Sunday, March 8, 2015

Political crisis 2015 - BNP's last, best and only hope?

See also in the 'Political Crisis 2015' series:
Analysis of the deaths (updated to  March)

Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s last, best and arguably just about only hope of the Awami League agreeing to hold a dialogue about a new interim election no longer rests with political forces inside the country.

It also does not rest with the United Nations, and the ‘Western’ International community which, for reasons set out earlier (see: ‘West, UN must share blame for Bangladesh crisis’) are far from willing right now to challenge the current government.

Ambassadors and High commissioners based in Dhaka will go no further in their conversations with the political parties than talk about the need for ‘confidence building measures’ The word ‘dialogue’ - yet alone the word ‘elections’ – is not, at present even part of their talking points with the political parties.

Yet, there is one force that could, and just might, exert the pressure which Sheikh Hasina feels she has no choice but to listen to – that is the entreaties of her closest foreign ally, and the country’s biggest neighbour, and ironically, the country which is perhaps most sceptical of the BNP. That is India

But before considering how realistic this is at all a realistic prospect, lets first look at why we should discount Bangladesh’s own internal political forces – the political parties, the civil service, civil society, business and the army – as having any significant role in solving the current crisis.

It is for all to see that the BNP does not have the ‘fire power’ (as referred to by one BNP activist) or the ‘support on the streets’ to force the AL to do anything it does not want to do. The most the party can do is to continue the current state of abnormality for some time more – though as days and weeks go by, the life of most citizens will increasingly become more and more normal.

So, we can all agreed that there will be no knock out blow from the BNP.

Then there is the civil service establishment. In 1996, the civil service did play an important role in pressing the BNP government to hold a second set of elections, a few months after the non-participatory February election, but supporters of the BNP within the civil service (or at least those sympathetic to the argument in favour of dialogue and new elections) will not be putting their heads this time above the parapet.

In part this is because the civil service leadership is crowded with Awami League loyalists, in part because there is no popular political movement to which they can join and also because few would risk the fierce retribution that would come their way.

Then there is civil society. There is no doubt that this plays an powerful role in Bangladesh society – and in times of political conflict does provide important mood music. But since 1990, it has not been decisive in determining how a political conflict of this kind ends – and it will not be this time.

Right now, like much of the rest of Bangladesh, civil society is divided into one of the two party camps (and now mostly in the AL fold) with only a small segment taking an independent line. This ‘small middle’, which is also subject to significant governmental intimidation, is nowhere near powerful enough to impose itself on the current intransigence of the political parties.

At the most, by legitimizing the discourse of ‘dialogue’ and ‘elections’, civil society is an irritant to the government, but very far from being a threat.

One might imagine that the business community, particularly at risk from prolonged sieges and strikes, and crucial to the economic prosperity of the country, would have significant influence in situations like now - but like civil society, it is divided, partisan and scared of being on the wrong side of the government.

This leaves the army. Famously in 2007, the army marched into the President’s residence, and forced him to sign a state of emergency, and appoint a new caretaker government – ending the power then held by the BNP at that time.

Whilst nothing can be predicted about the army, a very safe bet is that nothing like that will happen now. The events in 2007 were, one must remember  the first time that the army had materially influenced the numerous political deadlocks that had occurred since 1990, and it should be noted that it took place under a caretaker, not a political government as we have now. In addition, such a smooth take-over only happened at that time because the international communitygave it a green light, which is now less likely to be given.

If the army was going to intervene it would have done so before the January elections. Moreover the current army establishment has no wish to unsettle a government which has secured it many contracts and arms deals. Were it to happen, such a move by the army, though welcome by some, would also be highly controversial.
So back to India. Can it’s diplomacy be a game-changer?

This may seem unlikely, indeed implausible. India undoubtedly prefers an Awami League government in power with whom it can rely on to respond to its security concerns.

In its last term in power, the BNP allowed the country to become a haven for anti-Indian militant groups and turned a blind eye to weopan smuggling. It’s alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami was, and continues to be, a significant concern to India.

