesh are a bitter affair. It is not uncommon for the opposition to boycott them, leading to a “landslide” win for the ruling party. Something of that kind has occurred in the elections held earlier this month. The Awami League (AL), the party of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, ended with a tally of 232 out of 300 seats in Parliament. Nearly half of these seats went uncontested, robbing the election of much needed legitimacy. At the moment, there is great political volatility in the country and the international community—wrongly—has dubbed the elections devoid of legitimacy.

The fact is the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a conservative party backed by a clutch of Islamist groups, boycotted the election. The BNP had demanded the establishment of a caretaker government. In late 2006, at the end of her tenure, Begum Khaleda Zia had to give way to a neutral caretaker government that spent two years to set right the country’s electoral-cum-political system. This time that experiment was not repeated as a series of judicial decisions outlawed the system of caretaker governments. The AL, for its part, spent a large part of its time in government to bring to justice the alleged war criminals of the 1971 war of independence. This further inflamed the country’s political environment. In the end, the BNP, as part of a carefully thought strategy, did not participate in the election.

The happenings in Bangladesh closely resemble what the economist Vilfredo Pareto once described. In The Mind and Society (1935), Pareto classed the elites of any society into two types, “foxes”—who are innovative, intelligent and, in general, arbitrageurs of a high order—and “lions” who represent conservative forces. Any government, for its effectiveness, requires a mix of foxes and lions. But in democracies, ideological polarization and vigorous competition leads to the circulation of elites and foxes and lions alternate in power.

In Bangladesh, the BNP is the party of lions while the AL is the political home of foxes. This classification, as any, may appear simplistic but it captures the essential features of this divided country and its political dynamics. The AL, the bearer of Bangladeshi secularism, is against the conservative, Islamist, interpretation of the country’s history. Its championing of secularism is linked to Bangladesh’s struggle for independence and nationhood that stands in contrast to the Two-Nation theory that led to a bloodbath in South Asia in 1947. The BNP, allied to the Jamaat-i-Islami, stands in complete contrast to the AL. In the countryside, the BNP’s ideas and politics find greater resonance; in the country’s urban centres, it is the AL that holds sway. Because the country is largely rural—of the 163 million citizens, just 29% live in urban areas—the BNP has a natural electoral advantage. But matters are not so simple: over the decades since 1971, the AL has assiduously cultivated the rural poor and its electoral successes in 1996 and 2009 and now in 2014 testify that. Overall, however, a predominantly conservative, religious, rural population and a “progressive” urban class, makes for a volatile political environment. Bangladesh is no exception and the elections become a plebiscitary affair—polarizing, violent and disruptive. This has been seen repeatedly—in 1991, 1996, 2001, 2009 and now in 2014.

It is against this background that the bitter fight between Hasina, the current Prime Minister, and Zia, the leader of the BNP, must be seen and not some kind of personal rivalry between the two. The personal element, no doubt, exists, but the fight is elemental—representing the progressive and the conservative trends in Bangladesh.

While what happens inside Bangladesh is something for its citizens to deliberate and decide, the country’s strategic location makes it imperative for India to keep an eye on developments there. Traditionally, the AL has been the party closer to India and the BNP, for obvious reasons, rather lukewarm. This, however, does not mean that India has not tried to build bridges with the BNP. But the BNP’s close alliance with the Jamaat, a rabidly anti-Indian party, limits what the BNP can do with respect to India, if it wants to do that at all. So it is not surprising that India has backed the AL much against the international current—including the US which cannot comprehend the complexities that prevail in Bangladesh. In realistic terms, this limits India’s possibilities and options in that country and may end up tying New Delhi with a particular party’s fortunes. But considering the above facts, India’s room for manoeuvre is limited in any case. India, however, should continue to engage the BNP.

It is the day of the fox in Bangladesh. But the lion is waiting to strike.

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Sheersha Khobor / A A

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