As a result the Indian government – both during the time of the Congress party and now with the BJP in power - has provided significant diplomatic support to the Awami League government.

Before the January 2014 elections, it helped back-stop the government in responding to the international pressure that was concerned about the lack of participatory elections.

Following the election, though Bangladesh government officials had promised the United Nations and others that there would be dialogue towards a second election, the Indian government’s official spokesperson issued a supportive statement suggesting a hands-off approach – one which it has continued ever since.

"Elections in Bangladesh on 5th January were a constitutional requirement,’ it stated. ‘They are a part of the internal and constitutional process of Bangladesh. It is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their own future and choose their representatives in a manner that responds to their aspirations,’ it added. “The democratic processes must be allowed to take their own course in Bangladesh,” it ended.

However, sources now suggest that key actors within Indian’s foreign policy establishment are concerned about the current level of instability in Bangladesh and accept the general argument that there is a crisis of legitimacy which needs to be dealt with through ‘free and fair’ elections.

Indian intelligence agencies have reached out to the BNP, seeking clarifications from it about its ‘good intentions’ in any dialogue, about its willingness to follow through with agreements made by the Awami League government, its future relationship with the Jamaat and also about the role of Tariq Zia in any future BNP government, a particular concern to the Indian government. Those privy to the content of these conversations report that they seem to represent a shift from the recent past.

In addition, others unconnected with the BNP, who have met with officials of the National Security Advisor, a key body within the Indian foreign policy establishment, have found a similar appreciation that the status quo cannot continue, and the Awami League’s policy towards the opposition needs to change.

A change of view amongst some key actors there may well be, but whether this is resulting, or will result, in any fundamental change in Indian diplomacy towards Bangladesh is quite another question.

For India, pressing the Awami League government towards holding a dialogue with the BNP risks losing its close ally in the very elections that could be the result.

It is also unclear whether the current instability is really threatening Indian interests in such a significant way that they would be willing to put at risk a relationship that has, according to Indian government officials, ‘over-delivered’ for India.

And with the BNP in a weak position, increasingly unable to keep its so called ‘movement’  going, and with state action in the form of thousands of arrests,  extra-judicial killings and non-fatal shootings taking their toll, is the instability really sufficiently serious for the Indian government to act?

So there remain many reasons why the Indian government will not decide to press Bangladesh’s prime minister at all - or at least too hard.

Nonetheless, whilst the BNP’s last best hope may still seem a distant dream, there are signs, though not public yet, that certain parts of India’s foreign policy establishment, do recognize the value of mid-term elections in Bangladesh to achieve sustained stability in the country, even if that were to mean the BNP could win.

So, if in future weeks and months, if we do see the Bangladesh government changing tack, one should put it down to Indian government pressure.

Though, it may be best not to hold your breath.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece. How I envy having your "BNP-RAW-Back channeling" insider news. However, I do disagree strongly with the part where you say, the foreign policy establishment in India are opening up to the idea of being ok with midterm elections. For all the reasons you state, a switch in the Indian policy will likely result in AL's defeat or at the least increase the risk of that outcome that could make them (india) end up losing a working partner because lets face it.....BNP never was and never will be India's friend. If others and I (with my limited knowledge of the matter) realize this, india does too. There is no incentive for India to shift gears or intervene at present. The instability within Bangladesh right now has not created a situation where the outcome of stalemate is damaging to India in any real way. If AL comes out victorious in this, even that doesn't hurt India or is off little concern. A BNP in power with Jamaat as it's ally however and a not to distant past littered with anti India rhetoric and moves will concern her to a much greater degree.

    India, herself will also be very very wary of the real possibility that if there is a change of Government with BNP at the helm that there could be and perhaps keeping our past in mind likely that a large scale and concerted move will be made to avenge everything in the last 6-7 years and perhaps to a devastating scale to her historically allied friends in Bangladesh. Risking that is unlike the stable and sound foreign policy line India tows. So I very much doubt that bit of your analysis of the current situation.